Salem Health CEO hops in backhoe to kick off hospital expansion

Cheryl Nester Wolfe, Salem Heath president and CEO, turns over dirt on the site of a new hospital building during a groundbreaking ceremony on Jan. 14, 2019 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

One hundred twenty-four years ago, a group of citizens stood on a street corner in what’s now downtown Salem to start a hospital.

They had $752 to their name and five employees: two nurses, a medical student, a superintendent and a janitor.

Kathy Keene, president of Salem Health’s board of trustees, recounted the hospital’s origins Tuesday morning at a groundbreaking ceremony for a new building that will add space for 130 new patients.

“You can see we’ve kind of come a long way,” she said, as more than 100 hospital employees, trustees, elected officials and community leaders sat under a tent on the flat asphalt where the new building is slated to go up.

Kathy Keene, Salem Health Board of Trustees president, right, Cheryl Nester Wolfe, Salem Heath president and CEO, center, and Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett pose with shovels at a hospital groundbreaking ceremony on Jan. 14, 2019 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

The expansion will connect to the east side of Salem Hospital’s Building A, which houses the emergency room on the ground floor. It’s scheduled to open for patients in the summer of 2022 and marks a significant expansion of the hospital, which now has 454 beds.

Cheryl Nester Wolfe, Salem Health’s president and CEO, said talk of expanding began two years ago, when hospital employees started seeing an unusually high number of patients.

Staff attributed it to a bad flu season at first, she said, but the bad season never let up, even after the flu went away.

READ: Salem Reporter’s special report on the Salem Hospital emergency room, which sees more patients per year than any other in Oregon or Washington

That led hospital leaders to contact Portland State University and discuss population projections for the Salem area, and ultimately to realize they needed more space.

Wolfe recounted a recent patient experience, where family members brought an 89-year-old woman to the emergency room with serious health problems. The family decided end-of-life care was the right choice, but their elderly relative spent 12 hours in the emergency room waiting for a hospital bed because there wasn’t enough space to take her in.

“We need smooth access for our patients,” Wolfe said.

Salem Health employees file into a groundbreaking ceremony on the asphalt lot slated to become a new hospital building opening in 2022. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

To make that happen, hospital employees from Wolfe on down are parking in a satellite lot at 2460 Mission St. S.E., the former home of Value Village.

Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett spoke at the ceremony, saying a strong local hospital helps him convince major employers to consider moving to Salem.

He said the ceremony was an improvement to his last visit to Salem Hospital following an ice skating accident.

“I decided to see what staples in the back of my head felt like,” he said to laughs. “It was a really good time, so I have nothing but good memories at the hospital.”

After speeches and a ceremonial shoveling of dirt, Wolfe led the crowd outside the tent to a backhoe parked next to the emergency room entrance. Wearing a hard hat and orange vest, she climbed in the cab and lifted a bucket full of dirt up before dumping it down as employees cheered.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.