A look at the S.O.S.
Health Center History


by Donna Love
For the Pathfinder


(This is part one of a history of the health center, which will be holding an Open House in its new facility on Feb. 4, 2001. Part two will appear next week.)


The new Seeley-Swan Medical Center will host an Open House for the public on Sunday, February 4, from one to five o'clock in the afternoon. At the Open House the community can tour the new facilities, visit with the Medical Center Board Members and meet the staff. Door prizes will be given away. The main one is a sculpture by Don West. Refreshments will also be served.

The Open House is a time to look ahead to the new era of medical care in the Seeley-Swan Valley and the perfect time to reflect on how far medical care in the Valley has progressed.

An Apple a Day

In the beginning, medical care in the Valley was non-existent. Folks who moved to the area knew that they did so at their own risk. Trappers, homesteaders, and loggers were on their own. Home remedies or long tedious drives by horse and buggy, and later by car, to Missoula for medical services were the only way to survive a bad accident or illness.

Dan Cainan, a long time resident of Seeley Lake said, "Heck, when a logger got hurt they'd lay out in the woods for three or four hours before the men could get to them."

When Community and St. Patrick Hospitals were built in Missoula in the 1940's Valley residents could call an ambulance, but it would take more than an hour to arrive and most folks didn't have a phone to make the call for help. Pyramid Mountain Lumber Company south of town, the Ranger Station north of town, and the "the Big Store," the grocery store, where the Grizzly Claw now resides, were the only places with early phones.

If a call did reach Missoula and the ambulance was dispatched, sometimes the crew couldn't find the exact location of the patient, or in winter, couldn't get through the snow. The hospital might call ahead and ask local people to help direct the ambulance.

One winter, Community Hospital called Mr. Cainan to ask if he would help the ambulance find a place on Placid Lake. Mr. Cainan said, "I asked them if their ambulance had four-wheel drive. Of course, it didn't so I met them on Highway 83 and took the crew to the home in my own four-wheel drive." The situation didn't change much until the late 1950's.

Where Does It Hurt

That's when Helen Rich moved to the valley. Helen was a registered nurse. She moved to Seeley Lake with her late husband, C.B., in 1958. Helen studied nursing at St. Vincent's Hospital in Billings where she later served as the head nurse for Pediatrics during World War II and continued nursing through the early years of her marriage.

Her arrival in the Valley caused quite a stir. She gladly offered her help in times of need. Folks no long felt so all alone with their troubles. It didn't hurt that the Rich family had a 1954 Buick station wagon for hauling their five children and ranch gear around.

C.B. became the head ambulance driver. Helen said he was a big help too because he had received advanced first aid training in the Service. It also helped that the road to Missoula had been paved in the early 1950's.

Together Helen and C.B. took a variety of calls. They helped with some logging accidents, but "usually loggers were loaded into trucks and taken straight to Missoula." They didn't have many calls from horse riding incidents. She feels that's because everyone was always "awful careful with their stock."

Most of their calls came in the summer from campers with a variety of calamities. Once they transported a young child who had gotten sand in his eyes so badly that they "thought it best to take him to a doctor."

They also transported a few victims of car accidents and one time they rushed a mother in labor to the emergency room. "We made pretty good time that time," she said, and the baby was delivered about an hour later. She added, "We felt like we'd been the stork."

"The down side," Helen sighed, "was we lost a lot of blankets." Now and then the hospitals tried to give them blankets from other places, but they wouldn't take them because, "It wasn't right to take other people's things."

Ambulance Chasers

By the early 1960's telephones were in most homes and the community began to feel it first real growing pains. Seeley's first volunteer fire department formed in 1961 and in 1963-64 Seeley Lake went modern with its first ambulance. Well, sort of.

The ambulance was a 1959 blue Cadillac hearse. (Yes, you read that right. It was a hearse.) The late Alvin Rovero, gas station owner and early resident of Seeley Lake, purchased it for $300.00 and donated it the community. At first it was kept at Rovero's Garage, now Martin's Tires, where Rovero, according to Helen, kept it "plugged in" for easy starting on a cold winter night. In its later years it was housed at the fire department.

No one remembers where Rovero bought the hearse, but it was "the perfect vehicle for the job," remarked Ron Ogden, Forest Service Law Enforcement Officer. "Though," he said, "being transported to the hospital in a hearse didn't do much for patient moral."

Glenn "Bucky" Walters, retired mortician and then part-time resident in the Valley provided equipment for the hearse/ambulance. He said that through his connections they came up with an ambulance cot (gurney), first aid stretcher (collapsible backboard) and other first aid supplies.

Ambulance drivers included C.B. Rich, Dan Cainan, Joe Nagy, Alvin Rovero, Kim Haines, Carl Mecham, and Roger Johnson. Walters remembers, "whoever got there first got to drive." Mostly that was Rovero, because he was always "Johnny on the Spot." They called ahead to the hospitals in Missoula and a doctor often met them on the way.

"That ambulance handled well," Cainan said. On particularly urgent calls he drove the hearse at "eighty-five miles per hour."

On May 8, 1970 Jim Sullivan, a long time resident, and Rovero gave a report on the ambulance to an early Medical Center Committee. The committee minutes read: "About 20 years old, in service six to seven years and presently has an almost new motor and carburetor $200.00 a year for the use of the fire hall for a heated garageIt has all the necessary equipment with the exception of a two-way radio It takes less than 1 hour 15 minutes to get to Missoula and they call the Doctors before leaving. Any dead have to be cleared with the coroner for permission to moveMoney for ambulance services are not always collectable. Also there is a great loss of sheets, pillowcases, etc. These items are usually donatedThey presently charge .25 [25 cents] p.m. [per mile] from the garage and back, with a $10 service chargeThe siren is insufficient. It is OK in the city, but not in the country. They feel an electronic siren would be bestThey get about 10 miles to the gallon on a 10,000 mile Cadillac motor, with regular shocks."*

Growing Pains

The hearse served the community well for about ten years, but the population in the valley kept growing. By the early 1970's Seeley Lake had 800 residents, Swan Lake had 300 and Ovando had 120. Lewis (Doc) Dombe and other concerned citizens from the three communities invited state health officials to come to Seeley Lake in March of 1970 to address the Valley's needs.

"Doc Dombe has never gotten the credit he deserved for bringing health care to the valley," Mildred Chaffin, long time resident and early supporter of health care explained "It was his baby." He had a heart condition that stopped him from driving and it was his dream to see a health center in Seeley Lake. His wife, Jessie, also helped and between them they rallied the community.

The state officials said they would come, but they wouldn't be able to do anything unless there was a large turnout at the meeting.

Anita Richards was one of those early concerned citizens. She moved here in 1963 with her husband, Ron, who was a saw filer for Gray's Lumber Mill, five miles north of Seeley.

Anita went door to door with a "News Flash" to announce that a meeting on health care issues was going to be held on Friday, March 20, 1970 at eight o'clock in the Seeley Lake Elementary School gym. The announcement had strong wording in all capital letters:

"YOUR BEING PRESENT MAY WELL BE THE DECIDING FACT OF SECURING HEALTH AID FOR OUR COMMUNITIESYOUR DRIVING POSSIBLY 40 MILES ON FRIDAY NIGHT TO THIS MEETING MIGHT VERY WELL SAVE YOU A 90 MILE TRIP WITH AN ACCIDENT CASE OR A VERY ILL PERSON WHEN THE ROADS ARE ICY!"*

Mildred Chaffin recalls that she called Roger Johnson, owner of Pyramid Mountain Lumber Company, to ask him if they could put a sign up at the mill. He said "Bring it over and we'll put it up," so she made a sign on white butcher paper that declared, "Only one chance SO BE THERE!" and Roger put it up in prominent place for all to see.

Mildred said that "the meeting was so well attended there was standing room only" and the two men that came from Helena "couldn't believe it."

This Won't Hurt Much

At the meeting the state officials listened to tales of long drives to Missoula with hurt or sick loved ones and the crowd was getting worked up. That made the state officials kind of "testy" according to Mildred and finally they said, "What DO you want?"

The townsfolk's asked, "What can we have?" and the officials said, "You can't have a doctor, but you can have a nurse."

That same night the S.O.S, (which stands for Seeley, Ovando, Swan) Health Committee, consisting of Jessie Dombe, Anita, Mildred, Mark Curtis, Marion Haasch, Pat Gratton, Dave and Donna Depree, Bob Seaman, and Sue Carlson formed.

The committee met with state officials on April 10 to decide a specific plan. At that meeting this report concerning the area was made: "90% of all pre-school and school children were immunized. The summer influx of people staying in motels was 2500 per month. The Forest Service estimated serving 10,000 people per year in their campgrounds and there were 86 registered Sno-Catters in the area, but an undetermined total."*

The state agreed that a Nurse Practitioner was in order. She would "do everything she could within the realm of nursing," and "be on call and be an all round helper." She would not do what a physician would do [such as diagnose illnesses] but she "would give first aid, teach, and be like a well-trained county nurse in the community." She would have an advisory clinic in Missoula and also handle the observation of patients under a doctor's care.*

The S.O.S. Health Committee, sadly, was advised at that meeting that funding for the nurse would take months. They didn't want to wait that long.

When the committee learned that they could immediately hire a nurse on a fee basis they were ecstatic. They started looking at available land and buildings to temporarily house a nurse for the summer.

They asked if any Registered Nurses already living in the area wanted to take a two year course to become an acting Practitional Nurse. None did, so they went back to the state for help in finding a nurse. The committee knew that another summer without a nurse wouldn't be prudent.

*Data complied with help from Anita Richards. A book titled, The First 25 Years of the Seeley-Swan Medical Center is being published by A Butterfly Publication by Anita M. Richards in which the Minutes of the S.O.S. Health Center and other related information is compiled. It will be out in the near future.

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