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Tony Vagneur: Revolving door of memories through Aspen’s hospitals

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

The other day, someone mentioned the Citizen’s Hospital, built in 1889 at a cost of $16,000. In case you didn’t know, that was the first official hospital in Aspen. It was sorely needed, money was tight, but in the end, a total community effort got the thing built.

There are a few folks still around who can claim to have been born there, people not that old, relatively speaking. Classmates of mine from Aspen. The recent influx of house-hunters might love it: very high ceilings, wide hallways, a great view of town, an intriguing entrance with an expansive, wide covered porch, or what have might have been called a veranda. Oh, and don’t forget the Queen Anne Victorian allure.

When my sister, Kathy, was born, the hospital overseers let me visit my mother and her through an open window off the porch. I had to look through green, hanging plants to get much of a view, but I’ll never forget it. I was 4. Hospitals are big deals to kids, I reckon, and likely to most people. We don’t particularly want to be patients, but when we are, we generally put our trust in them.

When I was 6, the decision was made to remove my tonsils, a common procedure in those days. Dr. Lewis, who lived (and officed) across from the Red Brick, did the job, and when I awoke, my tongue was twice its normal size. I couldn’t talk, barely swallow, and it hurt like hell. Apparently, during surgery, my tongue kept getting in the way and they pulled it to the side, out of the way, with surgical tongs. On top of that, I had an ether hangover. 151 rum has nothing on that.

Being a young innocent, I was sharing a room with Barbie Lewis, a year older than me and daughter of teacher Bob Lewis. (Gone way too soon, she later co-authored “Fisher the Fixer” with Su Lum.) She had already been in there three or four days, recovering from an appendicitis and had a ton of stored up energy, showing me several physical anomalies of hers and proud to demonstrate her ability to stand on her head. You know how those hospital gowns are rather loose. I never let her forget it.

The first-grade class had walked over from the Red Brick School to cheer me up, and wouldn’t you know, just as they got there, I was trying to choke to death on a tiny sip of ginger ale. Must have been the glass straw. Barbie got to visit with them through the veranda window while I was wheeled out to recover.

All was not lost. The morning I was getting out, still recovering, Joe Sawyer (going back to the mining era), hospital janitor and sometime anesthetist, brought out his cigar box of glass eyes to cheer me up.

Three years later, Dr. Baxter set and casted my broken leg there. Tucking Spar in bear traps. Oops.

Years move on, and eventually, there was a new hospital built next to the Citizen’s Hospital. It was modern, had none of the panache of the original beast, but exhibited one great sun room. Fred Braun, father of the Alfred A. Braun hut system, considered me an in-law of sorts, due to one of my Stapleton cousins marrying one of his daughters, and never passed up an opportunity to enlist me in one of his many projects.

He got me into Aspen’s first Emergency Medical Technician class, which meant I could volunteer to work one night a week in the emergency room, and accompany the sheriff’s department on ambulance calls. Plus, I was variously working for Mountain Ambulance and was on the Aspen Mountain ski patrol.

Truth be told, I spent more time in that new hospital than anywhere else in Aspen, with the obvious exceptions of the Red Onion and the Pub.

All manner of medical emergencies either got hauled to the emergency room or walked through the door, from the guy who shot himself in the leg with a bow and arrow to the couple who had eaten young hemlock at Lenado, thinking the plants were baby carrots. Ski injuries accounted for the majority, it seems, although there were serious injuries from skitching (a guy almost castrated himself when he got hung up on the rear bumper) or climbing accidents in the high country.

The newest rendition of Aspen Valley Hospital hasn’t had the time to really develop a legendary personality in my mind, but it’s working hard on it. My daughter and grandchildren were born there, a matter of pride. Since 1977, when its original rendition was dedicated, I’ve been patched up numerous times, MRI’d and CAT scanned, including my broken neck diagnosis. Gentle practitioners.

Lately, I don’t think I could find the emergency room, and hope I don’t have to.

In 1946, the Citizen’s Hospital was renamed Pitkin County Hospital. Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.


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