Always on call: Hospital continues ‘Miss Ellen’s’ legacy of giving


By Diane Y. Welch


The La Jolla Historical Society hosted its annual Ellen Browning Scripps Luncheon at Scripps Memorial Hospital on Oct. 16 with some 120 people in attendance.

The luncheon is held each fall to celebrate the Oct. 18 birthday of “Miss Ellen,” beloved to La Jollans as a founder and benefactor of the seaside community.

“We also recognize the spirit of her philanthropy, community service, and her appreciation of La Jolla,” said John Bolthouse the society’s executive director.

This year, Scripps Memorial Hospital underwrote the luncheon and supplied its guest speakers. A silent auction preceded the program. At noon, event chair Sharilyn Gallison introduced Connie Branscomb, society president, who spoke about the history of Scripps Hospital and Miss Ellen’s founding of it in 1924.

Gary Fybel, the hospital’s chief executive and vice president welcomed attendees and introduced keynote speakers Chris Van Gorder, president and CEO of Scripps Health, and the hospital’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Brent Eastman. Together they shared a moving program, “Bringing Miss Scripps’ Legacy to the People of Haiti.” By the end of their slide show several people in the audience were wiping away tears.

Van Gorder and Eastman were the advance team deployed by Scripps Hospital to bring disaster medical relief to Haiti during the aftermath of a 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck Jan. 12, 2010. The two had worked together after Hurricane Katrina and were reunited as “colleagues in arms,” said Van Gorder. They also ensured the safety, transportation and logistics for several professionals from the Hospital Administrative Support Unit and the Scripps Medical Response Team — each fully trained in the mobile field hospital.

Graphic images showed the conditions encountered after their arrival at Port Au Prince. Gorder and Eastman were transported to the remnants of St. Francois de Sales Hospital just a mile from the quake’s epicenter. “It had been totally destroyed,” Van Gorder recalled.

Schools were in session when the quake hit, “Most of the schools in Port Au Prince collapsed, with the bodies still entombed in them. You could not drive down the streets without experiencing the stench of death,” Van Gorder said.

The hospital had no power, no food service, and no bathroom facilities. “When I asked a nurse where the scrub sink was she directed me to a bucket under a broken faucet,” said Eastman. Patients were outside under makeshift canopies of sheets, many had lost their entire families. Instead of crying out in pain, the Haitians would sing.

The pediatric wing, once a three-story building, had collapsed into a pile of rubble. “There were 250 bodies buried there, most children and family members. The smell was putrid. I’ve witnessed a lot of trauma and what I thought was a lot of devastation,” said Eastman who has almost four decades of experience as a trauma surgeon, “but nothing compared with this.”

Eastman’s first patient was a man who had been crushed in his office building. With Van Gorder as his scrub nurse, Eastman saved his patient’s arm and leg by releasing the pressure through a fasciotomy. The pre-op order, patient consent, everything needed prior to conducting surgery was represented by a red ribbon tied to the foot of his bed. “Obviously there were no lawyers in Haiti,” joked Van Gorder.

The relief mission was organized both for humanitarian reasons for the Haitians, but also to provide valuable insights into earthquake disaster preparedness that could be used here in California.

In closing Van Gorder said, “We think that Miss Ellen would be very proud of the many thousands of lives that have been saved since her initial gift of the hospital. And we think that we did for Haiti exactly what Miss Ellen would have done.”