By Will Carless

This September marks 80 years since Ellen Browning Scripps’ generous donation founded Scripps Memorial. In those eight decades, the hospital has weathered controversy and has ridden the waves of social and technological change to expansion beyond the original staff’s wildest dreams.

The land where the hospital originally stood now holds a block of luxury condos. Where once glass syringes, glinting knives and the starched collars of nurses’ uniforms held sway, these days La Jolla’s residents relax in the cool stillness of one of the quieter stretches of Prospect Street.

Some La Jollans remember the old days. They remember the quieter times of the small hospital overlooking the sparkling Pacific. They remember the old-fashioned ambulances and the days when the hospital shared one X-ray scanner, housed in a trailer, with the nearby Scripps Clinic. But things must change and as time has gone by, Scripps Memorial has risen to meet the challenges of each passing decade, remaining one of La Jolla’s flagship institutions.

Techniques improve, technology marches onward, and foundations can be poured for new buildings each year, but the staff of Scripps Memorial knows that the people give a hospital its character, its pulse. The doctors, nurses and administrators who have graced the corridors of the hospital have their own stories to tell about the organization that has been the basis of their working lives.

Dr. Herman Field Froeb worked at Scripps Memorial for more than 40 years. Now in his 80s, the straight-shooting ex-surgeon has a memory like a razor. Small details cut through millions of facts and figures and names to piece together a picture of how the hospital once was and how it has changed.

The high ceilings of the surgeries at the old hospital and the crisp, white hats of the nurses, marked with the colors of the schools where they were trained, form the background to Froeb’s recollections of life at Scripps. He started work as a young-looking 32-year-old, and he remembers how he was first received by the sick and the infirm.

“The first couple of patients I saw in the clinic,” he said, “they came in, and this one guy said, ‘My God, they’re robbing kindergartens.’ So, then I got all my diplomas out and got them framed and put up on the wall, and I never got that again.”

If Froeb had some teething problems, the challenges he faced were mild compared to the hurdles his colleague Anita Figueredo had to overcome in her first years at the hospital. In 1947, Figueredo was the very first female surgeon at Scripps Memorial, and was one of the first women to wield a scalpel in the United States.

Figueredo went to medical school in New York with one other woman and “dozens of men” and learned her particular skills as a cancer surgeon. Figueredo’s colleagues had nothing but faith in her, and though she admits to having something of a selective memory - she says it is not worthwhile to remember when people cross her - she did have some trouble finding her feet.

“One patient was very unhappy. ...” she remembered. “(He) had come all the way from South America to be treated by one of the doctors on the staff. That doctor had assigned him to me, and the patient was horrified. He said, ‘I didn’t come all that distance to be seen by this little girl.’ ”

Standing at 5 feet tall, Figueredo had some convincing to do before the patient could be placated. Luckily, the doctor who had referred the patient to her was quick to step in.

“The chief went in to see him, and he said, ‘You came to see me because of your confidence in my judgment, and I have chosen Dr. Figueredo to take care of you. And if your confidence does not hold in this regard, perhaps you had better leave the hospital.’ ”

Needless to say, the patient stuck with Figueredo, as did many thousands of others over the 40-plus years in which she served as a surgeon at Scripps Memorial.

It is not just the highly skilled doctors whose stories form the historical fabric of this hospital. Other members of the Scripps staff have played equally important roles in the hospital’s development.

One such woman is Elaine “Lanie” Carter.

Carter started working at Scripps as a volunteer, spending one day a week helping out soon after the hospital had changed location to its current campus in 1964. She had moved to La Jolla from New York a few years earlier and found herself almost inexplicably drawn to the hospital.

“Oh I loved it. …” said Carter, a smile flashing across her delicately lined face. “I told them I had to work on the baby floor.”

When Carter’s husband died a few years later, she was left somewhat stranded. A mother of four, she had always been a homemaker. Apart from her volunteer work at the hospital, she had no training, and nothing that could be officially described as a skill.

However, a pediatrician convinced Carter that her skills were actually very valuable. As a mother and a grandmother, she had knowledge that could be of great use to many people. The doctor knew a good teacher when she saw one, and invited the ever-keen grandmother to help her out in surgery a few days a week.

Within a couple of years, Carter’s reputation had spread about La Jolla. Her advice on everything from diaper rash to potty training was being sought out by new mothers everywhere.

Determined to make a name for herself, Carter wrote a proposal for Scripps Memorial Hospital, asking that they take her on as an adviser and counselor to new mothers.

“They turned me down, of course,” said Carter, “because I had no background except for those few years working for the pediatrician. But, I was determined to do that job.”

Carter’s campaign was picked up by The La Jolla Light, then by the Union-Tribune and, eventually, her story was featured in magazines and newspapers all over the United States. The New York Times called her the Professional Grandmother, to describe Carter’s unique role.

Armed with a stack of clips, the plucky La Jollan tried the hospital again. This time, they took her seriously and granted her a three-month trial period.

Twenty years later, Carter’s remarkable story has unfolded. She officially retired from her position as Professional Grandmother of Scripps Memorial Hospital in 1997 after almost 20 years of tireless work. In that time, she has penned two books on parenting - she’s currently working on her third - and has toured the country giving advice and living the job she had once dreamed about.

These days, she doesn’t get many chances to visit the hospital, but she knows it has grown and adapted since the relatively tranquil days when she first began her service,

“It has changed tremendously,” said Carter. “It was just like a family. ... Even the cleaning ladies and the people in the cafeteria, we were all friends.”

The story of Scripps Memorial has not always been a smooth ride. Perhaps the biggest upheaval in the hospital’s history came in 1964 when the powers that be decided that the hospital must move.

Froeb and Figueredo remember the time as a period of great controversy. At the center of the argument was access to the hospital. At that time, before the freeways that are now taken for granted, the site seemed like it was nowhere near what was then considered La Jolla.

“You sort of couldn’t figure out how anybody could get up there,” said Figueredo. “Now, it’s right around the corner. But it was so far, it was out in the boondocks.”

Froeb argues that part of the reason the move was so hotly contested was that the doctors were reluctant to move away from their sedate offices in the Village. He agrees that the key issue was La Jollans being able to get to and from the hospital.

“There was this great fight in the hospital staff. …” said Froeb. “Terrible. They’d have town meetings in the women’s center and argue it. (The hospital administrator) would get in his car and race up to where the new hospital was and told them it was only 10 or 15 minutes to get up there.”

Of course, proponents of the move pushed the expansion through the board of trustees. Froeb said the new hospital was an instant success with both staff and the public. Even Figueredo, one of the most fervent opponents of the move, agrees that the move was inevitable.

“It was successful. Everybody liked it. They didn’t like having to go there, having to get there,” said Figueredo. “But now that’s something that, in retrospect, it had to be. It couldn’t be enlarged sufficiently here.”

The land purchased gave the hospital grounds on which to expand. And expand it did. The next 30 years saw a massive period of development and continued growth of the hospital as it rose to meet the demands of a rapidly inflating population in La Jolla and the surrounding areas.

New centers were added, new technology was purchased, and as the Scripps empire grew around San Diego, the little hospital in La Jolla became more and more advanced.

The mood of the hospital was changing, too. As Southern California metamorphosed from the straight-backed formality of the 1950s to the swinging ‘60s, the nurses’ uniforms became less structured, the buzz words became “equality” and “liberty,” and hospital life changed forever.

“The society went swami in the ‘60s, and it changed. ...” said Froeb. “Somewhere in the ‘60s, when Vietnam and the riots and blah blah broke out, and the young nurses getting out of training sort of resented the starched uniforms and the properness and so forth.”

Today, Scripps Memorial Hospital has an annual operating budget of hundreds of millions of dollars.

An increasing proportion of the hospital’s expansion and development is being funded by private investment and philanthropy, which is managing to maintain the hospital’s excellent reputation both as a provider of medical services and as an employer.

“I can go anywhere in the country,” said Gary Fybel, the hospital’s current CEO, “and when I say I’m the chief executive of Scripps, people know about the hospital, they know where it is, and they know that it represents excellence.”

The hospital is recognized among the top hospitals in the country by many consumer and professional groups. Scripps has consistently been ranked as one of the top three organizations in which to work in the county and one of the top three healthcare companies to work for in the United States.

Despite all the expansion and the coming and going of thousands of staff members and hundreds of thousands of patients, Fybel insists that the wishes of the original founder of the hospital are still taken into account whenever an important decision has to be made.

A gray bust of Ellen Browning Scripps casts a careful eye over his shoulder as Fybel explained.

“I think for difficult decisions, you always have to go back to what is your mission, your underlying mission and your underlying values. ... Quite simply, Ellen’s mission was to serve the community, and that’s where we start.”