Forty years ago, Keila Poulsen would see 10 to 15 patients in the morning for blood draws at Riverview Hospital’s hematology lab.
She would spend the rest of the morning waiting for patients and whiling away the downtime by racing wheeled stools with her coworkers or launching pennies at the wall.
Decades later — and a giant leap forward in health care technology — she and the other lab workers are kept hopping all day at Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center. EIRMC will mark its 30th anniversary on Thursday.
“Now we have a lot of work to do, and it’s very important work to keep the hospital running,” Poulsen said.
An Idaho Falls native, Poulsen began working in the lab at Riverview Hospital 47 years ago. When the employees moved to the new hospital in December 1986, the pace became hectic in short order.
Poulsen also supervises the histology section of the lab which studies skin tissue.
Now during a typical year the histology portion handles around 25,000 cases. Poulsen has far less time to race stools, but she relishes the daily challenges and new cases.
“You can have an acute leukemia on one person that doesn’t look the same as an acute leukemia on another person,” Poulsen said. “So you’ll always learn more.”
Today, between 1,400 and 1,500 people are employed at EIRMC, making it the third-largest employer in town. That’s a modest increase from the 1,074 employees who worked there when it opened. About 45 employees who made the move over to the expanded hospital in 1986 still work there.
As Idaho Falls has grown, so too has EIRMC. The city, which had 39,590 residents, according to the 1980 U.S. Census, had grown to 59,184 by 2015. The 1980 census reported Ammon having 4,669 residents, growing to 13,816 according to 2015 estimates.
In keeping up with the area’s growth, hospital spokeswoman Jessica Clements said EIRMC’s future is expansion. In particular, the long-term goal is to have a full-service children’s hospital available.
Renovations are set for the next four to six years, starting with the front lobby in 2017.
“As always we want to provide the best and highest level of care. As we try to do that we are expanding as often as we can,” Clements said.
EIRMC’s increasing services are being used as a selling point for many local businesses looking to attract employees from outside the region. Jan Rogers, Regional Economic Development of Eastern Idaho CEO, said having a major medical hub is key when looking for performers or new businesses to move into the area.
“It’s a pretty big win, and absolutely for us it’s essential for recruiting talent,” Rogers said.
The big move
Consolidating two hospitals, Riverview and Parkview, took immense time, effort and money.
For years Parkview, a Catholic hospital, and Riverview, an LDS hospital, competed with each other. The two relatively small hospitals fought for the newest equipment and to keep the most patients. Founded as Sacred Heart Hospital in 1949, the Catholic hospital was renamed Parkview in 1978. The LDS Hospital, established in 1923, was renamed Riverview in 1978.
Jerry Scheid was on the Parkview Hospital’s board when the move to create EIRMC was gaining momentum. Intermountain Health Care, of Salt Lake City, which owned Riverview Hospital, wanted to build a new hospital itself, putting Parkview out of business, Scheid said.
But once the $41 million price tag for a new building came into view, it was clear both facilities needed to buy in in order to succeed.
Enter Hospital Corporation of America. The Tennessee-based corporation had spent a good deal of the 1970s and 1980s buying hospital franchises across the U.S., and when approached by board members of both hospitals in Idaho Falls the corporation launched the building project.
After the new hospital was built, the task of moving equipment, employees and patients got underway.
Much of the equipment in the previous two hospitals was outdated and was donated to smaller regional hospitals. Scheid said some of the equipment was also donated to hospitals in Mexico.
The state-of-the-art equipment in the spacious new hospital drew eager experts to operate it. The new facility garnered interest from neurosurgeons, heart specialists and neonatal specialists, which previously shunned the smaller hospitals.
But that first year held its own challenges. As reported in a January 1988 Post Register article, then hospital administrator Max Lauderdale said the hospital was so understaffed it left emergency room patients waiting for hours to be admitted.
“This has been a trying year for all of us,” Lauderdale said.
Poulsen used to hand count red and white blood cells with a microscope.
Now she works with a machine that quickly does blood cell counts and makes advanced calculations yielding a lot more information.
Bonny Jennings, who has worked at the hospital 34 years, used to fill out paper registration forms as patients came into the emergency room. Jennings also used to be called into emergency rooms to move IVs or help care for patients. Today, Jennings is the education department office coordinator. She keeps nurses and other employees up to date on their training.
Decades ago she used to run nurses through three-hour CPR classes. Today the class is much more abbreviated and is aided by electronic mannequins equipped with speakers that telegraph their “symptoms.”
Along with technological advances in the past 30 years, significant advances have been made in patient safety and privacy.
Jennings said doctors used to wander into the cafeteria and gossip loudly about their patient’s most intimate health concerns. That would never happen today under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act that bars anyone but those working directly with a patient from viewing their case.
Safety also has vastly improved.
Poulsen said when she first started, some pathologists would harvest skin cultures while sipping on a nearby coffee or with their melting ice cream next to the cultures.
“It’s so incredibly different for the lab,” Poulsen said. “We used to mouth pipette … That means we’d suck up the stuff, whatever it was, (through a straw-like tube) without any protection.”
Keeping its veterans
Poulsen decided to stay at the hospital the same way she makes all her choices, by deciding once and sticking to it.
“So I chose to work here, I chose one husband. I have one AOL (email account) and I’ve banked at one bank.” she said.
Jennings has worked numerous different jobs at the hospital. She started out in housekeeping and would split her time between Parkview and Riverview. From there she moved on to admissions and then to the education department. She’s given birth to two of her three children at EIRMC.
And at one point, all three of Jennings’ children worked at the hospital.
“My husband jokingly said ‘I need to get a job there,’ (because he was the only family member not working at EIRMC),” Jennings said.
Both women said they stuck around at the hospital for the variety of work available, both mentioning that each day is different. And when given the option, Jennings said she chooses to receive her care at the hospital.
She was in a motorcycle accident near Rexburg some years ago.
“The Rexburg ambulance came to get me and I told them ‘You’re taking me to EIRMC,’” she said. “And I felt comfortable. I felt like the people caring for me really did care about me.”
Reporter Tom Holm can be reached at 542-6746