Hospital leaves legacy

In its prime, West Hospital towered over the Richmond skyline and dominated the Medical College of Virginia campus.

The hospital was early to implement new medical techniques such as open-heart surgery, angiography, ultrasound and CAT scans.

Hospital authorities declared the 600-bed facility “the Nation’s most modern building for the care of the sick and medical teaching,” according to a Berkeley Daily Gazette article.

One floor of the building opened ahead of schedule on Jan. 16, 1941, to handle the rising number of influenza cases in Richmond, according to an article in the Richmond News Leader.

The $2.5-million building was one of the largest hospitals in the South at the time and also one of the few air-conditioned hospitals in the country.
At the time the hospital was built, MCV consisted of three main hospitals: one for white patients, one for black patients and one for children’s care.

It was originally named MCV Hospital, and re-named MCV West in 1965.

“When they finally desegregated hospital facilities they re-named them,” said Jodi Koste, head of special collections at Tompkins-McCaw Library. “They were hoping to portray them in a new light.”

The 308,021-square-foot building, which now contains offices, was home to numerous medical accomplishments.

In 1962, doctors performed one of the world’s first kidney transplants between people who weren’t identical twins. However, the 15-year-old patient, who received the kidney from her mother, died 25 days later, according to a Richmond Times-Dispatch article. Despite the failure, that surgery established the hospital’s burgeoning kidney-transplant program.

In 1967, Christiaan Barnard, who briefly studied transplant techniques at West Hospital, performed the world’s first human heart transplant in Cape Town, South Africa. A few months later, the 16th human heart transplant was performed at West Hospital.

In 1982, hospital duties shifted to Main Hospital, and West Hospital became office space for the School of Allied Health Professions and School of Nurse Anesthesiology among others. Prisoners from outlying state penitentiaries still receive treatment on the seventh floor of the hospital, Koste said.

“If (prisoners) need acute hospital care they are brought here,” she said.

Virginius Dabney, a former editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch and a distinguished historian, predicted that West Hospital would be demolished in the 1990s in his book, “Virginia Commonwealth University: A Sesquicentennial History.”

Demolition of the building, which no longer dominates the skyline or medical technology, will occur in about five years.

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