Retired Gerber Memorial physician shares a glimpse of hospital in first half of its century
Jess DeYoung, MD, helped moms relieve pain during childbirth not with epidurals, but with nitrous oxide. “Laughing gas,” the 93-year-old retired general practice doctor explains. “You know they’d had enough when their arm would fall to the side and cut off the supply. Things were a lot simpler then.”
“Then” was the 1950s.
“Simpler” meant doctors used a stethoscope to find the baby’s heartbeat, and check mom and baby’s wellbeing by the color of the blood. Ultrasound machines used for diagnostic imaging wouldn’t appear in U.S. hospitals until the mid-1960s.
And as a general practitioner in Fremont, DeYoung performed a range of surgeries, from C-sections and hysterectomies to the removal of gall bladders, tonsils and varicose veins.
“We did everything,” he says. “We referred very little. We set fractures, we did surgeries, we delivered babies. That was normal for its day.”
When DeYoung began working at what was then called Gerber Memorial Hospital in 1954, the world was, in many ways, a smaller place. DeYoung was born on his 20-cow family dairy about 5 miles outside Fremont in Newaygo County.
“The best place to grow up is on a farm,” DeYoung recalls. “Any place where you have to work hard is a good place to grow up.”
After graduating from Fremont High School and working on the farm for four years, DeYoung went to the University of Michigan and graduated with his medical degree in 1953. He returned to Fremont because, as he puts it, coming home provided the “stream of last resistance.” He’d become acquainted with Brooker Masters, MD, who ran a general medical practice in town. (Masters needed a partner and talked DeYoung into coming back. Masters also became the hospital chief of staff and the official masters of ceremonies when Gerber Memorial unveiled its new $700,000 hospital in 1954 on what is now its current location on Sullivan Street in Fremont.)
DeYoung recalls the area had about five doctors when he started. They had privileges at Gerber Memorial, what would become Spectrum Health Gerber Memorial, as it’s now called in 2018, 100 years after the hospital itself was born as a philanthropic gift in 1918 from the children of Joseph and Agnes Gerber of the Gerber baby food family fame.
When DeYoung began working at Gerber Memorial, doctors would be informally screened during their first year. At the end of that year, the rest of the staff – from administrator and nurses to the part-time janitor – would vote on whether the doctor stayed or, using a 21st-century pop culture metaphor, got kicked off the island.
DeYoung stayed, for another 35 years.
Despite the versatility of his medical career as a general practitioner, babies are a recurring theme for DeYoung.
Several Gerber Memorial employees, even in 2018, recall being delivered by DeYoung.
One is Katherine Evans, RN, who says three of her four siblings were delivered thanks to DeYoung. After graduating from nursing school, Evans came back to Fremont and worked at Gerber Memorial in 1989 –right alongside DeYoung, the doctor who delivered her.
“Dr. DeYoung is such a generous, kind individual who not only cared for his patients, but he also always took time to mentor younger colleagues at the hospital such as myself and many others,” Evans says. “My mom always got a kick knowing I worked with the guy who helped bring me into the world. Gerber Memorial is the kind of place where people get to know each other and where you can literally find lifelong friendships.”
DeYoung says Evans’ mom was his best advertisement.
“She would tell anyone within earshot that I delivered her daughter, and so did a few other moms,” DeYoung says. “Some doctors will say they delivered 1,000 babies. I have to be honest I never counted the babies I delivered. If anyone asks, I could say 1,000. Or 2,000. Nobody’s going to know,” he adds with a gleam in his eye.
Early in his career, DeYoung describes a kind of art that went along with the science of delivering babies. Like the mom who was ready to give birth at 3 a.m. very early in DeYoung’s medical career.
“The mother is about to give birth and suddenly a hand comes out, and I knew you can’t deliver a baby like that,” DeYoung recalls. “I needed to do something, so I called one of my colleagues and told him that I’ve never seen anything like that and he needed to settle me down. I told him, ‘I got a lady here with a hand hanging out, so what do I do?’ And he said, ‘Try to push it back up and turn the baby around.’ So I did, and by golly, it worked. Baby was delivered, mom was fine. And I didn’t see something like that ever again, and that’s a good thing.
DeYoung marvels at how the medical profession has evolved in his 35-year career at Gerber Memorial – especially the cost of care.
In the 1950s, a doctor’s visit was $3.
“Didn’t matter whether you stayed for 2 minutes of 2 hours talking to the doctor, it was $3,” he says. That’s the equivalent of about $28 today.
Surgery for appendicitis, $150, and that included a 1-week stay at the hospital to recuperate. Baby deliveries were $75, also inclusive of a week-long stay at the hospital – equal to around $700 today.
While costs for similar medical services today may vary depending on the patient, they are considerably higher, even adjusted for inflation.
After retiring in 1989, DeYoung took a refurbished motor home that was converted into a doctor’s office, and roamed the countryside around Newaygo County. He swung by Holton, Bitely and Croton. He’d park by the local fire station or the school, and wait for patients who didn’t have the time or the means to get to the nearest clinic or the hospital itself. They got their blood pressure screened and underwent a basic checkup. A fridge in the motor home held injections and vaccines. The patients almost always paid in cash. DeYoung says the idea was to bring healthcare to rural communities, something the modern incarnation of Gerber Memorial still does to this day, hosting health screenings in hard-to-get communities served by one road in, one road out.
In retirement, DeYoung plays a lot of Sudoku and tinkers around on his iPad, when he’s not spending time with his four children, 13 grand kids and 5 great-grandchildren.
DeYoung is grateful for his career in medicine, and considers himself fortunate to have been able to serve so many people over a 35-year career in a community that has always been home to him.
Describing his decision to drive the motor home around rural Newaygo County, parking at fire stations and waiting for patients to walk in for a blood pressure screening, well past his official retirement, DeYoung says: “If you do something you like to do, do it till you die.”
NOTE: As Spectrum Health Gerber Memorial turns 100 this year, please share any photos or memories, by emailingSHGMinfo@spectrumhealth.org.