How Do You Move a Hospital? Very, Very, Carefully.

Anyone who has moved from one house to another knows how stressful that process can be. Packing and planning often takes as much energy as the move itself, and then there’s the settling in period – unpacking, finding just the right spot for that special vase, discovering that a child’s favourite toy has mysteriously disappeared – it all can be pretty overwhelming.

Now imagine doing all that for an entire hospital. RCH, like most hospitals, has demolished, expanded, and re-configured wards and even whole buildings many times over its history. In most cases, patients lives were disrupted very little – they were simply wheeled from one room to another, and things went on as usual in a newer, brighter, more modern setting. But in 1890, the staff and Board had to figure out how to move the whole hospital – furniture, equipment, supplies and patients – right across town.

By 1889, the original hospital that had opened on Agnes Street in 1862, was well past its prime and a new structure was built in Sapperton. There’s a description of the new hospital in this earlier blog post. The new hospital was supposed to open in September, but that was overly optimistic. On October 2, the Columbian newspaper reported that the Board was still soliciting donations to “assist them in furnishing” the new hospital and it was not until February 13, 1890, that the New Westminster Truth newspaper was able to report:

“Yesterday morning Wintemute Bros., put the last of the furniture in the new Royal Columbian Hospital at Sapperton. During the afternoon the patients from the old hospital were conveyed in carriages to their new quarters. There were seventeen of them, ten being confirmed invalids and unable to walk, and three were blind.”

Then, to add a little excitement to the already stressful time of settling in and adjusting to new quarters, less than two weeks later, on February 26, the new building very nearly burned down. The Colonist paper reported that the fire “was caused by soot gathering in the eaves trough, which was ignited by a spark from the chimney. The fire was not discovered until it had burned through the roof, and then only by a wakeful patient, who heard the crackling of the flames. The alarm was given, and the patients were immediately removed to a house across the street.”

Pioneers of any town are tough – they have to be to survive and flourish. But after struggling to get the new hospital built and furnished, then planning and carrying out the move across town, only to almost lose the whole thing to a fire, even the toughest Board or staff member might have been forgiven for second guessing the whole venture.

We’re very glad they stuck with it. Built on the foundation of 150 years of caring, today Royal Columbian Hospital, a UBC teaching hospital, is a provincial centre and regional referral hospital providing specialized care for trauma, cardiac and neurosciences for 1.6 million people from Burnaby to Boston Bar and for seriously ill and injured people from across the province.

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