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Gentler Hospital

Henry J. Kaiser’s “hospital of the future” in Walnut Creek helped launch a midcentury revolution in American health care


Back in 1968, Naomi Chamberlain looked forward to giving birth to her second son, Jim, at the Kaiser Foundation Hospital in Walnut Creek. That’s because she wanted to see what it was like to keep him in a drawer.

Yes, a drawer. In the ’50s and ’60s, the maternity rooms at Kaiser Walnut Creek boasted a unique feature—a bassinet fitted into a drawer that could be pulled from the nursery, through a soundproof wall, into the mother’s room, and right next to her bed.

Chamberlain had missed out on the baby-in-a-drawer experience with her first son, Chris, whose low birth weight kept him in the nursery. Now, with heftier Jim, she wouldn’t have to summon a nurse to fetch her baby from the nursery when she wanted to be with him: She just had to pull open a drawer. "When I got pregnant the second time, I was excited about trying one of these rooms myself!"

Industrial titan Henry J. Kaiser would have taken such enthusiasm to heart. When he decided to build his $2 million hospital in the then-bedroom community of Walnut Creek in 1953, he was eager to create a "hospital of the future," as the media would later dub it, a facility featuring innovations in patient comfort and staff efficiency. The baby-in-the-drawer helped to promote early mother-child bonding, the importance of which had just begun cropping up in medical journals. With the two-way drawer, the Walnut Creek medical center became one of the few hospitals around the country to support this concept with its structural design.

Being ahead of the curve in health care was important to Kaiser. While he may have run an empire of companies that built the nation’s roads, dams, cars, and ships, Kaiser considered his crowning achievements to be the Walnut Creek medical center and the Kaiser Permanente health-care system. He often said that his passion for promoting good health came from watching his mother die young, allegedly from a lack of adequate medical care.

Of course, not being a doctor, Kaiser lacked the expertise to mastermind the innovations at the Walnut Creek hospital. But as he had done in his other business endeavors, he recruited the best and the brightest to implement his ideas. For the new hospital, Kaiser turned to Dr. Sidney Garfield, the medical pioneer who had created prepaid health systems for workers at Kaiser’s Richmond, Vancouver, and Portland shipyards.

Building the facility was "a way for Kaiser to finally fulfill his interest in health care and for Garfield to create a humane and efficiently run hospital that would help patients heal and staff to get their work done," says Tom Debley, director of heritage resources for Kaiser Permanente.

Kaiser and Garfield actually began planning the hospital after Kaiser married his second wife, Alyce Chester. (She had been the nurse for Kaiser’s first wife, Bess, who died in 1951.) Kaiser and Alyce chose to build a new medical center from scratch, instead of revamping the existing Kaiser facilities in Richmond and Oakland, and to locate it near Lafayette, where they had moved shortly after their wedding. Alyce contributed significantly to Garfield’s design, and there are stories of Kaiser, Alyce, and Garfield (who also lived in Lafayette and was married to Alyce’s sister) moving furniture around the living room to test potential hospital room layouts.

Garfield planned a circular building, to enhance patient flow, and for twin corridors—one for hospital workers and one for the general public—to minimize hall crowding. This design departed from the standard hospital layout, which typically featured long corridors with rooms opening at either side.

At Kaiser Walnut Creek, patients had beds they could move up and down by themselves as well as curtain partitions that could be operated by remote control. Many patient rooms, including those in the maternity ward, were equipped with toasters and coffeemakers, radios nestled in the pillows, and sliding glass doors leading to lawn areas. "I just loved that we could get outside so easily," Naomi Chamberlain recalls. Look magazine likewise effused, "Pampered patients are quick to admit that home was never like this."

While the hospital’s maternity rooms no longer feature drawers for babies, such innovations helped promote the importance of patient comfort and gave Kaiser a legacy of which to be proud. Before he died in 1967, Kaiser said, "If I am remembered for anything, it will be for my hospitals. They are the things that are fulfilling the people’s greatest need—good health."

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