Doctoring in mid-century Tahoe
Being a doctor in mid-century South Lake Tahoe could not have been an easy task. With no hospital and just one ambulance, Jim Whitely, the only full-time physician, had a lot to handle.
Whitely moved to Tahoe in 1957 and carried the load on his own until the arrival of friend and colleague Dr. Ken Smith, in 1960.
Smith met Whitely during a General Practitioner Residency Program at Contra Costa Hospital in Martinez, Calif.
“Jim announced he was going to move to Lake Tahoe and we all told him he was going to starve,” Smith said. “But a couple years later I heard from Jim that he was looking for someone to join him up here, so my wife and I moved from Guerneville, Calif. to Tahoe in 1960 and at that time Jim was the only doctor in South Lake Tahoe, so I was No. 2.”
Since there was no hospital in Tahoe, Whitely and Smith, joined later by Dr. Larry Janus, worked out of their office.
“We didn’t have a hospital, but the community had taken up a collection and built an office for Jim,” Smith said. “At the present time, it’s the front of the Senior Center.
“We had a delivery room. We also had a couple of nurses on call, so they’d stay with the women. We’d stay too, Jim and I.”
Despite the absence of a local hospital, there was an ambulance service.
“We did have an ambulance in town, ran by Warner Tooker,” Smith said. “And prior to Tooker, the original fire chief ran the ambulance.
“And of course we had the Carson-Tahoe Hospital, so that’s where all of the major surgeries were done. We did the minor surgeries in our office.”
According to Smith things ran fairly smoothly, even without a hospital.
“We did fine,” he said. “It sounds a bit archaic now, but we always had one unit of blood. We never used it, but we always had it on hand. Looking back, I don’t know how much good one unit would have done in a bad situation. But it was rotated every two to three weeks, then the blood bank would send us a new unit and we’d send the old one back.”
Barton Memorial Hospital opened its doors on Nov. 26, 1963, with Whitely as the prime mover on the board.
“At that time federal law provided funds to build hospitals in rural areas,” Smith said. “Local executives from the community and the casinos were able to get a grant from the Hill Burton Hospital Act. We were authorized to receive a grant if we could raise funds to match, locally.
“They hired a professional fund raiser, but after a month he was fired. He hadn’t accomplished anything. Neil Olsen took over. At the time, he ran a restaurant called Kontiki, right next to where Smart and Final is now. Anyway, Neil insisted that all of us working on raising funds had to be at Kontiki at 7:30 every morning, Monday through Friday. He’d serve us breakfast for free, then he’d parcel out the assignments over breakfast and we’d report what we’d done.
“Neil ran a very tight ship, but we matched the amount. I can’t remember how much it was now, but it was a considerable amount of funds. Thank heavens for Neil. If he hadn’t been there, it wouldn’t have happened.”
Smith was Barton’s first chief of staff. Both Whitely and Janus were on staff as well.
“Clifton Wright was also an active G.P. on the staff,” Smith said. “He was up here for a number of years, working independently.
“Cliff had a Porsche at the time, a convertible and he had something wrong with the top so it wouldn’t go up. Cliff used to drive around in a buffalo skin coat and a hat in the middle of winter and he used to like to drive like the wind. Every time he got pulled over he’d say he had a woman in labor. I don’t know if he ever got a ticket.”
Later, Smith, Whitely and Peter Irving, who also worked at the hospital for a few years, opened their own office.
“Jim, Peter and myself built our last office which is right across the street from the hospital,” Smith said. “Jim Whitely was my partner, then he died of brain cancer. After Peter died, I continued to practice there myself until 1991. That’s when Dr. (Maria) Pielaet agreed to match our price on the building and she bought it from us. At that time,I was 65 and I figured, What the heck? I can retire.”
Throughout his time at Lake Tahoe, Smith has been very active in the community. He spent three years on the City Council, eight years on the planning commission and 11 years on the board of directors for the Resource Conservation District.
Smith smiles as he remembers the parts he’s played in the community as well as the medical field.
“I’m lucky,” he said. “I’ve had an interesting life.”