People have lived on Catalina Island for more than 7000 years. The original inhabitants were born here, lived here and died here, creating a society that lasted for hundreds of generations. While that culture has left evidence of its existence, it has little to tell us about what medical care was like. The first written evidence of doctors on the island dates back to 1889, long after Catalina’s native people had been forcibly removed from their island home. More than a century ago, physicians were treating patients at both Two Harbors and in Avalon. The first “hospital” on Catalina Island served the island’s residents and visitors from 1900 to 1923.
By 1915, a clinic had been established in Avalon’s first permanent structure, the Metropole Hotel. Unfortunately Avalon’s massive fire that year destroyed the Metropole and burned most of the town to the ground. Shortly after that time, records show that a Dr. Chapman began seeing patients in the Strand Hotel, located on Sumner Avenue. From 1923 to 1957 the Hospital assumed responsibility for the island’s medical services at the site now occupied by the Los Angeles County Services building on Sumner Avenue. Medical care was provided at the doctor’s office until the Catalina Island Hospital was established at the old Banning residence. Patients were seen there until the Hospital was closed in 1957 after a failure to meet fire safety regulations. From the years 1958-1960 the island was without ahospital and used a clinic (located where the dental office on Metropole was formerly situated) to perform minor surgeries and deliver babies.
During the late 1950’s a dedicated group of volunteers decided Avalon needed an actual hospital, a place where the sick and injured could be treated on an emergency basis and offered in-patient care. The founders group was led by Joe Arno. Don Haney, then the editor and publisher of The Catalina Islander, said in a story announcing the hospital’s opening, “To list the many who contributed would take reams of newsprint.”
Avalon Municipal Hospital became a reality and opened its doors at the current 100 Falls Canyon Road location on January 24, 1960. Avalon’s population was about 1900 people at that time. Avalon’s original hospital building featured six beds and had a capacity for eight. The Falls Canyon structure included the emergency and operating rooms as well as what are now the laboratory, x-ray and observation room. The lobby, kitchen and receptionist area were also part of that first facility. Physicians were Dr. Robert Staff and Dr. John Hancock.
The original hospital building served the community well for nearly 25 years. Then, in 1982, the Avalon Municipal Hospital Auxiliary spearheaded a fundraising campaign for a major expansion. A new wing was added, which included several new patient rooms, two rooms to meet community needs for long-term skilled nursing patients (SNF), the physical therapy room, the Oak Room for resident and hospital activities and an administrative office. Avalon Municipal Hospital was managed by the City of Avalon until 1986 at which time Long Beach Memorial Medical Center assumed operations. In 1988 the Avalon Medical Development Corporation (AMDC) a non-profit corporation was formed. AMDC is dedicated to the development of hospital services. It was able to expand the area below the hospital and the SNF rooms to accommodate clinic services. Initially just a private doctor’s office, the clinic operations became licensed as a non-profit Hospital-based rural health clinic in 1991. After struggling through six years of the Catalina hospital’s financial losses LBMMC threatened to close the in-patient facility in 1992. Residents who wanted to protect their rights to local acute and long-term care services initiated a “grass roots” effort to prevent the closure of Avalon’s Hospital. These residents strongly encouraged local management of the hospital and they were successful in preventing the closure of the facility. AMDC assumed operations of the hospital on January 1, 1993. An agreement was reached with the University of Southern California’s Department of Family Medicine for management and professional medical services on the island in 1997. USC’s management contract continued until 2000 and their professional medical services remained in place until 2001. Mounting financial losses facilitated the need for a referendum vote in April 2000 for an increase in the local sales tax (Ballot Measure C) which designated an additional .5% of sales tax revenue to Avalon Municipal Hospital. Approved by voters, the tax base “boost” went into effect in October 2000. The AMDC Board of Directors then selected William M. Greene, FACHE to administer the facility. Two new island family practice physicians were hired. Nestled beneath the hospital the Avalon Clinic featured the lobby, offices and several examination rooms. This meant that Avalon’s health care was now centralized in one location. Laboratory and x-ray services were made easily accessible to doctors diagnosing their patients.
As the community continued to grow, the hospital and clinic have had to grow with them. In 2002-2003 a much-needed clinic expansion provided even greater capacity for doctors and patients. In 2004, the hospital was also renovated, with new rest rooms, improved access and a complete renovation of the emergency and operating rooms. New clinic exam rooms and additional offices were added or upgraded. In 2007 Mr. Greene retired and Bryan Ballard, FACHE replaced him as CEO. To standardize the name— Avalon Municipal Hospital officially became the Catalina Island Medical Center. It purchased a new CT scanner and began to offer telemedicine services to connect island patients to medical specialists on the mainland. Soon three full time physicians were on staff. John Friel, FACHE served as CEO for three years and during a time of transition in May 2015, Bryan Ballard returned as Interim CEO of CIMC. He currently oversees 70 full and part-time employees, a 12 bed facility with an annual budget of $12 million. The AMDC Board continues to serve as the hospital’s Board of Directors to oversee hospital policy, budget and operations. For thousands of years, health care on the island has evolved to meet the needs of its community.
As long as the community continues to see the importance of providing health care for its citizens that evolution will continue to ensure that generations of island residents receive the health care they need.