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Hospital serves as regional lifeline

by Andy Palchak
| April 25, 2021 12:00 AM

One hundred and ten years ago, intrepid and big-hearted Sisters of Mercy answered the call of the Bishop of the Diocese of Helena and journeyed nearly 1,500 miles from their comfortable Iowa motherhouse to remote Northwest Montana and developed the Kalispell General Hospital that eventually became Kalispell Regional Healthcare. In keeping with their mission and with the gradual arrival of specialist physicians, the Sisters strongly encouraged and supported medical outreach, initially to the smaller towns of Polson and Libby.

Over time, the ALERT program was founded under the leadership of Dr. Van Kirke Nelson and Dr. Jack Davis and backstopped financially by logger Clyde Smith via a mortgage on his home. Dr. Nelson traveled over Marias Pass to help deliver OBGYN care to the Blackfeet Nation in Browning. As a young physician serving there in the 1970s, I can tell you we were very glad to see him!

Kalispell Regional’s medical relationship with the small communities of the Rocky Mountain Front and along the Hi-Line grew steadily to also offer services in radiology, mobile mammography, perinatology and neonatology, cardiology, neurology, urology, ophthalmology, ENT, orthopedics, diabetic education, gastroenterology and hospital administration, to name only a few.

Lives have been saved and thousands more have been helped by this outreach. A rancher north of Shelby survived a crushed leg and still runs cattle. A young driver recovered from a horrific wintertime icy road rollover near St. Mary. A tearful young ranch-wife living hard against the border north of Malta received her first-ever mammogram for a worrisome lump — it was a benign cyst. A colonoscopy in Shelby caught a teacher’s cancer in time. The Sister’s mission is clearly alive.

But most Montanans know that life over East isn’t easy, and declining population and shrinking tax bases forced the hospitals of Cut Bank and Shelby and Conrad to consider other ownership options. That they have chosen KRH over larger and closer Great Falls speaks volumes.

Yet, unbelievably, some are now attacking KRH for this regional lifeline and essentially demanding that we turn our backs on these struggling hospitals calling for help. These are the same folks who knew full well that federal law and regulations prohibited their union members from receiving recent pay raises, yet attacked KRH for distributing raises to their eligible co-workers who labor every bit as hard and whose families are just as worried by the COVID crisis. And these are the same mean-spirited folks who particularly threaten the frail elderly and medically infirm by talking about a strike at the hospital even as the nation fights a pandemic which has struck over 32 million and killed over 580,000 in the United States alone.

Sadly, Sister Mary Brendan and Clyde Smith and Dr. Nelson and Dr. Davis have passed, but perhaps it’s just as well. They have been spared the repulsive stench imported from Washington by those busily butchering the Second Great Commandment into “Harm thy neighbor.”

These are the ones to be ashamed.

— Dr. Andy Palchak lives in Kalispell.