From the very beginning in 1881 the French Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanique started construction of a hospital in the city of Colon by first choosing a beautiful site by the shores of the Caribbean Sea in the northern part of Manzanillo Island. This choice location provided fresh cross ventilation and the wonderful eternally present sea air which carried currents of relief for its many patients. At that time it earmarked a budget of $ 1 million for the building and equipping of this respected institution.
The company employed an excellent medical corps and a group of nurses chosen from the ranks of the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent of Paul, who, although they were not professional, had the desire and, what is most important, the love and attitude of caring to mitigate the pain and suffering of their patients.
The hospital initially housed 550 patients who were distributed throughout the 40 buildings. The main structures were built upon pillars and were linked together by bridges, halls and a protective fence. There were a total of 15 rooms for hospitalizations that could receive between 12 to 40 patients each. In addition, there was housing for married and unmarried medical staff, nurses, laboratory workers and support staff. The hospital was equipped with clinics, a morgue and large storage areas and possessed the best in the technology of its day.
Since the early days of the railroad (1855) there existed in Colon a small hospital to meet the needs of employees. It was called Stranger´s Hospital. Following the bankruptcy of the first French company (February 4,1886), and the take over by the Nouvelle Compagnie (also known as the second French Company), the Sisters of Charity took charge of Stranger’s Hospital which became mainly a haven for homeless people.
When the Americans acquired all the French properties in May 1904, the Colon Hospital was subjected to very extensive renovations and construction of new buildings, valued at $200,000.00. They also bought the small Railway Hospital, which consisted of two floors and had a capacity for 30 patients.
The American period at the Colon Hospital actually started on September 14, 1904, with Dr. L.W. Spratling as first its superintendent, together with 15 doctors and 50 graduate nurses. The Organization was similar to the Ancon Hospital in Panama (on the Pacific coast), and it also has a first rate surgical team.
The staff assigned to the so-called “hospitals of the line”, a total of fourteen and located in different villages along the railway, belonged to the medical corps of the Colon Hospital and under the leadership of the Director of hospitals, Dr. H.R. Carter. Colon Hospital also devoted time and resources to fully training newly recruited doctors to work in Panama. By November, 1906, all scheduled installations had been built.
The territory covered by this Medical Center’s services extended to the populations of Gatun, Cristobal, Portobelo, as well as including the cities of Colon and Bocas del Toro, since the Republic of Panama, at that time, did not provide health services to any of the territories on the Atlantic coast.
All kinds of emergencies were handled at the hospital and its clinics with an average of 40 cases per day and it offered 24 hour service. As we all know by now the construction projects saw thousands of lives lost, particularly West Indian lives, by the close of 1914. Colon Hospital always had a large influx of patients, in fact, reaching a total of 1,050 admissions by June 1908 and with a record of 47 per one day in the same year and for the first half of 1908. The total for the first semester of 1908 alone was 12,166 patients.
Several permanent governing committees were created for the continuing and better management of the hospital. Many issues were reviewed by these committees including the drafting of contracts for new staff, and also the discussion of repatriations due to physical problems or disease that warranted that these patients be returned to their respective countries. The Commission on Infections, for example, was very important, as can be imagined in this once very plague ridden tropical country. It reviewed patient diagnoses and reported to the Chief of Health on the presence and frequency of these diseases in the community or in recently arrived travelers.
Colon Hospital was a remarkable development during the construction of the Panama Canal. It maintained a high standard of care and administration in the daily management of the patients at a time when medical attention was a priority during the construction of this formidable waterway. It was for this reason, and to keep up with the massive incidences of infection, disease and accidents that the Canal Company endowed the Hospital with the best medical staff, equipment, and instrumentation to perform efficiently the important work of saving lives.
* We must credit Dr. Alonso Roy and his excellent articles regarding this subject for much of the background information in this post.