Santo Tomas Hospital has been very much in the news lately with regards to a controversial project to build an enormous 70+ high rise Financial Tower on the lot adjacent to the hospital which was until recently, home to the United States Embassy (1938-2011), who was the leaseholder of the building.
Santo Tomas Hospital is our central theme today as the history of the Silver People in Panama is intimately intertwined with its controversial past. In its colonial days (prior to 1920) it was located on B Street in our fair Panama City, and it was a small inadequately equipped infirmary more than a hospital, staffed by a tiny group of inadequately trained people.
As a result of the ever increasing influx of patients coming from the Panama Canal project, mainly West Indian workers and their families who were being redirected from Gorgas Hospital to the already crowded waiting rooms of Santo Tomas, the situation became even more urgent. Many of these workers had either been divested of their hospital “privileges” in Gorgas Hospital, lost their job on the Zone, or simply denied service at Gorgas. In light of this disastrous state of affairs it has been said that President Belisario Porras came up with the idea of building a new, modern, first rate hospital with the latest in equipment, instrumentation and staff.
Porras issued Executive Order 44-45 and 46 of November 1 and December 1, 1919, respectively, ordering the construction of a new hospital. He appointed a Board which would monitor and supervise the work, which was composed of Colonel Juan Antonio Jiménez, Secretary of promotion and public works, Major Edward A. Bocock, Santo Tomas’ Superintendent, Nicholas E. Cassis, James C. Wright, Dr. Alfonso Preciado, General Leonidas Pretelt, Charles L. Stockelberg and Bartholomew Tarté who functioned as Secretary of the Board.
The technical staff in charge of the work included James C. Wright (Architect/Engineer), Daniel E. Wright (Engineering Consultant), Leopoldo Arosemena (Assisting Engineer), J. T. Luttrel (Assistant to the Consultant), John J. Mendez (Accountant), and a couple of draftsmen Charles Norman Little and Victor Tejeira.
The Executive Order was ratified months later by the National Assembly through Law 6 on January 28, 1920. The first stone was laid by Dr. Belisario Porras on November 15, 1919. The initial steps to construct this badly needed medical facility, however, were not without its critics which came in the form of a mocking tag which has stuck with this hospital throughout the years: “The White Elephant.” Fostered by his political opponents, the nickname attempted to deride the construction of the enormous building which was inaugurated at a total cost of B/.3,194,698.00, on September 1st 1924. What, they averred, did a small Republic such as Panamá need with such a huge building?
Under a resplendent sun, a group of more than 4,000 people turned out to see President Porras crown one of his greatest works. The street of honor, composed of officers and agents of the national police, stood on each side of the red carpet under the command of Colonel A. R. Lamby and Captain Daniel Solis. The first authorities in the nation, the Secretaries of State, members of the Supreme Court of Justice, members of the National Assembly, the Diplomatic Corps in full, members the City Council of the Capital District and notable dignitaries of the Church all assumed their places according to protocol for the ceremony to begin.
The event began with the words of Charles Stockelberg, Head of maintenance and purchases of the Panama’s National Government, who spoke briefly to the effort made by the Board during the construction and support at all times by President Porras, to who congratulated with much enthusiasm for having carried out a successful completion of such brilliant project.
Mayor Edward A. Bocock, Superintendent of the Santo Tomas Hospital, delivered a lengthy speech in English. He began his speech quoting Oliver Wendell Holmes, and then went on to express his optimism for the integral improvement of care for the sick emphasizing his appreciation for the efforts of all the medical and paramedical personnel who worked in the old Hospital Santo Tomas.
Colonel Juan Antonio Jiménez , Secretary of promotion and public works, was the next speaker and went to delineate his capacity as Chairman of the Board responsible for the construction of the hospital. He stated that this center would act as an entity of the State. He also highlighted the fact that The National Exhibition of 1915, gave prestige and value to this new section of the city, today called Balboa Avenue, which was previously owned by the Hurtado family and had been covered by thick mangroves and to a great extent, by the sea.
He was surprisingly prophetic in emphasizing the future transformation of the area and ended by thanking all those who participated and supported the effort and made it possible to turn a dream into reality. He then turned over the address over to the keynote speaker of the opening ceremony, President Belisario Porras.
In his speech, President Porras related an anecdote in which a dear friend in the interior of the Republic suffered an accident. He turned down President Porras’ offer to take him to the capital to receive medical care in Hospital Santo Tomas, by qualifying it as “the gateway to the city cemetery.” After visiting the hospital following his friend’s accident, the President could not help but agree with this view which was not far from the truth. He immediately began planning to build a new hospital.
Towards this end the President turned the National Lottery, which heretofore was privately owned, into The National Lottery de Beneficencia (for charitable purposes), whose fruits would be earmarked toward these ends and towards building other hospitals in the Republic. This move with the Lottery enabled him to raise the three million Balboas for this construction project without having to raise new taxes.
He admitted, “in all honesty, this project is huge and everlasting and it has cost millions, but we must recognize that they (the millions) have not have fallen by the wayside to be a prey to others, or fallen among the rocks, but on fertile ground and it will produce, I am sure, enough to erase all the ingratitude, and can accomplish with them, as we have done, a work of beauty and grace, which will make my country much better than what it is.”
More than 75 years later Santo Tomas Hospital continues to be the People’s Hospital and school mother for generations of Panamanian doctors and foreigners, who have experienced the most bright and extraordinary emotions of their professional life during their practical training in this respected institution. Thousands of first, second, third and fourth generation children of Silver People, the West Indian workers and their families of the former Panama Canal Zone, were born there and treated for their ailments and injuries at low cost.
The Poor People’s Hospital is Threatened
Today, however, the People’s Hospital is threatened with extinction and may go the way of some of our most treasured National Historic Patrimonies if the plans for the enormous Financial Tower become a reality. The Tower or “La Tuza,” which would become the tallest building in Latin America, should be completed by 2013 at a total cost of $250 million. Much controversy, however, surrounds the fact that a good portion of the land belonging to Santo Tomas will be encroached by certain aspects of this Tower and that its very presence alongside “The White Elephant” will destroy the therapeutic ambiance of a major medical center. The Belisario Porras Foundation heads the opposition groups to the building of this structure.
Santo Tomas Hospital holds many dear memories and has become a point of historical and emotional reference for many Silver People. Will this historical monument fall before the pressures of big money and political interests?