Patients have more holistic ways to heal in Ashland Community Hospital's second century of medicine.

Patients have more holistic ways to heal in Ashland Community Hospital's second century of medicine.

Just a year shy of its 2007 centennial, ACH adopted the Planetree method of health care, which incorporates nutrition, complementary medicine, education — even spirituality — to "humanize" and "personalize" patients' and families' experiences at Jackson County's oldest hospital.

"Health and wellness is not just a physical issue, but an emotional issue and a spiritual issue," says Mark Marchetti, hospital chief executive officer.

At ACH, such intangible issues are addressed with material comforts, including more plush furnishings, refrigerators stocked with microwaveable meals, soothing, live music; carts laden with music CDs, art supplies and books for patient and family use; and a health-information center that houses a library and affords Internet access.

The hospital also expanded its chaplain program after affiliating with the nonprofit Planetree, says Marchetti. The newest way of fostering warm, fuzzy feelings within the hospital is the twice-weekly presence of trained therapy dogs under the care of trainers who volunteer their time.

"Many of the patients find these dogs to be extremely comforting," says Marchetti.

Canine visits, like all ACH nonmedical services, are entirely voluntary, says Marchetti. Patients can request massage, reiki, healing touch, aromatherapy and other complementary treatments without tacking additional cost onto their hospital bill, although the hospital does pay certified professionals to perform many of the therapies.

Contrary to notions that alternative avenues to health conflict with mainstream, Western medicine, ACH is "very possessive," says Marchetti of its mission to serve the larger community's needs, not the industry or practitioners.

"I think the real message is with any vibrant organization, it changes and evolves," he says.

The hospital has weathered numerous challenges since 1907, when Dr. Francis G. Swedenburg established Southern Oregon Hospital on Ashland's Main Street. Formerly a private residence, the building was later towed by a team of horses up Second Street to the present-day site of the Winchester Inn. Fire ignited by a defective flue ravaged the hospital March 11, 1909. But it reopened just days later at 586 E. Main St.

Land for a new hospital was purchased on Siskiyou Boulevard, and the building — roughly located on the current site of Southern Oregon University's Stevenson Union — opened April 30, 1910. The new Granite City Hospital started a school for nurses in 1912, and surgeries, including appendectomies, tonsillectomies and procedures for ovarian cysts, carcinomas, abscesses and broken bones, were performed weekly, according to Swedenberg's record book.

In fall 1918, Spanish influenza strained the hospital's capacity and staff capabilities, as many Ashland residents sickened and died at an unprecedented rate until the epidemic began to wane in December.

Three years later, New York advertising tycoon Jesse Winburn purchased the hospital after retiring in Ashland. With Swedenburg, he set out to refurbish and modernize the facility, bestowing the name "Community Hospital."

But the hospital was beset with financial hardships until the city assumed its ownership in 1930 with a ballot measure that passed by an overwhelming majority. Thirty years later, the City Council approved construction of a new hospital at its current Maple Street site, on the north end of Ashland.

It was the last city-owned hospital in the state when, in 1996, officials transferred operation to a private, nonprofit corporation. The city still owns the land and related facilities, leased to the independent corporation.

Amid the recession, some hospital patients have been hard-pressed to pay their medical bills, Marchetti told the City Council in 2009, when he reported a $1.5 million loss on operations for the previous fiscal year.

ACH cut its operating expenses by more than $2 million in the following fiscal year (2009-10) and realized a profit of just over 2 percent after charity care, bad debt and Medicare write-offs, says Marchetti, describing hospital finances as "good but not great."

"As a small hospital, we have to be careful to define a scope of service," he says.

So rather than offer cutting-edge cardiology, physical therapy and memory care — specialities of other local providers — ACH continues to build a reputation earned in the late 1970s for obstetrics.

Delivering 300 babies last fiscal year, the hospital still operates the county's only hospital-based center for water births.

Given the country's aging population, however, the hospital saw an opportunity to specialize in treating chronic wounds, which Medicare finances.

Opened in 2006, the ACH Center for Wound Healing and Hyberbaric Medicine is the county's only facility using pressurized chambers to infuse patients' tissues with 15 to 20 times the normal amount of oxygen, spurring the body's natural healing mechanisms.

About 170 physicians refer patients within a 50-mile radius of the hospital to its wound center, says program director Bill Feagin. The therapy is used for diabetic ulcers, radiation injuries from cancer treatment, skin grafts and bone infections.

Because patients commit to five days of treatment per week for six to eight weeks, hyperbaric therapy is the last course before a "drastic" measure such as amputation, says Feagin. The center's four physicians also abrade skin, substitute bioengineered skin and "vacuum" wounds with negative pressure, he says.

Between 2008 and 2009, wound-center patients increased by 44 percent, and the number increased by another 17 percent last year, says Feagin. One of 325 nationwide, the center is overseen by Diversified Clinical Services of Jacksonville, Fla., which singled out ACH last year for 97 percent patient satisfaction (compared with the standard 95 percent), 27 average days to heal (compared with the usual 35 days) and 94 percent average healing outcome (compared with the standard 89 percent).

With overall patient-satisfaction scores "very high" and increasing, says Marchetti, demand for ACH services is among the few predictable trends in a field faced with more uncertainty than ever. Which services will be required and how they will be delivered in the next century is anyone's guess, he adds.

"The goal these days is to be flexible and adaptable."

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or e-mail