County-By-County La Crosse: Health Care

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This week Fox 25/48 is taking a closer look at La Crosse County in our County-By-County series. Tonight, reporter Zach Prelutsky tells us the history of health care in La Crosse.

Today, the health care field is the biggest employer in La Crosse County. But to find out how Gundersen Health System and Mayo Health System Franciscan Healthcare grew to giants in the Coulee Region you have to go back to the 19th century.

In 1883, the first hospital in La Crosse known as Saint Francis Hospital was opened.

“The physicians in the city were very concerned because many of the marine company — the barges that came through here — would become ill and the only places they had were the hotel or a private residence and so they asked the sisters if they wouldn’t be interested.”

What started with a tradition for Franciscans to care for the ill became a health care boom in the area.

Eight years after Saint Francis Hospital opened a Norweigen man named Adolf Gundersen came to La Crosse to join the practice of Doctor Christian Christensen.

The duo would take their patients to the Saint Francis Hospital before the Lutheran Hospital was built in 1902 where they would move their patients. Christensen and Gundersen added a third partner but he was killed by the flu in 1918 and Christensen died a year later.

All alone, Gundersen got help from his family.

“Six of the seven sons became doctors. One son didn’t, he went back to Norway to work in the family farm. Of the six who became doctors, four of them came back to help their father.”

As Gundersen and his sons built a new clinic right next to the Lutheran Hosptial the sisters continued to expand their care and teach nursing to women, expanding Saint Francis Hospital and opening a school of nursing.

“In the 20th century we had our bumper crop of members. We had a thousand sisters in that era, so we had lots of willing workers to be trained for health care work.”

Both Gundersen and the sisters grew throughout the 20th century and new clinics like the Skemp Clinic would pop up in the area.

Then in 1995 health care in the region changed again. The sisters and the Skemp Clinic teamed up with one of the premiere medical organizations in the world.

“Health care becoming a much more complicated, difficult, and challenging business. Our leadership team felt that we needed an affiliation in order for us to thrive and do the best we could for our patients.”

Leadership at Gundersen saw the move and responded.

“Well when that happened, over here on this side of town we thought we better get better organized. So then the boards of the clinic and the hospital decided to merge and that was carried out in 1995.”

Since then, the two organizations have taken on their current names: Gundersen Health System and Mayo Clnic Health System Franciscan Healthcare.

At Gundersen, the remaining family members are growing older and will soon be out of the system for good, although Erik insists Gundersen is in good hands.

And at Mayo Clinic Health System Franciscan Healthcare a new cancer clinic and other amenities are on the horizon.

Back in November, the sisters announced plans to step back from their roles with mayo and Viterbo University where nursing is taught.

“We’re very confident that they will do very well. We have a formation process for them. They’re excited about it and we are pleased that they are willing hands, able to take it on, and we can keep moving more into the social justice efforts.”

For the county, the past 135 years have been steeped with innovation and growth in the industry. From some of the first appendectomies in the region to important court decisions that let hospitals set their own criteria for hiring staff.

Now, a river county with a population of around 100,000 has some of the premiere health care in the nation and the world.

In La Crosse, Zach Prelutsky, Fox 25/48 First News at Nine.

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