Provident Hospital celebrates 30 years of public service

This week marked 30 years since Provident Hospital reopened, and its anniversary was celebrated by a host of city officials, staff, patients and community members in the Washington Park facility’s cafeteria. 

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle kicked off the August 10 celebration with a joke: “This feels like a high school reunion.”

She then recognized the dozen or so physicians, nurses and other hospital staff in attendance who have worked at the hospital since it reopened in 1993. 

Located at 550 E. 51st St., the hospital was first opened in 1891 by Daniel Hill Williams, a pioneering Black surgeon. It was the first Black-owned and operated hospital in America, at a time when Chicago’s largely Black South Side communities had few options for medical care. The private hospital not only offered quality care, but also served as a teaching hospital, primarily for Black doctors and nurses. 

“I got training here. When I got here, I had no hospital experience,” said Angela Harper, who has worked as a registration clerk for Provident since 1993. 

Cook County Commissioner Bill Lowry, whose district includes the hospital, noted that Provident opened the county’s first nursing school for Black women in 1893. It’s also the site of the nation’s first successful open heart surgery, performed by Williams. 

Two graduates of the nursing school attended the celebration.  

“Over the years we’ve seen the influx with certain hospitals turning away patients,” said Cheryl Booze-Davis, Provident’s graphic design manager, who has also worked for the hospital since its reopening. “We’ve always been that hospital to take everybody.”

Provident closed in 1987 due to financial issues, but the community quickly rallied to reopen it. These lobbying and fundraising efforts were led by John H. Sengstacke, the former publisher of the Chicago Defender and Provident’s board chair.

“(Sengstacke) kept saying that he didn’t want people to have to travel so far when there was trauma happening,” said Myiti Sengstacke-Rice, CEO of Chicago Defender Charities and Sengstacke’s granddaughter. “People would have to go all the way across town, and people didn’t make it.”

“That’s why he worked so hard and tirelessly to raise $5 million to have the hospital back where it should be,” she added. 

The hospital was ultimately purchased by the Cook County Board of Commissioners in 1991, and reopened as a public hospital two years later after extensive renovations. Today, Provident Hospital and John H. Stroger Hospital on the city’s West Side are the only two hospitals in the Cook County Health system, which also runs a dozen community health centers around the city. 

“Provident has always been a beacon of hope, our safety net and a bedrock for this community. We’ve always felt safe knowing Provident was here,” said Louise Holland, vice president of the Provident Women’s Auxiliary, which coordinates hospital fundraising. The Black women-led group is now in its 50th year. 

Looking to Provident’s future 

Over the past few years, Cook County Health has invested more than $9 million into expanding and modernizing Provident’s campus, according to CEO Israel Rocha, Jr.

Recent developments include the opening of a new dialysis center in 2021, and the installation of a new MRI machine and other imaging technology in April of last year. The hospital also increased its hospital beds from 10 to 38, reopened its intensive care unit and resumed ambulance services last fall. 

Provident Hospital currently serves about 40,000 patients a year and facilitates 130,000 annual visits, according to a Cook County Health spokesperson. 

Rocha noted that the hospital also expanded its surgical subspecialities, including dermatology, neurology and gastroenterology. Going forward, he said Cook County Health intends to provide more specialty care, a common reason why patients frequently travel outside of the community for care.   

“We’re working hard to make sure that the areas where we feel that we can make the most measurable difference … making sure that services like dialysis which are every day, and are necessary and are heavily dependent on transportation and access challenges, are here at Provident.” This includes “making sure that there’s an emergency department to welcome you when you have concerns,” he added. 

Carrying on its history of teaching, last week, Provident and Cook County Health awarded its second annual class of educational scholarships to Chicago undergraduate, medical and dental students. This year’s 60 awardees received a total of $1 million.

“I think it was quite clear during the pandemic how important health care institutions were, and particularly community hospitals, which are in our neighborhoods and service our communities,” said Preckwinkle.

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