“It seemed yesterday as if one of the good spirits had winged its way over the Children’s Hospital and touched with his magic wand the place and everybody connected with it.”
So began a story in The Washington Post on Dec. 26, 1885, recounting how Christmas Day was marked at that hospital for sick children. Will things be so different there in two days’ time? Well, the hospital itself has certainly changed.
Children’s admitted its first patients in 1871. It was a 12-bed hospital funded by Washingtonians who felt that an adult hospital was no place for children. Neither was the poor house, where sick, indigent youngsters were sometimes sent. Its first home was in a rented row house near 13th and G streets NW. A plaque near Metro Center marks its location.
Later it moved to 13th Street NW, between V and W, where it filled, then outgrew, a series of red-brick buildings that many a native Washingtonian remember. In 1977, it moved to a new campus on Michigan Avenue NW, near North Capitol Street. Its distinctive cubist glass building has been expanded several times.
Paging through Washington Post stories from the hospital’s 141-year history, and looking through the photos in our files, is to travel through the history of accident and injury. In its early days, Children’s Hospital saw boys and girls run over by lumber wagons, struck by street cars, burned by coal oil lamps. . . . They were sometimes shot, too.
It’s also a history of medicine. Iron bedsteads and cribs — their paint chipping — give way to modern incubators and isolettes. Hypodermic syringes get smaller and less painful looking.
In the 1940s and 1950s polio was the scourge that sent patients to Children’s Hospital. Photos show boys and girls with shriveled limbs. Some children smile from inside the cold embrace of an iron lung.
Long before HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996), there was a tradition of throwing open the doors of Children’s Hospital to visitors on Christmas Day. Those who came were typically society ladies, the sort who did good works around town, including supporting the hospital. But journalists visited too, which is how we know what Christmas at Children’s was like in 1885.
The children awoke to find stockings at the end of their beds, each filled with “candy, fruits and other dainties.” The branches of a Christmas tree in the hospital’s parlor were loaded down with gifts and the children, one by one, went up to pull theirs down.
The nameless Washington Post scribe reported that the children’s faces were lit up with a “thousand smiles. ... Even those poor little ones whose young lives have been too seldom illumined by a ray of sunshine, and who have endured beyond their years, banished their pains for one day and laughed and joked to the full extent of their powers.”
Those children who could danced around the tree as flickering wax tapers lit the room.
Wrote The Post’s reporter: “The sight was one to have caused the most inveterate cynic to become a convert to the doctrine of altruism.”
Of course, I’m hoping to convert you to that doctrine, too. The readers of this column have supported Children’s Hospital since the days of the very first columnist. That was a man named Bill Gold, who started this column in 1947. Starting in 1981 his successor, Bob Levey, flew the flag for Children’s, raising millions in his 23-year tenure.
Now it’s my turn. Our turn. The work that Children’s does is just as critical today as it was 141 years ago. Our city still has sick children. It still has poor children. Your gift — whether it’s $50 or $500 — still goes to the hospital’s uncompensated care fund, which pays the bills of underinsured patients.
You can make a tax-deductible donation by going to www.childrensnational.org/washingtonpost or sending a check (payable to Children’s Hospital) to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390. Our deadline is Jan. 4 and our goal is $400,00. We have about $275,000 to go. Please helps us get there.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.