Even as Penn Medicine expands its footprint across Pennsylvania and New Jersey, launches innovative services, and builds state-of-the-art facilities throughout the region, the unique histories and personalities of each of the hospitals in the Health System remain evident in every area – from their architecture and green spaces, to their staff members and the medical specialties they focus on. In this way, Penn Medicine is an amalgam of the old and the new, the constant and the ever-evolving.
When examining how becoming part of Penn Medicine has provided resources for advancement and opportunities for expansion without erasing a hospital’s past, Penn Presbyterian Medical Center – once a humble, 45-bed hospital in a green and open West Philadelphia – provides a textbook case.
“Back in 1995, PPMC became one of the earliest members of our modern health system and quickly grew into a vital component. Not only did it carve out a special place for Penn Medicine in the West Philadelphia community, but it also demonstrated a commitment to high-quality care in specialties that Penn was looking to invest in, such as cardiology and ophthalmology,” said CEO Ralph W. Muller. “As we consider Presby’s long history and its transformation from a small community hospital to a leader in the field, the impact that a relationship with Penn has on an unaffiliated hospital becomes clear.”
PPMC started out on a quiet, two-and-a-half acre plot of land at 39th Street and Powelton Avenue owned by nineteenth century Presbyterian reverend Ephraim D. Saunders. Rev. Saunders’ son, Courtland, was a captain in the Union Army and shared his father’s dedication to serving others – both in uniform and in the church. As the Civil War crept north in September of 1862, Courtland shared with his father his wish that “in the case of his death, the property should all be donated to some prominent charity.” Mere days later, Rev. Saunders received word that Courtland had been killed during the Battle of Antietam. To honor his son’s memory and make good on his promise, Rev. Saunders donated the land to the Philadelphia Presbyterian Alliance on the condition that it be used to create a hospital that would “provide for the needs of the sick and disabled, regardless of race, color, or creed.”
The hospital charter was officially approved by the state Supreme Court in 1871, and just 15 months later, the newly constructed “Presbyterian Hospital of Philadelphia” admitted its first patient. Presby’s dedication to providing care for anyone in need of it remained the hospital’s primary focus. Those who were unable to pay found their services funded by donations. A suggestion to move the hospital to a more prosperous suburb was struck down. By 1889, a training school had been set up for nurses and the Presbyterian School of Practicing Nursing was later established in 1964.
Making a Mark in Cardiac Care
Over the years, buildings, beds, and specialized services were added, such as the ophthalmological program, which developed into the Scheie Eye Institute, and the musculoskeletal program that grew into the Penn Musculoskeletal Center, which is now part of the PPMC-affiliated Penn Medicine University City.
Most notable was PPMC’s cardiac care program. Indeed, by the 1950s, cardiology became the hospital’s primary specialty. In 1963, the hospital opened one of the country’s first two coronary care units, paving the way for hospitals throughout the nation to utilize electrocardiograms within the first 72 hours after a heart attack. Presby was often the first in the region to adopt new technologies and pioneered advances in minimally invasive cardiac care. The introduction of nuclear cardiology, for example, helped physicians diagnose obstructed coronary arteries non-invasively, while laser angioplasty made it possible to open obstructed heart arteries that could not be accomplished with standard techniques. The Philadelphia Heart Institute (PHI) – the first outpatient cardiac care facility in the region – introduced the area’s first true outpatient catheterization facility, which made care more convenient and comfortable for patients and their families. PHI also housed the first single-photon emission-computed tomography (SPECT) device, which made it possible to rotate the gamma camera heads around a patient’s body to produce more detailed, three-dimensional images.
“PPMC's cardiac care program was booming even before the hospital became formally connected with Penn. It was one of the premiere cardiac programs in the region and served as a referral center for Pennsylvania and New Jersey patients, even when interventional cardiology was in its infancy,” said Harvey L. Waxman, MD, chief of Cardiology at PPMC. “Throughout the years, the program has continually been ahead of the curve in research, medical, and surgical advances.”
The hospital’s connection to Penn became increasingly stronger as well. The decision in 1965 to formally affiliate (93 years to the day of the first patient’s admission) established the hospital – newly dubbed “Presbyterian–University of Pennsylvania Medical Center” – as a direct resource for medical students.
Simple “affiliation” didn’t fully describe the extent of the relationship, though. In 1995, Presby officially joined HUP to form the University of Pennsylvania Health System, finally becoming the “Penn Presbyterian Medical Center” that we know today. “Throughout all of PPMC’s name changes, renovations, and incremental steps towards a merger with UPHS, the hospital never lost the deep connection to the community that largely defines its personality,” said Michele Volpe, CEO of Penn Presbyterian. “A core theme remains through each change: the relentless pursuit of excellence in a field that is constantly propelling forward.”