Wednesday, January 14, 2015


In eight seconds, it was gone.

Baptist Memorial Hospital, once the flagship of the thriving Memphis medical center, was leveled by controlled implosion on Sunday, November 6, 2005. The 21-story building, erected in 1955, was once the largest private hospital in the United States. It was demolished to make way for the University of Tennessee-Baptist Research Park, a facility devoted to bioscience research. I had visited Memphis earlier in 2005 but had not been aware of the forthcoming demolition, so when I returned the following spring, seeing an enormous pile of earth and rubble where the hospital had once stood was quite shocking.

Baptist ran deep in my family. During my childhood, my mother was hospitalized several times, sometimes for a week or two at a stretch, and my dad would take me down when he went to visit her in the evenings after work. The hospital was located in the midtown medical center, about a 20 minute drive from our house. We became so familiar with Baptist that we knew every nook and cranny of the place. We knew which dishes to order at the spacious wood-paneled restaurant on the main floor, the location of all the phone booths, and which gift shops featured which magazines. 

One of my favorite stories revolves around a humorous incident that occurred one night in the lounge area on one of the upper floors. My dad and I had gone down to get some coffee and Coke out of one of the machines, and two highly inebriated gentlemen were sitting in the room by a dollar bill changer. One of them pointed to the machine and said, "You know, that thing right thar' is dumb. I put a five dollar bill in thar' yesterday, and it gimme change for a one!" My dad and I looked at each other and smiled. You couldn't make up some of the stuff we would see and hear at the hospital.

Baptist had its share of famous patients -- it sheltered Elvis when he was visiting Memphis and required hospitalization. My mom worked at a doctor's office adjacent to the hospital in the early 70's, and she said that you could always tell when Elvis was there, because the corner room on the 19th floor (the neurology and neurosurgery ward, always kept very quiet) would have aluminum foil taped to the windows. It seemed that the bright light was too much for him. I recall many occasions passing by the hospital on Union Avenue and seeing a mirror-like reflection from the windows of that corner room.

Over the years, my mom received excellent medical care at Baptist, and by the time I reached my teens, I had become very accustomed to being at the hospital. Once I learned to drive, I would go down for visits myself or sometimes take a friend along. Many of them knew my mom and thought of her as family, so I don't think she ever minded having extra visitors. I began to become quite familiar with the names of the medical staff, who I would hear paged constantly: "Paging Doctor Callison, Doctor Maston Callison...Doctor Boyd, Doctor Allen Boyd." In those days, cell phones were non-existent, and pagers were new inventions, so phone calls were the norm. Eventually, the daily comings and goings of the staff and the general cadence of the place began to feel like part of my life. 

There were difficult moments, such as the night when my dad couldn't make it because of work, and I arrived just before the end of visiting hours. I padded into my mom's room and watched her sleeping there, so frail. I remember hoping beyond hope that she would survive the night, which she did, greeting me with a smile when I visited the next day. The nurses always said that she was a great patient.

In January of my senior year in high school, my father suffered a heart attack while working one Sunday morning at his grocery store. We rushed to the hospital and met him in intensive care. True to form, he was in good spirits, joking with the staff at every opportunity. I remember sitting in the ICU waiting room with large groups of family members, some of whom had brought lunch or dinner while they waited for news of their loved ones. So many stories, I thought, so many people in need of a miracle. We had been lucky with Dad, and he went home within a week or so.

In the fall, I headed off to Chicago to attend Northwestern. After all the time I'd spent in the hospital, I started thinking that a medical career might be my calling, and at the persistent urging of our family physician, who had been dean of the UT Medical School for a time, I enrolled in the pre-med program. For four years, I studied biology, chemistry, physiology and psychology, along with a generous dose of liberal arts, eventually concentrating on neuroscience. But at the end of my undergraduate days, seeing myself in quite a different place and frame of mind from four years earlier, I chose not to apply to medical school.

Almost one year later, in June of 1978, Dad suffered another heart attack, and this time, his condition required open heart surgery. The procedure was still relatively new in those days, but he pulled through. After several long days in coronary care, then intensive care, he was transferred to a regular room and appeared to be stable. I headed back to Chicago, where I had recently moved, but a couple of days later, we lost Dad. I never got back to Baptist after that.

I suppose it's a bit strange to think of an institution like a hospital as a second home, but in a way, that's what it was for me during the 60's and 70's. I ate there, did my homework there, even slept there on several occasions. The devoted staff worked night and day to care for their patients, and rarely did I hear a complaint from anyone. More often than not, they would greet us with smiles and gentle spirits when they came into the room. Baptist brought my parents through some rough times, and being there gave me a different perspective on life and what a gift it was.

In the end, I don't think I could have witnessed the Baptist demolition -- it was enough watching it on YouTube, and I'd rather remember it the way it looked in the old days. The bricks and mortar of Baptist may be gone now, but they'll forever occupy a place in my memory and in my heart.