Health & Medicine

Shriners Hospital: Iconic Lexington institution gets ready to move from longtime home

Community leaders and patients from the Shriners Hospital during the 1920s, when Shriners Hospitals opened across the country.
Community leaders and patients from the Shriners Hospital during the 1920s, when Shriners Hospitals opened across the country. Photo provided

Shriners Hospital has been a fixture on Richmond Road for as long as most Lexingtonians can remember — the 117,000-square-foot hospital sits atop a big slope on 27 acres where visitors gather to watch fireworks in the summer and to sled in the winter.

Shriners Hospitals first arose in the United States in the 1920s; articles from the early decades of their existence frequently refer to the hospitals' services to "crippled tots," which made for compact headlines at the time but is in no way politically correct today.

Today, 22 Shriners hospitals around the country care for children and youngsters with conditions including burns, facial clefts and spinal cord injuries. The Lexington hospital, which treats pediatric orthopedic problems, opened in 1926 as a hospital for children with polio. Among the Shriners "potentates" who were chairman of the hospital board was iconic University of Kentucky basketball coach Adolph Rupp. Rupp spent decades raising money for the organization.

In Lexington alone, the Shriners Hospital drew a glittering array of celebrity visitors: Actress Judy Garland, boxer Jack Dempsey and silent film comedian Harold Lloyd all came to visit children at the hospital.

Garland visited during Derby Week 1953, when she sang My Old Kentucky Home accompanied by a single violin and received a standing ovation from her audience. Lloyd was a Shriner himself, the first entertainer elected Supreme Imperial Potentate of the Shriners.

For much of its history, Shriners hospitals prided themselves on having no billing departments — providing care to children who needed it without regard to financial resources.

But in 2011, the hospitals began to bill insurance companies and charge co-payments to families who could afford it. Shriners officials said that the organization's endowment was battered by the 2008 recession and that donations were flat.

Inside the Shriners Hospital in Lexington today, you might see the elaborate fezes belonging to the various Shriners temple chapters that support the Lexington hospital. But you'll also see high-tech machines that can record how a walker's foot strikes the ground and what his stride looks like.

The first Lexington Shriners hospital opened in 1926 downtown as a part of Good Samaritan hospital. A second Shriners was built at 1900 Richmond Road in 1955, with a newer version opening in 1988.

The newest version of the hospital, announced in 2012, returns the Shriners to their downtown roots. The hospital serves 10,800 patients a year.

The 1980s was something of a heyday for Lexington hospitals. At one point in 1980, the city's hospitals could barely keep up with the number of patients needing to be admitted, and several were turning away patients.

Much of the surgery done at Shriners is now outpatient, according to Henry Iwinski, chief of staff for Shriners Hospitals for Children. The patient goes home either the same day or shortly thereafter. Only a handful of patients — two or three — stay in the hospital's rooms now. In 1988, that was 25 to 30, hospital administrator Anthony Lewgood said.

Some employees in Shriners Hospital departments, such as food service and housekeeping, might lose their jobs, and nurses will become pre- and post-operative specialists rather than working with patients in hospital rooms, according to Lewgood.

The new $50 million, 100,000-square-foot hospital between Conn Terrace and State Street, a pedway's walk away from the main UK Hospital, will begin construction in February 2015 and should be ready for occupancy by May 2017.

It will provide surgery, but the UK hospital will provide hospital care.

Shriners, which has 50 licensed hospital beds, will surrender them when the new building is occupied.

Shriners administrator Anthony Lewgood said the new building will be the latest evolution of the Shriners presence in Lexington. Shriners is paying for the construction, and UK would lease back 50,000 square feet for an ophthalmology clinic.

Already, 78 percent of Shriners surgeries are outpatient, a change from when the hospital opened its current building in 1988.

In 1983, when that building was being planned, the Shriners hospital had a waiting list of 500 children.

Iwinski said more recent medical practice has emphasized sending patients home from the hospital more quickly after treatment.

Both Lewgood and Iwinski have more than a work relationship with the hospital: Their own children have been patients there.

Lewgood's youngest daughter had scoliosis.

"I got to see the place from the parent's side, which is enlightening," he said.

Iwinski has seen all three of his children as patients for various injuries. But the family is even more involved than that: His wife taught classes at the hospital, and his dog was a therapy dog.

"It's more than just a building for all of us," Iwinski said. Moving to be closer to UK, in a more modern building, he said, "is the right thing to do."

When the Shriners hospital packs up from its Richmond Road home for good, the lot on Richmond Road will be sold by its owner, Shriners International of Tampa, Fla. Shriners operates 20 hospitals in the United States, and one each in Montreal and Mexico City. The Shriners property is listed on the Fayette property valuation site at $20 million.

Although Shriners has long had a collaborative relationship with the UK HealthCare, the coming proximity "is improving on an already good relationship," Lewgood said.