Jim Powell

Jim PowellWhen a tree he was cutting down at his cabin at Salmon la Sac in 2006 accidentally fell on him, Dr. Jim Powell suffered serious injuries.

The tree punctured Powell's left lung, broke "six or eight" ribs off the left side of his spine, fractured his left tibia and broke his ankle.

Transported to KVH Hospital, the then 78-year-old Powell spent a week in ICU, another week in a regular ward. "Dr. Hiersche put me together bone-wise," the now 86-year-old Powell says gratefully. "Dr. Feng kept me alive. I got excellent care."

It came as no surprise to Powell. After all, he'd come to Ellensburg in 1967, just three years after the hospital opened, spent 27 years practicing there and has been a front row witness to the hospital's role in serving a community he loves.

Born in Rolla, Missouri, Powell met his wife Joyce there in 1953. He was preparing for his first year in med school. Joyce, an Oklahoma native, had just finished a master's degree at New Orleans Baptist Seminary and been named the first-ever youth and education director at his church.

After seeing her photo in the local paper, Powell - never shy - walked into the church, sat down at the piano and began playing and singing. Thus introduced, he invited Joyce out to "meet" his car, an "ugly brown" 1936 Ford he called Betsy.

"She thought I was a kook," he says, laughing. "She wrote a letter home and said, 'I met this guy - but he's nuts.' But she liked my parents."

It proved a favorable omen. They married the next year in Oklahoma. After finishing med school, Powell went on to a one-year internship at a government hospital in Panama, then did a one-year-general surgery internship in Wichita.

Powell, a man of deep faith, was preparing for the mission field.

That call overseas never came. But a different kind of call brought him to Ellensburg.

Powell spent four years in practice in rural Kansas, then moved on to a four year general surgery residence at Seattle's Providence Hospital.

While visiting possible practice sites around the Northwest, he and Joyce visited Ellensburg. "The Valley Clinic wanted me to come at the end of my residency," he says. Then, one of the clinic's doctors died unexpectedly. "When Dr. Brown died, they said, 'We need you now.'" Powell recalls. "So I came at the end of my third year."

He knew Ellensburg was a small college town and a nice community.

What he didn't know, he says, was that despite the gleaming new hospital - visual testimony to the community's commitment to improved health care - "an old time feud" raged between doctors at the Valley Clinic and the Taylor-Richardson Clinic. The bitter divide had festered for years.

"So the doctors from the clinics not only did not talk to each other, they tried to undercut each other," Powell says. "I think the feud between the two clinics handicapped the hospital for the first few years."

Powell found himself cast into the role of peacemaker, but in the end it was time - and death - that healed the wounds. "It was the old-time doctors who kept it going. The feud died when the key antagonists died," says Powell who terms KVH Hospital's early years "interesting."

A couple of no-nonsense "buck sergeant nurses" ran the show, he says. One was the late Edna Music, a rotund woman with a deep voice. The other was "a scrawny Irish lady who had an Irish kind of temper. They took care of the hospital - but they didn't take any sass," he says.

It was an era with few specialists. Most doctors' practices were multi-faceted. Powell was no exception.

"At the time I felt like with my training I could do a lot of things that I wouldn't do now," he says. "I did a little of everything - pinned hips, set broken bones, took out thyroids, stuck needles in chests and drained them, took cartilage out of knees. Most of my training was abdominal. I took out partial stomachs and parts of colons."

He also delivered babies - lots of babies.

How many? "Maybe 800, maybe a thousand," he says. "One year I was averaging eight babies a month and on pace to do a hundred that year. I can remember being up all night delivering a baby and doing a gastric re-section the next day. So I started cutting back on the babies."

In the early 1990s, fascinated by the advent of laparoscopic surgery for gallbladders, Powell took training. He and another local surgeon, Dr. Ken Harris, proctored each other in order to qualify for privileges to perform the procedure at KVH. Doctors from around central Washington came to KVH to observe the new technique.

Today, two decades after Powell hung up his surgical scrubs for the last time, Powell says former patients still thank him for the care they received. His pride in his association with KVH Hospital endures.

"I'm proud that the hospital continues to progress in acquiring people with advanced skills and in acquiring new instrumentation and technology," he says. "They're able to do what many hospitals do and when necessary they refer patients to places that can provide more advanced treatment.

"I'm very proud of this hospital."