For Melva Schmidt, the morning of May 18, 1980 began as an ordinary Sunday. She was at home building a fence with her sons.
What happened next would go down in history.
Two hundred miles away, Mt. St. Helens erupted, sending a plume of smoke and ash skyward, blanketing Kittitas County in ash.
“It looks like Nebraska is coming,” Schmidt, then director of nursing at KVH Hospital, told her sons as the sky darkened. She called the charge nurse to check in. Driving to the hospital, “it was day time but it was dark,” she says. “Ash was falling. You couldn't see ahead of you. You couldn't see the side of the road.”
Uncertain whether the water supply would be interrupted, nurses filled bathtubs with water. KVH Hospital, its windows closed and ventilation limited, became a refuge in an unfamiliar storm. “If staff could get in, they were there,” Schmidt says. “That was true of all departments, not just ours.”
With roads blocked, stranded travelers with prescription needs turned to the hospital pharmacy for help, exhausting supplies. An unusually high number of women went into labor - probably prompted by stress and anxiety - swamping OB. “I believe we had six to eight babies born in 24 hours,” Schmidt says. One newly-delivered mother slept in the hallway until a bed opened up in a room.
The next day, sunlight streamed through the windows. Schmidt's relief was immense and immediate. By the time she left, she had logged nearly 24 hours on-site. She would recall it as the most unforgettable experience in her 32-year career at KVH Hospital.
Raised in rural Nebraska, Schmidt attended a one-room school through eighth grade, then a high school with an enrollment of 43. Her 12-member graduating class included Bill Schmidt, then a friend but not a sweetheart. That would come later when he was in college and she in nursing school.
Married in his senior year of college, the couple arrived in Ellensburg in 1963 when he landed a teaching job at Central.
Two private hospitals - Ellensburg General and Valley General - served the community and Schmidt, a young mother with small children, worked part-time at the latter. Change was coming. A public hospital district had been formed and a new community hospital was being built. Guilds were formed to help support it.
“So the community was investing in it even before it opened,” she says.
The new 50-bed hospital wasn't the only change afoot. Before moving into the hospital, nurses wanted a contract. Representatives from the Washington State Nurses Association who came from Seattle to address hospital commissioners got a testy reception. “Oh, it was quite the hot evening,” Schmidt recalls, laughing. “The nurses won out. The local nurses union developed during that time.”
On December 29, 1964, with Valley General Hospital already closed, Schmidt was on hand as KVH Hospital admitted its first patients, transported from Ellensburg General via hearse because the community had no ambulance. “Everything was shiny and new,” recalls Schmidt, noting that in the beginning, the emergency room was unstaffed. “If the bell rang, a nurse would go down and we'd contact whoever the doctor on call was.”
In 1970, Schmidt took a job at the 750-bed Riverside Methodist Hospital in Columbus, Ohio while Bill got his doctorate. For Schmidt, it was “a little refresher course” and perfect preparation for what lay ahead.
Back home in 1971, she was asked to become director of nursing. “I was ready so I ended up doing that - and a little bit more,” says Schmidt who implemented an orientation program for nurses new to the hospital and, twice when the hospital found itself without an administrator, helped run it.
“She was who I wanted to be - strong and elegant,” says Deb Brunner, now director of patient finance and a veteran of 40 years at KVH Hospital.
In 1998, after 17 years as director of nursing, then another eight in charge of infection control, risk management and quality assurance, Schmidt retired. The next year, eager to support KVH Hospital, she joined the board of the Foundation at KVH.
Now 80, she's unapologetically proud of the hospital, the community that supports it and the people who are at its heart.
“KVH Hospital is well-respected and has consistently been ahead of most rural hospitals,” she says. “I feel proud of the quality medical community we have and that the hospital remains up-to-date with new services and equipment.
“It's 50 years of hard work and cooperation - and it's still going on.”