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If you grew up in Amarillo and you’re less than a century old, there’s a strong chance you were born at Northwest Texas Hospital. Now officially known as Northwest Texas Healthcare System, the facility has been, for decades, a stalwart companion in times of trouble and times of joy for hundreds of thousands of Panhandle residents—and those farther afield. 

Nowadays, Amarilloans think of Northwest as a healthcare behemoth—one of the two big hospitals that dominate the Medipark area of town. And the 500-bed hospital is certainly imposing, offering numerous services, from orthopedics and respiratory care to emergency services, stroke services and a sleep disorders center. There’s even a children’s hospital.

However, this massive health complex—now such a fixture of the Amarillo landscape—started small. And it hasn’t stopped growing for a hundred years.   

Humble Beginnings

A century ago this month, in March 1924, Northwest Texas Hospital opened its doors as the first public medical facility in Amarillo. (St. Anthony’s Hospital, a private facility, opened in 1901.) Given how much the city was growing, it’s clear that Amarillo needed a public hospital—and Amarillo was definitely booming, largely as a result of oil being discovered in the Panhandle during the 1920s. At the beginning of the decade, the Yellow City held a little more than 15,000 residents; by 1930 the population would almost triple, swelling to more than 43,000. 

The original hospital was located between West Sixth and Seventh Avenues, a little more than a mile from downtown. That stark brown and white building, built in the Gothic Revival style with pointed turrets on top, held 75 beds. (If you’re too young to remember when Northwest Texas hospital was located on Seventh Avenue, you might know the building better as “The Canyons,” a low-income retirement community that closed in recent years. The building now holds private apartments.) 

The new hospital was the product of a meeting held at the office of B.T. Ware of Amarillo National Bank, who also served as president of the Potter County Hospital Board. The facility officially opened on March 22, 1924, as a community hospital for the citizens of Potter County. Patients were charged $6 per day for a room with a private bath, $4 for a double room, and $2 a day for a ward bed. 

For patients who were too poor to pay, Potter County and the City of Amarillo would cover the two dollars to provide beds, medical services and food to these “pauper patients.” To this day, Northwest has maintained its dedication to treating all who need care, including those who are homeless or indigent. Dr. Pablo Diaz-Esquivel retired last month after working as an ob/gyn at Northwest for 45 years, while also serving for a time as president of the medical staff. “This hospital takes care of everybody: the rich, the poor, everybody,” he says. “I have [so much] respect for Northwest’s tradition of excellent care for patients.” 

In those early days, the hospital hired a few registered nurses to work temporarily until the student nurses of the Northwest Texas School of Nursing—a cadre of dedicated healers engaged in learning at the nascent hospital—could take over. There was also, in that first year, a single pathologist and radiologist for the hospital—Dr. Walter Van Sweringen—plus a single employee to run the drugstore and answer phone calls. 

Expanding Care

From that modest beginning, the hospital would continue to grow inexorably throughout the next century. In 1940, a 75-bed addition was built onto the hospital; the new wing was a project of FDR’s Public Works Administration program. Then in the 1950s, as the U.S. experienced a baby boom and widespread postwar prosperity, Amarillo continued to explode. During that decade, the city’s population grew by 84 percent, necessitating a need for more hospital beds. Further expansions in 1952 and 1960 grew Northwest’s facility to hold 275 beds. 

More importantly, in 1958, Texas citizens voted to approve an amendment to the state constitution that would allow for municipalities to create citywide hospital districts. In 1959, Amarillo voters responded, voting overwhelmingly in favor of creating the first citywide hospital district in the history of the Lone Star State. The Amarillo Hospital District then took over the obligation of managing Northwest Texas Hospital. That same citywide initiative tasked the Hospital District with the care of Amarillo’s indigent patients. 

After the creation of the Hospital District, Northwest continued to expand, staying abreast of medical developments and the needs of Amarillo’s citizenry. The 1960s and ’70s saw the completion of a new surgical recovery unit, an intensive care unit, a NICU facility, a cancer treatment unit and an extended care facility. Notably, in 1967, Northwest opened the new Psychiatric Pavilion, an acute mental-health facility with 20 beds. Now commonly known simply as The Pavilion, the 90-bed facility represents the only behavioral health hospital within a 250-mile radius of Amarillo. It serves residents from Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Colorado. 

The Big Move

Despite these celebrated improvements, by the 1970s it was becoming increasingly clear to district officials that Northwest’s location was simply not large enough to care for the needs of a growing city. So, in 1982, Northwest Texas Hospital moved to its new location on Coulter Street. And make no mistake: the move was a massive undertaking. Just to name one example, the neonatal unit had to move infants from one facility to the other, a few at a time—babies who required a great deal of life-preserving technology to go along with them. Expert nurses were stationed at both locations—as well as some who cared for the infants in transit—to ensure the safety of these tiny lives. Bonnie Baker was hired at Northwest in 1957 and spent four decades at the hospital, in a number of roles. “[The move] was a whirlwind,” she remembers. “We had to do stuff so fast it was unbelievable.”

The move’s difficulties weren’t limited to learning the ins and outs of a new location, though. At the new hospital, nurses, doctors, administrators and other staff had to adapt to a new state-of-the-art computer system and a new phone system. “Everything was hand-written before the move,” Baker recalls.

In all, there were 13 new systems at the facility that everyone had to learn to navigate—and quickly, as mistakes might literally be a matter of life and death. Kaye Cole, who worked in patient financial services at NWTHS from 1978 to 2017, remembers vividly the difficulties of the transition. “Back in the old days, everything was manual. That was a heck of an adjustment for all of us. Nobody knew how to use the computers,” she says. Amazingly, there were no major glitches or mistakes in those early days at the new location—a testament to the dedication and expertise of the Northwest staff. 

Dr. Diaz-Esquivel played a particularly notable role in the move. “When they built the new hospital, we all were anxious to come to the new facility,” he recalls. He spent that first morning delivering a baby at the old hospital, and the mother needed a small, post-delivery procedure after moving into recovery at the new one. “So, I did a very simple surgery, and it was the first surgery done at the new facility in 1982.”

Maintaining Excellence

In the 42 years since the move to the western edge of town, Northwest has continued its decades-long dedication to providing the highest level of quality care with compassion and integrity. In 1996, the hospital went corporate after being purchased by Universal Health Services, Inc. Staff who were employed by the hospital at the time were quick to note that the quality of care and the level of compassion didn’t drop even a little bit after the sale.  

In the intervening four decades, many improvements have garnered statewide and even national attention. In 1994, a top-notch new emergency room and critical care room opened. The medical air transportation service LifeStar joined the NWTHS team in 1998, and in 1999 the hospital was designated a Level III Trauma Center. In 2023, that designation was raised to Level II, meaning the facility is able to provide trauma patients with 24-hour immediate coverage by general surgeons and a host of other specialists.

Meanwhile, the hospital continued to stay at the forefront of technological innovations. In 2003, the state-of-the-art Children’s Hospital and Heart Hospital opened to great fanfare. And in 2016, the hospital became the first in the state of Texas to boast a da Vinci surgical system, a high-tech robotic surgical system that uses a minimally invasive approach. 

A Legacy Of Community

Today, the staff and administration of Northwest say they’re confident that the hospital will continue to serve as a beacon of hope in the Amarillo community for another century and beyond. After all, the institution is built on a bedrock of benevolence and charity. “I was so blessed to have spent my life at that place,” Cole says. “I just feel so lucky. I’ve had wonderful bosses. I can’t think of a single one that I didn’t like. We had smart people from all over the nation surrounding us.”

Charlyn Snow retired 10 years ago after working at the hospital for more than 30 years. “You don’t stay that long if you don’t like it,” she says with a laugh. “I know lots of people who were there for a very, very long time. People were always really close. Good friends, comrades, working as a team, meeting for dinner in the cafeteria … we call it the Northwest family.”

Dr. Diaz-Esquivel agrees: “There has always been an emphasis on compassion. An emphasis on patient care. An emphasis on [providing] all patients with the best care, and the best staff, who do everything possible to serve the citizens of the Panhandle of Texas.”  

Author

  • Jonathan Baker

    Jonathan’s work has appeared in The Daily Beast, and he has been featured on The Other Stories podcast. Originally from Canyon, Texas, he now lives on the coast of Maine, where he writes crime novels set on the High Plains.