Rancho Santa Fe resident details Scripps Health’s history with new book

By Kathy Day

Who better to write a book about the history of Scripps Health as it has touched San Diego than a woman who says she “grew up” at Scripps?

And what better title than “Good Company” to reflect the quality of the people who have helped put the organization on Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list five times, said Chris Van Gorder, CEO of the health system that stretches from North County to South County.

“Our history and legacy is very important,” he said last week. “We are the oldest healthcare organization in San Diego, founded by two very generous women — Mother Mary Michael Cummings and Ellen Browning Scripps. I didn’t want to see it lost.”

And he also wanted a history book that is about people “because our strength is our people.”

So he turned to Rancho Santa Fe resident Sarita Eastman, M.D., a former pediatrician whose mother Anita Figuerdo was San Diego’s first female surgeon and whose father was a pediatrician.

“I’ve occupied nearly every role,” she said, sitting in her home office with a shelf above her computer lined with neatly organized binders for each of the Scripps hospitals and books about each of the communities where they are located.

The second of nine children and the oldest girl, she was 2 when the family moved to a home on La Jolla’s Coast Walk between the original Scripps Hospital and Metabolic Clinic and the ocean.

“As an adolescent I went in the operating room with my mom and did neonatal rounds with my dad,” she recalled.

During summer vacations, she worked as a research assistant at Scripps Clinic. And after graduating from medical school at the University of California San Francisco, she returned to work at Scripps Hospital.

When she married, it was to a member of the Scripps Health family — Brent Eastman, M.D., who is the organization’s chief medical officer and corporate senior vice president. He is a general, vascular and trauma surgeon who is renowned for his work in trauma and emergency surgical care.

Eastman, who took 20 years writing a book published in 2009 about her mother, spent the last 20 months researching and writing this book that just arrived at her house on May 1 – four days before its unveiling on May 5 at the Scripps Legacy Celebration. Hers is a paperback, but guests at the event were to receive leather-bound copies.

Eastman said Van Gorder gave her the liberty to organize the book any way she wanted to. As it came together, it took the form of vignettes and historical photos reflecting not just the history of the organization but the history of San Diego, as well.

Her work started by seeking out records from Mercy Hospital, founded in 1890 as St. Joseph’s Dispensary. Led by Mother Mary Michael Cummings, the hospital was operated by the Sisters of Mercy and acquired by Scripps Health in 1995.

Scripps Hospital and Scripps Metabolic Clinic were started by Ellen Browning Scripps in 1924.

“I think it’s fascinating that both women set foot in San Diego in 1890, within five months of each other and set the stage for the what the organization is today,” Eastman said.

Among her discoveries at Mercy was a ledger from the hospital’s earliest days that she found in a closed room near the medical archives.

On the big facing pages, it listed the patient’s name, date of admission, physician’s name, diagnosis, treatment and religion – including Catholic and non-Catholic (Protestant Christians), Baptized, Jews, Greek Orthodox and even “pagan, heathen and infidel.”

After a careful analysis she concluded that the information helped Mother Mary Michael show that they took care of all people, Eastman said.

The book touches on such events as the explosion of the USS Bennington in San Diego Harbor in 1905 – that killed 60 and injured  47 — and the role the Sister of Mercy played in caring for the wounded.

The city’s reaction and support during the tragedy was one reason the Navy decided to build a base here, Van Gorder said.

Eastman learned things she didn’t know before – that Ada Gillispie, who founded La Jolla’s Gillispie School, was a nurse who “dogged Ellen Browning Scripps to start Scripps Hospital.”

The book doesn’t shy away from the internal struggles Scripps Health faced in the 1990s when there were five different chief executive officers in five years or when they were working to merge the cultures of Scripps Hospital with the Mercy Hospital facilities in 1995, Eastman said.

She turned often to her husband to get the “back story.” Having been chief medical officer since 1996, he “knew all the nuances and players in the middle of the maelstrom,” she said. “Chris, to his credit, wanted the full and true story. This is not an ad for Scripps Health.”

It even deals with the struggles between Scripps Memorial and Scripps Clinic.

“They were divorced in the ‘40s and remarried three times,” she added.

She describes the book as a “cross section of views of Scripps from all stakeholders – physicians, nurses, administrators, board members, volunteers and some patients.”

She talked to many people around during the mergers and tough times, as well as those who recall the simpler days when Scripps was on Prospect Street in La Jolla. She talked to the founders of Bay General Hospital in Chula Vista, which joined Scripps Memorial in 1986, and to people involved with Scripps Encinitas, which was San Dieguito Hospital until 1978.

And the role of The Scripps Research Institute is a piece of the puzzle, too, since it was part of Scripps Health until the mid ‘90s when it became independent.

Now, she added, Michael Marletta, the new CEO there, said he wants to renew the relationship.

Eastman said she feels fortunate to have been writing the book “at a time of great hope and enthusiasm” for Scripps Health.

She praised Van Gorder for his idea to publish the book.

“It was his wish that if we all knew and shared our history, then we would feel like one organization,” she said.

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