Trading firewood for deliveries: OB-GYN remembers health care in small-town Bend

Marlis Beier moved to Bend in 1983 and provided women’s health services, including delivering babies at St. Charles Bend, as an obstetrician and gynecologist for nearly two decades.

Having completed her medical training in inner-city Detroit, Beier said that at the time, “there wasn’t much I hadn’t seen or done.” So arriving in Bend, a sleepy mill-town with a population of fewer than 20,000, was a culture shock.

Indeed, bartering for health care services seems like a practice that went out of style long before the 1980s. Not in Bend, she said.

“When I first came to Bend it was a much smaller community,” she said. “As physicians and clinicians, we just took care of everybody. We didn’t ask how much money or insurance they had.”

On several occasions Beier received non-monetary forms of payment for her services, including a hand-woven embroidery for a hysterectomy, and eggs and firewood for delivering a baby.

One winter morning she was due to perform a scheduled Caesarean section on a patient at the hospital, but awoke to a fresh dumping of snow.

“That morning, our entire driveway was plowed by (the patient’s) husband,” she said. “He wanted to make sure I was there on time for his baby.”

Beier holds the distinction of performing the first-ever C-section on what was then the labor and delivery floor, the hospital’s fifth floor. Back then, she said, C-sections and anaesthesia took place on different floors.

She recalls a case in which a child inside its mother’s womb was barely clinging to life, and there were only minutes to act.

“There wasn’t enough time to get downstairs to perform the C-section or to get to anesthesia. So I did the first C-section ever done upstairs with a circumcision set and local anesthesia.”

She said she often sees this baby, now a grown man, around town. After Beier’s life-saving decision, she said C-sections were moved to the same floor as labor and delivery.

Beier, a founding physician of the still-thriving East Cascade Women’s Group, describes her career in women’s health as the “love of my life.”

“It’s such an honor to be part of people’s lives at such an intimate time.”

St. Charles chaplain witnessed the extraordinary happen every day

For years, Bill Danaher has provided spiritual care for patients and their families during their time at St. Charles.

As one of the health system’s long-time chaplains, Danaher said he has witnessed extraordinary acts of lifegiving by St. Charles caregivers every day, most of which went largely unnoticed.

“And they would look at it like another ordinary day,” he said. “There is tremendous need, and tremendous people working here to help meet those needs.”

St. Charles’ commitment to compassionate care, he said, is deeply rooted in its humble beginnings. The hospital was founded in 1918 on the banks of the Deschutes River by five Catholic nuns who made it their mission to care for all, or care for none.

As the hospital and the community grew, the torch for compassionate care was passed to Sister Catherine Hellmann, possibly the most well-known and storied figure in St. Charles’ history.

Hellmann first arrived in Bend in 1948, and served as the hospital’s nursing supervisor for three years. After attending management school at the encouragement of her mother superior, Hellmann then returned to serve as CEO from 1969 to 1995. Hellmann was instrumental in the decision to move the hospital in the early 1970s from its cramped downtown location to it current location in east Bend.

Danaher recalls a light-hearted story that Hellmann shared with him regarding the old hospital’s fire escape plan.

“The plan was to use plywood boards and take a mattress with a patient on it, and slide them out of the hospital if it was on fire.”

One winter, when the boards were covered in snow and ice, Hellmann and another nurse decided to go for a joyride — using a bedpan to slide down the board. The fun ended quickly, says Danaher, when the nurse broke her arm.

Danaher compares the staff who worked at St. Charles during the Hellmann era to jet fighters. “They were just flying fast and low. They were here all weekend and late at night.”

Danaher said one evening Hellmann approached a staff member working late, typing away in the dark by herself.

“Sister Catherine asked: ‘What is it you can’t let go of? What are you missing in your life that you can’t live life? You better have a life outside of here, or you’ll have nothing to bring in here.’”

“Sister Catherine,” Danaher said, “was the epitome of the spirit that the founding nuns brought to this hospital — a spirit that continues today with so many people who work here, and will continue to work here long after I’m gone.”