Seeley Swan Pathfinder -

Seeley-Swan Medical Center 45 Year Anniversary Celebration

Part 1 of 2


Donna Love

The Seeley-Swan Medical Center following the 2015 expansion.

The Seeley-Swan Medical Center Foundation and the Seeley-Swan Hospital District Boards would like to invite the community to an open house at the Medical Center Thursday, June 30 at 6 p.m. to celebrate 45 years of the Seeley-Swan Medical Center.

The 45-Year Anniversary is the perfect time to celebrate the community owned clinic. It is also a perfect time to review how the medical center came to belong to the community and how it grew.

An Ounce of Prevention - The First Thirty Years of the Seeley-Swan Medical Center

"Many new people [in the Seeley Lake area] do not realize that they pay taxes [to support the Seeley-Swan Medical Center] and elect the board and that the building and land belong to them," Mary Ann Morin, Hospital District Board Member, said. 

Here's how this came to be.

In the early days of settlement in the valley, home remedies were the norm for fur trappers, loggers and settlers. If patients needed to see a doctor they had to take a long tedious ride by horse and buggy and later by car, over gravel roads to Missoula.

By the 1940s, folks could call for a Missoula ambulance but most homes didn't have phone service yet.

In the 1950s, Highway 83 was paved. That helped. Then CB and Helen Rich moved to the valley. Helen was a nurse. CB and Helen began driving patients to Missoula in their station wagon.

In the 1960s, phone service reached most homes and a volunteer fire department, which also provided ambulance service, was created. The first ambulance was a 1959 Cadillac hearse. It didn't do much for patient morale but it served the community well for about ten years, but the community wouldn't stop growing.

In 1970, Seeley Lake had 800 residents, Swan Valley, 300 and Ovando, 120. A retired doctor, Dr. Lewis (Doc) Dombe moved to the area and realized a doctor was needed. He knew how to ask the state for help.

At a community meeting with state officials March 20, 1970 at the Seeley Lake Elementary School, the state said they couldn't provide a doctor but they could help provide a community nurse practitioner. That same night, concerned residents formed the S.O.S. (Seeley/Ovando/Swan) Health Committee.

Shortly thereafter in about 1971, Nurse Practitioner Wilma Nicholson was hired and worked twenty-seven years in the valley. At first, the state paid her wages. The community paid for her rented office in a cabin by what was then the Wapiti Lodge (Montana Pines) by charging $2.50 per office visit and $4.00 a home visit. This situation worked well but a new larger facility was soon needed.

In 1974, the community decided to tax themselves a three mill levy to pay for a new medical clinic to be built on donated land near the Catholic Church. Then the first doctor was hired. Finally the valley had a medical clinic facility and a doctor and a nurse.

In the early 1980s, medical helicopter services became available from both Kalispell and Missoula.

Twenty years passed. In 1997, the S.O.S. Hospital District Board learned that they had to upgrade the long used medical center to meet the new "Americans with Disabilities Act." The clinic was also struggling financially. It cost just about as much to upgrade the old facility near the Catholic Church as it did to build a new modern one, so the Seeley-Swan Hospital District and Seeley-Swan Medical Center Foundation Boards decided to build a new facility. Rather than go to the tax payers, which were still paying the three mill levy assessed in 1974 to support the clinic, they stepped out in faith and asked the community and other health conscious organizations for funding. The new facility, built without a tax increase above the already standing levy, opened for business in December of 2000.

Like the first facility, the Medical Center along Highway 83 is still owned by the community and overseen by the Seeley-Swan Hospital District Board. The Seeley-Swan Medical Center Foundation raises funds to support medical services. Health care providers, which come from outside the valley, hire the medical staff and handled all matters related to patient services, including care, billing and administration.

The S.O.S. Health Center's first nurse Elsie Toavs and Anita Richards at the first health center.

The first health care provider in the new medical center at its current location was Northern Rockies Medical Services, a subsidiary of St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula. Over time this changed to Caron Corporation, and then back to parent St. Patrick and Providence Health Services. On Jan. 1, 2014 Partnership Health Center became the new health care provider. But no matter who the health care provider is, the clinic has always belonged to the community.

Next week we'll take a look what changes occurred during the past fifteen years of the clinic. In the meantime, please put the date on your calendar and plan to come help your Seeley-Swan Medical Center celebrate its 45 Year Anniversary at a Community Open House at the clinic on Thursday, June 30, at 6:00 p.m. Enjoy refreshments, tour the clinic, and meet the board.


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