When Emily Eubanks was diagnosed with stage II triple-positive breast cancer in April 2015 at Grady Memorial Hospital – after her first mammogram at 40 years old, she thought she could possibly die because she didn’t have the money for treatment.
“I told Dr. Gabram that I didn’t have the money for medication and chemotherapy,” says Eubanks, who was then self-employed and not making a lot of money. “She was so calm. She held my hands and said, ‘Don’t worry about that. We will take care of that.’ But I thought she’s a surgeon. She has money. Her telling me everything would be okay wasn’t comforting, at first.”
In addition to meeting with a team of oncology doctors to outline her treatment the day she was diagnosed, she also met with a Grady social worker, Makeeta Rayton, who told her she qualified for Women’s Health Medicaid which enables women who have been diagnosed with breast and cervical cancer but without health insurance to receive treatment for free.
“A whole bunch of bricks were lifted off of me. I didn’t have to pay for anything, not even one co-pay,” says Eubanks, who completed treatment last year.
Eubanks’ medical treatment regardless of her income was what then Atlanta Mayor John Thomas Glen had in mind when he “outlined a resolution for the City of Atlanta to build a public hospital to give expert and sympathetic medical care to those in the city who might need care and be unable to afford it,” before the Atlanta City Council on January 4, 1890, according to a National Register of Historic Places inventory nomination form for Grady. Grady, which officially opened on June 2, 1892, was named after Atlanta Constitution managing editor Henry Woodfin Grady, who died in 1889. A “New South” advocate, he “had long wanted a facility that would be free from all sectarian and denominational influences and prejudices.”
This June, Grady will celebrate its 125th anniversary. The public hospital which began with 100 beds and 18 employees, now boasts 623 beds and a staff of 5,742 people. Medicaid and Medicare patients comprise 28 percent and 24 percent of Grady patients, respectively. Throughout the course of its history, Grady has achieved many milestones. In 1921, a Grady physician performed Georgia’s first open heart surgery. Two years later, its Steiner Clinic, the world’s first and largest comprehensive cancer center, was created. In the 1940s, one of the world’s three cardiac catheterization labs – at that time – opened at Grady. In 2003, the Georgia Cancer Center for Excellence at Grady Health System opened. The center was the first to open as part of the Georgia Cancer Coalition’s plan to build a “statewide network of people and organizations devoted to providing all Georgians equal access to exceptional treatment.”
However, for all its progress, the hospital’s history also reflects the times in which it flourished. While Grady endeavored to treat all patients since its inception, the hospital was also racially segregated from its start. A property in the National Register of Historic Places, Grady’s original location was at 36 Butler Street, now the site of its human resources department and is referred to as Georgia Hall. Grady went through a series of changes until its final location at 80 Jesse Hill Jr. Drive was built in 1957. Constructed in an “H” formation, the A and B wings that face downtown Atlanta were reserved for white patients. Facing the “Grady Curve,” and the back side of the hospital comprised of the C and D wings, was reserved for black patients. A hallway in the center – the crossbar in the “H” – was used by physicians to travel to the different wings of the hospital to treat their patients. Separate facilities for black and white patients at Grady resulted in the moniker “The Gradys,” used by people in the heyday of segregation.
Frank Wilson, then Grady’s superintendent, said he would die before the hospital was integrated, according to Dr. Jordan Messler, formerly an assistant professor at Emory University School of Medicine, which provides all the physicians at the hospital along with Morehouse School of Medicine. Messler gave a presentation about the history of Grady at Emory University School of Medicine in 2015, when the school celebrated its 100-year-partnership with the hospital. “And he did die a year before Grady was integrated. He died in 1964. Grady was finally integrated on June 2, 1965.”
Grady also faced other historical challenges. As a public hospital caring for poor patients, finances always tended to be strained; but in 2007, Grady faced shutting down. According to Mike King, a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution veteran journalist who wrote a series of “Saving Grady” columns during that period, the hospital owed more than $60 million to Emory and Morehouse, and Grady staff members feared not being paid.
“When Medicare came around in 1965, a lot of local public officials who had been supporting Grady over the years for taxes began to assume wrongly that well, they’ve got Medicare, they don’t need as much money as they used to when in fact, they still did so the amount of money Grady received began to diminish,” said King, who recently penned the book “A Spirit of Charity: Restoring the Bond between America and Its Public Hospitals.” However, the hospital was saved as the hospital’s governance was restructured, transferring leadership from the Fulton-DeKalb Hospital Authority to a non-profit governing board, Grady Memorial Hospital Corporation.
Despite the precarious financial predicament that public hospitals often face, Rhonda A. Scott, Grady’s chief operating officer, remains optimistic about its future. “Where we were in 2008 being an institution almost on life support and fast forward to being an institution that is very strong, I have no doubt in my mind that Grady will be here for another 125 years and beyond that.”