The heartbeat of Reading Hospital first commanded the attention of Dr. Robert Brigham in 1989.
The physician, who worked at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., was getting ready to retire from the military when he consulted with a former colleague, Dr. Robert Muir.
Muir, chief of surgery at what was then The Reading Hospital and Medical Center, discussed the possibility of Brigham joining Reading as a vascular surgeon.
Brigham came north, and nearly 30 years later as chair of the Reading Hospital Department of Surgery, he has seen the hospital grow dramatically and become not only a cherished community asset but one that also drives the region’s economy. An institution that in January turned 150 years old.
“For 150 years, the Reading Hospital/Tower Health have been the centerpiece for health care in the Greater Reading and Berks County region,” said Christian Y. Leinbach, chairman of the Berks County Commissioners. “With nearly 7,000 employees, they are the second largest employer in Berks County and a major part of health care employment, the second largest industry in the county.”
Reading Hospital, now a part of Tower Health, turns 150 amid a period of rapid growth, potentially dramatic change in health care delivery and a technological revolution likely already underway in the industry. But the hospital appears well positioned to continue to fulfill its mission of promoting health and providing effective health care for the community.
“Based on a commitment to high quality and safe patient care, we were able to put the building blocks in place to advance and expand the level of care and to improve access to care throughout the Berks region,” said Clint Matthews, president and CEO of Tower Health, parent company of Reading Hospital.
About 120 years before Brigham signed on, the hospital had its humble start on Jan. 27, 1868, under the Reading Medical Association, as the Reading Dispensary at 618 Court St. Inpatient housing needs meant the dispensary needed more space.
Enough money was raised to buy a lot and build a hospital at Front and Spring streets, then a northwest outpost of the city. It opened in June 1886, five years later adding a women’s ward and a wing for private rooms.
As Berks’ urbanized population grew through the turn of the century and beyond, so did the need to enlarge the hospital. With homes built around the parameter, the hospital had to look elsewhere.
Local entrepreneurs and philanthropists Ferdinand Thun and Henry K. Janssen, German immigrants who founded the West Reading-based Textile Machine Works and their fortunes with it, and would spearhead the development of Wyomissing, put their money behind a new structure.
On Oct. 2, 1926, the same year both men turned 60, the new $3-million facility was dedicated fronting Seventh Avenue in West Reading. That $3 million is the equivalent of $41.78 million in today’s dollars.
Twenty years later, to mark their 80th birthdays, the duo donated another $1 million to the hospital for expansion.
While the names Thun and Janssen live on in a hospital auditorium as well as other area buildings, it’s likely the duo, should they magically reappear on scene, would recognize little beyond the golden tower atop the main hospital building they largely funded in 1926.
Today, Reading Hospital, now a member hospital of Tower Health (yes, namesake of and symbolized by the original tower), has 46 locations in Berks and beyond.
Its main campus nearly encompasses the southwestern tier of West Reading.
The hospital and its satellites offer a variety of specialized services, from the McGlinn Cancer Institute, Miller Regional Heart Center, Reading HealthPlex for Advanced Surgical and Patient Care, Beginnings Maternity Center, Berks County’s sole Level 3 neonatal intensive care unit and a Level 2 trauma center.
And there is a teaching component – the School of Health Sciences just a block or so from the hospital campus on Old Wyomissing Road in Reading.
The $354-million HealthPlex, which opened in 2016 on campus, is 476,000 square feet and has seven patient-care floors, combines many surgical services and adds surgical suites and private patient rooms. It has an eco-friendly green roof, and, if needed, room for the emergency department and trauma center to be expanded by 17,500 square feet.
“Being directly involved in the planning and design of Reading HealthPlex was a highlight for me,” Brigham said. “Prior to the opening of the new building, our operating room space was spread over multiple buildings, and individuals had to walk farther distances for supplies.”
Brigham has seen staffing ranks skyrocket, and he said a sense of camaraderie continues to thrive, one enhanced by the many staff members involved in the development and opening of the HealthPlex.
“Medicine has become more complex over the years, but efforts are continuously being made to enhance collaboration among members of the medical staff, as well as improving engagement among our team members,” Brigham said.
Matthews stressed the importance of a strong team.
“Over the past several years, we have worked diligently to elevate the significance of Reading Hospital in the Berks County region,” he said. “We’ve done this by recruiting nationally recognized specialists in areas of identified need in our community, such as cardiology and cardiac surgery, neurosciences, oncology and many others.”
Reading Hospital will remain the heart of the Tower six-member system, said Matthews, who joined the then Reading Health System in May 2010. Reading Health System became Tower Health last Oct. 1 when it acquired five other hospitals in southeastern Pennsylvania.
“As the flagship hospital of Tower Health, Reading Hospital will remain a leader in technology, clinical expertise and tertiary and quaternary care for the region,” he said. “We will continue our commitment to our community in health and wellness with community health programs like Street Medicine and the MindKare online behavioral health screenings and kiosk.”
DRIVING THE ECONOMY
Local government and business leaders say Reading Hospital long has been a symbol of healthy economic development.
“Reading Hospital, now Tower Health, literally created a regional health system in 2017,” said Randy Peers, Randy Peers, president and CEO of the Greater Reading Chamber Alliance. “… These [hospital] acquisitions, coupled with the success of the recently completed HealthPlex facility … make Tower Health one of the most compelling economic development stories for the Greater Reading area.”
The hospitals that Tower Health acquired in October are Pottstown Memorial Medical Center; Brandywine Hospital in Coatesville; Phoenixville Memorial Medical Center; Jennersville Regional Hospital in West Grove; and Chestnut Hill Hospital in Philadelphia.
“We are now headquarters for a major regional health system with over $1.5 billion in revenue and employing over 11,000 professionals,” Peers said.
HELPING LOCAL BUSINESSES
The impact of Reading Hospital hits close to home for Nicholas F. Imbesi, president of West Reading Borough Council, who lives a block from the hospital.
He credits the number of professionals attached to the hospital, especially doctors and nurses, living in West Reading with helping to grow the borough’s economy. In particular, he cites their patronage of eateries, small specialty shops and galleries.
Though the hospital organization is a nonprofit and not required to pay taxes, Reading Hospital last year contributed a so-called payment in lieu of taxes to West Reading of $610,000.
“That money goes into the general fund to use for all types of borough projects,” Imbesi said.
Like Matthews, who said the organization has “maximized the footprint for clinical care structures on our West Reading campus,” Imbesi noted both the hospital and borough are mostly landlocked when it comes to expansion.
“When you look at how the hospital has grown and how the borough has grown and developed, it seems to have occurred in tandem,” Imbesi said.
“Today, I’d say West Reading and the hospital development is at its peak. There are no more open spaces.”