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San Francisco's historic Chinese Hospital celebrates 125 years of service

San Francisco's historic Chinese Hospital turns 125
San Francisco's historic Chinese Hospital turns 125 05:05

This week, San Francisco's historic Chinese Hospital celebrated a historic anniversary: 125 years of serving the community.

It's a milestone CEO Jian Zhang says is almost too monumental to fully grasp.

"To me, Chinese Hospital is not just a hospital, it's very much so part of our history," said Zhang.

The hospital was first built back in 1899.At the time those in the Chinese community were turned away from other hospitals.

"So that's why this hospital was built back then. It was called the Tung Wah Dispensary. Right after it was built, bubonic plague hit San Francisco," said Zhang.

Zhang explained how the Chinese were blamed for the spread of bubonic plague. The government went so far as to build walls around San Francisco Chinatown, trapping the community inside. As such, Chinese Hospital was the only place they could get treatment.

"Chinese Hospital took care of the sick patients, did the public health work, and prevented a huge outbreak," said Zhang.

Sadly, just a few years later, the original hospital was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. But the community wouldn't let that be the last of it.

"The community at that time got together, did fundraising, and built a real hospital," said Zhang.

The new hospital opened in 1925. Newspaper clippings from the time called it the first of its kind in the country. For the next 90 years, it served the community faithfully. 

"When I talk about Chinese Hospital, there's someone in the audience that says, 'Oh, I was born at Chinese Hospital,' or 'My dad was born at Chinese Hospital,'" said Zhang.

Even celebrities have been born at the hospital, most notably Bruce Lee, whose birth is commemorated by a plaque in the lobby. 

"He was born here November 27th, 1940," said Zhang.

As the years have gone by, the hospital has only grown. In 2012, the 1925 building was demolished to make way for a brand new, state of the art building. That facility opened its doors in 2016.

"You can see the Bay Bridge, the Bank of America building, and you can see the Coit Tower," said Zhang.

The new tower was ground zero for treating patients during the COVID pandemic, a time where the community sadly saw themselves again blamed for the spread of disease. This time, however, the hospital had the resources and support to help everyone in the community.

"Provide education, testing, contact tracing, quarantine linkage of care and a lot of vaccinations," said Zhang.

But even with all of these successes, Zhang says keeping the hospital going this long hasn't been easy.

"At Chinese Hospital we are serving more than 80 percent of Medicare and Medi-Cal patients," said Zhang.

Zhang says since the pandemic the cost of labor, supplies and pharmaceuticals has only increase while the payout from Medicaid and Medi-Cal has stayed stagnant.

"To put it in a simple way, like every dollar we spend, we only collect 75 cents," said Zhang.

That means the hospital relies significantly on state and private funding. One person who has been critical in securing some of that funding is State Assemblymember Phil Ting.

"The first $5 million helped with some of the upgrades that needed to happen. It was like HVAC, it was sinks, a lot of just nuts and bolts upgrading," said Assemb. Ting.

Assemblymember Ting secured another $5 million dollars that will go towards building a 23-bed sub-acute unit in the hospital.

"Right now, I believe the only sub-acute beds that were in San Francisco were at St. Luke's. Those have now, I think they have been shut down or are in the process of being shut down and so right now without Chinese Hospital there are no sub-acute beds in San Francisco at a hospital," said Ting.

It's investments like this, Zhang said, will help the hospital continue to care for patients long into the future.

"It's really important to the community and so we need to do whatever we can to make sure the hospital survive and thrive," said Zhang.

It's a journey she knows won't always be easy, but one Zhang says she, the hospital and the community are up for.

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