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From contentious beginnings to a community pillar: CHEO celebrates 50 years of care

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It has been 50 years to the day since the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario first opened its doors.

CHEO is a major institution in the nation's capital, serving children and their families not only from eastern Ontario but also from northern Ontario, western Quebec and Nunavut. Over the last half century, it has grown into a major research institute, and it offers a full spectrum of care beyond emergency medicine, including schooling, autism services, mental health treatments, rehabilitation services, palliative care and training for health professionals. It now helps more than half a million children every year.

The Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario on Jan. 30, 1974. CHEO first opened its doors to patients May 17, 1974. (CHEO/supplied)

The hospital opened on May 17, 1974, treating patients through outpatient clinics. The first patient was hospitalized at CHEO on July 22, 1974. Over the course of that year, CHEO would expand with an emergency department and other facilities. It had three patient floors, 301 inpatient beds, eight operating rooms, a 10-bed PICU, and a a 20-bed NICU. Patients were accepted up to age 16. Today, patients as old as 18 are admitted to CHEO.

Countless community members pushed hard for the provincial government to establish a bilingual children's hospital in Ottawa. The Ontario government approved in principle the construction of CHEO in 1966, at an estimated cost of $10 million, which would be more than $92 million today. Since that time, CHEO has grown thanks to ongoing help from volunteers and community fundraising.

A conceptual drawing of the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario, dated 1967, (CHEO/supplied)

President and CEO Alex Munter said it was a contentious issue at the time.

"The mayor was opposed, the other hospitals were opposed, the medical establishment was opposed," he told CTV News Ottawa's Graham Richardson. "In retrospect, they seem so wrong."

The local government, local health-care organizations and the University of Ottawa endorsed CHEO's establishment in 1969, three years after the first in principle approval for construction of the hospital. 

Mothers, grandmothers, pediatricians and others rallied the community to get provincial approval for the hospital, which is now woven completely into the fabric of the city. 

The Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario under construction in 1972. (CHEO/supplied)

"The moral of the story over 50 years is we are here because there was community support," said Munter. "I think our elected officials understand the importance of this institution to the community. They understand that people care about their kids and grandkids and want the best for them and part of having the best for them includes CHEO. I think our elected officials understand that now; maybe they didn't 50 years ago."

The hospital grew over the years, adding pediatric neurosurgery, dental, a sports injury clinic and a neonatal transport team, among many other advancements.

A neonatal unit at CHEO is pictured in this undated image. (CHEO/supplied)

A glimpse at some of the CHEO milestones since 1974:

  • 1975: CHEO opens pediatric neurosurgery program.
  • 1977: CHEO opens Dental Clinic.
  • 1980: CHEO opens 1st pediatric burn treatment centre in eastern Ontario.
  • 1981: CHEO opens centre for sports injury clinic, pulmonary function lab and poison information.
  • 1984: CHEO launches CHEO Research Institute.
  • 1988: First 2 bone marrow transplants in Canada using unrelated HLA compatible donors performed at CHEO.
  • 1989: CHEO launches its Neonatal Transport Team.
  • 1994: CHEO becomes 1st Canadian hospital to adopt Epic for admissions and scheduling.
  • 1996: CHEO starts YouthNet, a mental health promotion program for youth.
  • 1998: CHEO begins providing care to patients from Baffin Island.
  • 2001: CHEO establishes Telehealth program.
  • 2003: CHEO opens doors to Max Keeping wing.
  • 2006: CHEO takes over the Ontario Newborn Screening Program.
  • 2006: CHEO makes new cauterization lab available.
  • 2006: Roger’s House (now Roger Neilson Children’s Hospice) officially opens on campus (partnership of CHEO, CHEO Foundation and Ottawa Senators Foundation).
  • 2009: CHEO opens 86,000-square-foot critical care wing named after Garry Cardiff.
  • 2014: CHEO launches Child and Youth Protection Clinic with Children’s Aid Society.
  • 2016: CHEO joins forces with OCTC, which already operated at main campus.
  • 2019: Ontario government announces Kids Come First initiative; CHEO is co-leader.
  • 2019: CHEO launches new Aakuluk Clinic to optimize medical care for Inuit families.
  • 2020: CHEO becomes Canada’s 1st pediatric hospital to offer virtual Emergency Department during COVID-19 pandemic.
  • 2021: CHEO becomes host to 1st pediatric palliative care residency program in Canada.
  • 2022: Kids Come First (CHEO is a partner) launches 1Call1Click to break down mental health barriers and tackle wait times.
  • 2023: CHEO shares renderings of 1Door4Care, new integrated treatment centre.
  • 2024: Forbes names CHEO best health-care employer in Canada 

Everyone who has passed through CHEO's doors has a story, from children who spent formative years at the hospital to workers whose lives were transformed by their experiences. Even celebrities have had their impact on the hospital.

Early in its life, just a year after opening, a patient named Sandra was staying at CHEO, and was disappointed that she could not see Donny Osmond as he performed at the Ex that summer. The young heartthrob, just 18 at the time, called Sandra, spoke with her on the phone for more than half an hour, and sent her an autographed picture.

Marie Osmond also stopped by at one point, and posed for a photo with nurses.

Marie Osmond poses for a picture with two CHEO nurses in this undated photo. (CHEO/supplied)

But it's the every day people who made the CHEO experience so special.

Mari Teitelbaum is CHEO's chief information officer today, but years ago, she was spending weekend afternoons sitting in the x-ray department while her mom was on-call as a CHEO radiologist. An accident with her fingers turned her into a patient and, to this day, she remembers the kindness of Dr. James Wiley, who provided follow-up care. Working as CIO, her story came full circle when helped save a young boy's fingers.

"She received a phone call asking for approval for $5,000 of medical-grade leeches to support blood flow and try to save this young patient’s fingers. It wasn’t until the third call that she realized it wasn’t a prank and that in a strange full circle moment, she had gone from patient to fixer," a story on CHEO's website explains.

Teitelbaum's daughter would later work as a screener at CHEO – three generations of women under one roof.

This story is just one of many CHEO is celebrating as it marks a half-century of care in the community.

CTV News Ottawa would like to hear your stories, too. If you have photos of working, staying, or volunteering at CHEO, from its earliest days to today, email ottawaphotos@ctv.ca. We will include as many of your stories as we can on this year's CHEO Telethon, June 8.

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