In 1938, when Permanente founding physician Sidney Garfield recruited surgeon Cecil Cutting to join him at Grand Coulee Dam, Dr. Cutting persuaded nurse anesthetist Geraldine “Jerry” Searcy to come along.
Cutting had confidence in Searcy, having worked with her at San Francisco General Hospital after he completed his medical training at Stanford University in the mid-1930s. He knew she would be an asset to the medical care program set up for Henry Kaiser’s 5,000 construction workers.
Searcy remained with the program from 1938, through the Second World War, until her retirement from the Oakland Medical Center 34 years later. Jerry Searcy told me an anecdote about a personal experience that reflected Dr. Garfield’s managerial style. She liked the story because it helped her to explain why the medical staff was so fond of him.
Her story begins one evening in the Permanente Foundation Hospital in Oakland during the War. The normally busy hospital was unusually quiet that night with little for the staff to do. On that slow night, head physician Garfield just happened to drop by the ward where Searcy was working. His unexpected visit found the staff taking advantage of the quiet by playing a spirited game of poker.
For poker chips, the crew was using pink and white aspirin tablets they’d taken from the supply cupboard. Searcy recalled that Garfield was upset because this misuse of medication was a waste of hospital supplies. He asked them to stop and of course they did — immediately.
The next day the poker players waited somewhat anxiously to see what additional disciplinary measures they might have to face. Garfield surprised them, though. Instead of criticizing them further or meting out some sort of punishment, he donated a set of real poker chips to the hospital.
“From then on,” Searcy remembered: “staff members on call could play poker without disturbing hospital supplies.”
Searcy, who died in 1993, was quoted in a February 1985 KP Reporter edition honoring Dr. Garfield following his death:
“I remember Sid as a very friendly, humble man, not at all bossy, although he did believe in hard work and discipline. Nothing was beneath him, nor beyond him. Once at Grand Coulee, Sid was walking around the hospital without his white coat, looking very youthful with his bright red hair and casual clothes.
“A patient saw him and shouted, ‘Boy! Would you take care of this?’ pointing to his bedpan. Sid wasn’t at all offended. He laughed and emptied the bedpan. Of course the patient had no idea who Sid was,” she said. She continued: “Dr. Garfield liked to sing ‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy’ while performing surgery at Grand Coulee.
“To me Sid was a colleague and a friend. He must have been a leader, though he never waved a flag or beat a drum.”