Alcoholics Find Hope At Hospital

Pilgrims and patients mingle at Ignatia Hall

By John Higgins, Beacon Journal staff writer

From 7 a.m. Saturday, alcoholics walked through the front doors of Akron's St. Thomas Hospital, rode the C elevators to the fifth floor and were greeted with coffee, vegetable platters and a hearty welcome.

Much has changed since the 1930s when Sister Ignatia had to sneak drunks into the hospital and hide them in the spare rooms where nurses sometimes put corpses heading to the morgue.

This weekend the hospital's Ignatia Hall Acute Alcohol and Drug Treatment Center expects more than 3,000 visitors in town for the annual Alcoholics Anonymous Founders Day pilgrimage.

All day Saturday, the elevators opened for travelers from as far away as England. Leather-clad biker couples mingled with actual patients in the center, who ventured from their rooms clad in bedclothes and blankets once the crowd died down a bit.

Some patients found refuge from the excitement in the glassed-in smoking room, but others spoke with recovering alcoholics who measured their sobriety in years rather than hours. Volunteer Walter B. has known both sides in his 39 years.

"I'm not much anonymous. Everybody knew me when I was drunk,'' he said. "I've been in detox here four times.''

But on Saturday, he was selling Sister Ignatia T-shirts, tote bags and hats and giving away buttons. Business had been steady all day.

"They want to look around. They just want to experience what they've read about,'' he said.

Some have read Akron resident Mary C. Darrah's book Sister Ignatia: "Angel of Alcoholics Anonymous," now in its second edition. She was signing copies yesterday.

"I knew Sister Ignatia as a child. I always wondered why nobody had written a book about her,'' she said.

The story of how the Ireland-born nun, formerly called Della Gavin, helped change the consciousness of a society began with a creative interpretation of the Akron hospital's admissions policy.

Alcoholism was considered a moral failure, not a disease. But Akron police knew Sister Ignatia, the hospital's admitting clerk, had a soft spot for alcoholics and would bring them to the hospital's emergency room, Darrah said.

Sister Ignatia and an emergency room intern, Dr. Thomas Scuderi, a Sicilian immigrant, began secretly helping alcoholics get sober at the hospital in 1934.

She knew a bed would fit in the small spare rooms where nurses arranged patients' flowers, because sometimes corpses had to be hidden there until they could be wheeled down to the morgue.

She would wait until the nurses' shift change and take advantage of the momentary confusion to move her alcoholics from spare bed to spare bed without detection, Darrah said.

However, Sister Ignatia believed that her alcoholic patients deserved to enter the hospital through the front door like anyone else suffering illness.

So did AA founder Dr. Bob Smith.

On August 16, 1939, they admitted their first alcoholism patient, making St. Thomas the first hospital in the world to acknowledge alcoholism as a medical condition.

Ignatia Hall doesn't draw the same crowd as Dr. Bob's house or grave, but pilgrims still feel awe standing on the fifth floor.

This was the 15th year Gloria B., a 54-year-old Columbus woman, has visited Akron for Founders Day, but the first time she saw Ignatia Hall. She works in a hospital in Columbus and will be sober for 16 years in October.

She wondered what it would have been like for people with her illness in the 1930s who had to be sneaked into the hospital. But this time, she came in the front door and a helpful employee pointed her to the correct elevator.

"It gives you kind of an eerie feeling,'' she said. "We were recognized as important people and ushered around."

The Beacon Journal  June 8, 2003

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