Alameda Hospital Foundation to honor Challen on Saturday
By Ani Dimusheva
One of Alameda’s first woman doctors and a longtime community volunteer will be honored Saturday with the Alameda Hospital Foundation’s 2010 Kate Creedon Award. The award is given for extraordinary contributions to Alameda Hospital and the community.
Alice Challen, who served Alameda as a physician from 1944 until 1975 and was one of the primary movers behind Measure A, will be recognized at the Foundation’s 25th anniversary gala and fundraiser, “All That Jazz–Goes Silver,” which will also include a tribute to the Foundation’s 1985 founding Board of Directors. She will be the fourth person—and the first woman—to receive the honor.
“(She’s an) extraordinary woman who perfectly befits the Kate Creedon personality and the spirit it represents,” the foundation’s executive director, Dennis Eloe, said.
The award is named after the nurse who co-founded Alameda Hospital with her sister in 1897.
If there is a surprise in the choice, it is perhaps that the award was not given earlier. As a doctor, volunteer and activist, Challen’s name is known to generations of Alamedans. She has received numerous recognitions over the years—including being named Alameda’s Citizen of the Year in 1984. The Kate Creedon Award comes as an appreciation for both of her service and her longevity. Challen is 99 years old—and why wait a full century to acknowledge someone great?
As one of a few women doctors of her time, Challen gained respect as a person of extreme dedication and care, a doctor with a little black bag who was also a family friend and advisor, and who would get up in the middle of the night to attend to an accident victim, deal with kidney trouble, or deliver a baby.
Before CT scans, MRIs, and other modern diagnostic tests, Challen relied on her hands to identify an invisible illness. “I would strip my patients and go with my hands from the head to the feet,” Challen said. “I would still do this today. I believe in personal contact.”
This whole-body, personal contact philosophy is evident in everything she does. She concerns herself with the well-being of her city and people in general as much as she does with the health of her patients—an integration of all of one’s values that is certainly different from today’s fragmented involvement.
In addition to being one of the people instrumental to the passage of Measure A (“I would walk to my office, and every day there will be another beautiful Victorian house knocked down to make room for ugly apartments!” she says with passion that is quite fresh) she founded and supported a number of organizations we take for granted. Challen was a founding member of the Alameda Girls’ Club (today’s Girls Inc.), and a charter member of the Soroptomist Club, an organization for the advancement of professional women that originated in Oakland.
She also served as secretary of both the Humane Society and the Historic Alameda High School Foundation, volunteered on the Alameda Welfare Council and for Alameda Meals on Wheels, and was a founding member of the Alameda Hospital Foundation. She is also a lifelong member of Alameda Republican Women.
Born in Buffalo, New York on July 25, 1911 to the family of a food distributor, Challen chose her path at age 12, when she decided, as a result of regular visits to sick friends and neighbors, that she wanted to help people. She went on to graduate form the University at Buffalo, specializing in lung diseases.
Following her own seven-year treatment at a sanatorium for tuberculosis she contracted after school, she moved to Alameda in 1944. She married Dr. Horace LoGrasso, also a lung physician and the sanatorium’s director, whom she had assisted towards the end of her recovery and who later followed her to Alameda.
While women comprise more than half of medical doctors today, that was not the case in the beginning of Challen’s practice. She joined the only other woman doctor at that time, Alice Burke, and the two set up practice for the next 15 years in the front of Burke’s house on Santa Clara Avenue, near Chestnut Street. Following Burke’s retirement, Challen moved to the medical offices built across from Alameda Hospital on Clinton Avenue (a building her husband designed), where she remained until her retirement in 1975.
I spoke with Challen in her spacious, uncluttered Mediterranean stucco home fronting the lagoon, with hand-painted murals and original mahogany woodwork. I was treated to a bright-faced woman with a keen mind and vivid interest in local goings-on; her first request of me was an update on the SunCal situation.
Challen’s home is indeed a testimony to the fact that she is well-loved and appreciated. Plaques and framed certificates adorn two full walls of her bedroom wall, with many more displayed on furniture and stacked inside cabinets. Though not exactly dismissive of the lot, she was more inclined to show me the personal gifts she had received from patients over the years—an inscribed, hand-made clock, painted boxes, small porcelain figurines and more, which clearly held deeper meaning for her.
During our conversation, Challen received a quick phone report on someone’s back trouble, which she took with the concern of a treating doctor even though she isn’t one anymore. She told me calls like that, and visits, are not uncommon. And when we parted, I asked for a hug, half expecting a feeble embrace by a fragile body. Instead she hugged me tight, surprising me with the strength of her grip.
“All That Jazz – Goes Silver” will be held this Saturday, September 11 at the Claremont Country Club, 5295 Broadway Terrace, Oakland. Tickets are $175 each and are available online or by calling 814-4600.
You are the only one in your family to choose the medical profession, and you were a girl. Did your family object when you decided to become a doctor?
No. I told them I was going to be a doctor when I was 12. We were all expected to go to college, and I chose medical school.
There were only seven women and almost 400 men at the medical school you attended in Buffalo. How were you treated?
I was never talked down to. At that time, people had respect for each other. A man would take off his hat when he entered a room, and you got off your feet when an older person walked in. I never felt disrespected.
How did you end up in Alameda from Buffalo?
I came to help the mother of a friend of mine from school (Dr. Becke) who had a practice here and needed help during the war. The climate was good for my health too. And I could not have had the same number of patients in a place where it snows heavily.
What was Alameda like in the 1940s?
It was a small town. I had the Bay at my door, right on the other side of the sea wall, before Utah Construction came and filled it all in. Everybody in town knew each other, and it was perfectly safe, even in the middle of the night.
What was it like to be a woman doctor at the time here?
There were just two of us. People respected us. The men were at the war, so we did the work.
How was medicine different in your time? What has changed for the better or worse?
We didn’t have as many drugs or ways to diagnose. TB drugs were not discovered till the ’50s so many people died. We had X-ray and blood counts, but no scans or MRIs. We had to rely on hands-on diagnostics. On the other hand, doctors today can’t afford to be personally involved any more. If you have an emergency, you go to the emergency room where somebody other than your personal doctor treats you.
What was the hardest part of your job?
When someone died. Patients become friends. When you see them suffering and you can’t help anymore, it’s hard. When a child is born with an abnormality, you just can’t be hard-faced about it.
About your volunteer work-how do you decide what to get involved in?
I see what needs to be done. I only get involved in organizations that have a project, or a purpose. Something that is productive and helps other people.
You helped pass Measure A in 1973. What made the campaign so successful?
It was grassroots. We went door to door with (former mayor) Chuck Corica. He was a square shooter, a true man of the city. We cared, and people trusted us.
Do you have a principle you live by?
Of course. Do unto others as you want them to do unto you. Always be kind. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes.
You have lived through several wars and a number of other political events. Is there one that has influenced your life the most?
The Depression. Though my family did better than most because of my father’s business, we were always rationing food and sharing. We always had concern for our neighbors.
And personal event?
Getting my medical degree.