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Doctor Presides Over Rural Hospital’s Rebirth

Times Staff Writer

When Samuel Edwards left San Francisco for Ventura County in 1971, the young doctor had plans to open the intensive care unit at tiny Santa Paula Memorial Hospital -- and to sink roots into the fertile farming valley his ancestors had helped settle a century before.

Now Edwards, whose gentlemanly style is a throwback to a bygone era, is helping to reestablish the bankrupt Santa Paula hospital as the emergency lifeline of the Santa Clara River Valley.

“If I can give this community back a hospital, that would be my top accomplishment,” said Edwards, 67, a quiet, disciplined man of many accomplishments.

With Edwards as liaison, Ventura County agreed last month to buy the 41-bed Santa Paula hospital and to reopen it next year, if a bankruptcy court approves. Edwards, though officially retired, would run the hospital for a while.

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“My goal is to get it on its feet and operating in a safe, sound and good way,” Edwards said. “But I’m only part of a team.... I’m kind of the glue that you don’t ever see, but it holds the chair together.”

Those involved in reopening Santa Paula’s beloved hospital -- one of only three in California built solely from community donations -- say Edwards’ connections, credibility and experience kept negotiations alive despite nearly two years of setbacks.

“People in the Santa Paula community see Sam as one of the elders. They call on him, they listen to him, and they respect his opinion,” said Ventura County Supervisor Kathy Long. “He’s been the trusted friend people asked about whether the county would be a good partner.”

The Santa Paula hospital closed last December and went into bankruptcy after its board of directors, intent on maintaining control despite mounting debt, rejected county offers to save it.

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But with Edwards, Long and county healthcare chief Pierre Durand determined to reopen the only emergency room between Ventura and Santa Clarita -- the medical safety net for 50,000 residents -- the county found a solution after hospital creditors and the city of Santa Paula became allies.

“If Dr. Sam thinks it can be done, then it’s not wishful thinking or hyperbole,” City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said. “He’s been the quiet whisperer in everyone’s ear throughout this entire process.”

The Santa Paula City Council agreed to rezone 15 acres of hospital-owned property, and that parcel was recently auctioned to a homebuilder for about $13 million. The money, plus $2.75 million from the county deal, is enough to settle hospital debts and pension obligations. Now county officials are waiting to see if the hospital board tries to delay the plan in bankruptcy court.

Edwards is already lobbying for community support for a Santa Paula hospital run as an arm of the public hospital in Ventura. He’s talking privately with doctors and nurses whose return to the hospital would be crucial to its success when it is scheduled to reopen next summer.

That Edwards has emerged as a trusted elder statesman in the effort to save the Santa Paula hospital should be no surprise, say those who know him well, or know his family’s history.

Edwards is the great-grandson of an English immigrant farmer, Samuel Edwards, who staked his future on the Northern California gold fields of the 1850s, before moving to Santa Barbara and buying 1,500 acres of fruit orchards near Santa Paula in 1876, a year after that city was founded.

Through five generations -- as Santa Clara River Valley crops have evolved from fruits to walnuts to citrus and avocados -- the Edwards family has remained one of the most prominent in the largest remaining coastal farm valley in Southern California.

Edwards was born in 1937 in Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara, which was built on land donated by his great-grandfather. The Edwards family also contributed to the founding of Santa Paula’s hospital, which opened in 1961.

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After graduating from Harvard in 1960, Edwards returned to the family’s Santa Paula farm and attended medical school at USC. After two years as head Navy doctor on a Vietnam troop transport, Edwards left a fledging medical practice on Union Square in San Francisco to take over the farming business while also working as a small-town doctor.

Since then, he’s worn numerous civic and professional hats, all with an understated grace.

“He’s humble,” said longtime Santa Paula physician Ernie Carlson. “He does not act proud or substantial.”

Edwards said he tries to conduct his personal and professional affairs in a civilized manner: “I feel gentlemanly behavior is a foundation. I lament the world doesn’t have more of it.”

Edwards directed Santa Paula hospital’s critical care unit for 23 years and was medical staff president. He was medical director at Ventura County Medical Center for 13 years before taking over as hospital administrator in 1995. He was chairman of Citizens State Bank of Santa Paula for three years. And he served on Limoneira Co.'s board of directors for 18 years, resigning as chairman before his eldest son, Harold, 39, was selected as chief executive of the farm company last year.

Edwards also taught at UCLA medical school and was a consultant to hospitals nationwide before retiring last year.


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