The Butler Veterans Administration Hospital was not intended to be a veteran hospital. It was originally built as a 500-bed tuberculosis sanitorium. Tuberculosis was well known to be devastating, and often referred to as the white plague, because of the effect it had on one’s lungs. By the 1930’s, advances in medicine produced more effective treatments for tuberculous. Despite these advances, 70,000 Americans died from the disease in 1938.
Pennsylvanian public health advocates attributed many of these deaths to the four to six months it took for patients to be admitted to a state hospital.
As a result, in May 1938, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania began construction on the Western Pennsylvania Tuberculosis Sanatorium. However, by the next year the sanitorium became a point of contention in Pennsylvania politics. Facing a deficit and budgetary restrictions the new Pennsylvania Governor, Arthur H. James, decided to delay the sanitorium’s opening.
James maintained that the existing state hospitals were enough to accommodate current tuberculosis patients and opening the sanitorium was “an unjustifiable expense.” Many Pennsylvanians took issue with this notion, including Senator C. Hale Sipe, who repeatedly advocated for the sanitorium on the senate floor. On one occasion Sipe painted a vibrant image claiming, “I can hear the clods falling on their [tuberculosis patients] coffins, while Mr. James saves a few dollars for the next few years.” Despite such arguments, the building remained eerily empty for the next three years, being designated Butler’s “white elephant.”
Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, there was an increasing amount of talk about using the building as a soldier’s hospital. By February 1942, the US War Department began to officially investigate taking over the facility. After months of negotiations with the Commonwealth, the Army Medical Department took over the hospital in October 1942. The building was renamed the Deshon General Hospital, in honor of Col. George Durfee Deshon, who helped to create legislation that reorganized the medical department in 1908. After much construction work, the Deshon General Hospital received its first patient on December 7, 1942.
The hospital served the Army as a General medical and Surgical Hospital, with a specialty center for soldiers with hearing impairments. The Hard of Hearing Section was one of three Army hearing centers in the U.S. during World War II. Over the next four years, the Army added more than seventy buildings to the hospital.
From the outset Butler’s citizens, enthusiastically welcomed and supported the hospital and the wounded it housed. In 1945, Private Edward Heddy experienced this support first-hand after coming to the Deshon General Hospital with internal injuries, spinal damage, and fractured bones in his legs and pelvis. Heddy’s recovery was slow but soon he could maneuver the hospital in a wheel chair and eventually venture farther on crutches. Some fifty-years later, Heddy spoke of Butler fondly as he remembered a woman who shook his hand as a way to give him five dollars, a tailor who cleaned his uniform, and a shoe store owner who gave him a pair of shoes.
Following the conclusion of World War II the Army announced that the hospital would be closed by June 30, 1946. The last patient left the facility on April 26, 1946.
The Veterans Administration inquired about taking over the hospital four days later. With the war just over, there were more than enough veterans for the hospital to service. The VA Hospital primarily treated TB patients, but expanded its services once treatment for TB became less invasive. In 1965, a nursing home care unit was added to the hospital and dental services were offered beginning in 1967.
After surgical services were discontinued at the facility in 1969 the site began to focus on veteran rehabilitation. Physical and recreational therapies began to be offered. Veterans were given the opportunity to learn to trades and get their GED. The Vietnam War necessitated the development of a prosthesis program. By the 1990’s the medical center was functioning as a primarily out-patient clinic.
In September 2017, the original building was closed, and the Abie Abraham Department of Veterans Affairs Health Care Center opened two miles away from the original facility. The new facility was named after a local World War II veteran who survived the Bataan Death March and volunteered at the Butler VA for more than twenty years. The new facility was built to be more conducive to the center’s focus on numerous out-patient services.