American Mission Hospital (AMH) is the first and the oldest medical facility not only in Bahrain but perhaps all across the Arabian Gulf. It is also the youngest when it comes to the way it embraces and adapts to the latest advances in the field of medical technology.
When the facility first opened its doors to the Bahraini community in 1903, it was called the Mason Memorial Hospital. It was the first choice, if not the only choice, until formal government healthcare facilities opened up sometime around 1940s.
From acquiring the first X-ray machine in the entire region in the 1940s to now opening the most eco-friendly state-of-the-art hospital in Januray 2023, AMH continues to be at the forefront of the medical field – using human expertise and the latest scientific technology to benefit patients.
As the only not-for-profit private hospital here for nearly 120 years, it continues to offer high quality, affordable, healthcare to the people of Bahrain.
Samuel Zwemer’s Original Clinic
In 1888, three young men were studying at the New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Jersey, US, with Professor John Lansing who had earlier worked in Syria and Lebanon. At this seminary, which was run by the Dutch Reformed Church, the men expressed that they felt a calling to serve in Arabia.
Though one of the three was later unable to join, Samuel Zwemer and James Cantine graduated in the early 1890s and embarked on their Arabian Mission. This resulted in the advent of modern healthcare in the kingdom.
Today, Dr George Cheriyan, who is serving as the 13th chief medical officer in AMH, says: “Samuel Zwemer first came to Bahrain in 1892 and realized that what people needed here was not religion, but healthcare.
“Bahrain’s deep underwater springs ensured it was an important stop on the shipping routes and that is how the missionaries were also alerted to the lack of healthcare available to the population here - then fewer than 50,000 people.”
In 1895, Reverend Zwemer briefly left Bahrain to marry an Australian missionary nurse named Amy Wilkes; and on returning, made their modest dwelling in Manama Souq.
“Downstairs, they opened a one room clinic - Bahrain Dispensary,” adds Dr Cheriyan. “And, that’s how healthcare first started. These two people diagnosed illnesses, dispensed medicines, extracted teeth, performed minor surgeries and endeared themselves to a growing number of people needing medical attention.”
But, Zwemer realised that his basic skills in surgery and his wife’s nursing training were not enough for the rapidly growing number of patients. That is when he started requesting for physicians from the US through the Reformed Church in America.
Mason Memorial Hospital
Zwemer’s request was heard and on September 11 in 1900, Dr Sharon J Thoms and his wife Dr Marion Wells Thoms, graduates of the University of Michigan, landed on the seaport of Bahrain. They built a hospital building soon after the Hakim of Bahrain Shaikh Isa bin Ali Al Khalifa helped purchase land for its construction. It formally opened on January 26 in 1903, with Dr Sharon J Thoms as the first chief medical officer of the facility.
“Back then, it was called the Mason Memorial Hospital because the Mason family from New York had donated a substantial sum of money to establish it,” says Dr Cheriyan.
These first two modern physicians of Bahrain dedicated their lives to the kingdom so much so that Dr Marion and two of her children actually died of illnesses they contracted here. They now lay buried in a cemetery in Bahrain.
Dr Sharon later moved to Oman and developed healthcare there. But, many missionary physicians continued to arrive in Bahrain from the US with just one primary motive - ‘service’. And healthcare was being provided to the community at a bare minimum fee. Whatever patients gave was more for preserving the patients’ self-dignity than for the hospital’s revenue. Some of the hospital’s medical officers like Dr Paul Harrison were from reputed universities like Johns Hopkins. Despite their qualifications which could have given them great careers in US, these doctors journeyed thousands of miles in high seas to serve in the harsh climates of Arabia.
Spanish Flu and Bahrain’s Doctors
Within the first two or three decades of its establishment, the hospital grew to a point where all the Amirs of the surrounding GCC countries sought assistance in healthcare. “Missionary physicians also travelled from here to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman to provide care to people there, on the rulers’ invitations,” says Dr Cheriyan.
In the winter of 1919, Spanish influenza spread around the world claiming many lives and the vast expanse of the Arabian Desert did not stop the epidemic from reaching Riyadh. It was from Bahrain that Dr Harrison - the third medical officer to lead the hospital, after Dr Sharon Thoms and Dr Stanley Mylrea - got a second invitation to visit Riyadh to look at patients affected by the illness.
The invitation came from the ruler of Nejd, Ibn Saud who later became King Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud, the first king of Saudi Arabia. By the time Dr Harrison had arrived in the capital, however, Ibn Saud had already lost his eldest son Turki and his wife Jawhara bint Musaad. In spite of that, Dr Harrison was able to bring comfort and assistance to many infected people in Riyadh, most of whom were cured.
Marion Wells Thoms Hospital for Women and Children
In 1927, the Marion Thoms Memorial Hospital for Women and Children was opened, in addition to the Mason Memorial Hospital which had opened in 1903. It gave the much needed privacy, and appropriate care, for the women. And the ‘soon to be mothers’ and ‘new mothers’ found the place particularly comfortable to bring themselves, their children, and their young daughters.
Many American nurses who had joined the hospital, along with doctors, helped in its smooth functioning.
Fatima Al Zayani, the first nurse of Bahrain, got her exposure to patient-care here. She underwent some training here, and then, with her sister Aisha, went to Baghdad to get a proper Nursing diploma. It made them both, the first women of Bahrain to go abroad ‘to study’ in 1940s.
This refurbished building now houses AMH’s obstetrics and gynecology clinic and the Zwemer Clinic.
Mid Twentieth Century
In the 1930s, the discovery of oil and the establishment of Bapco gave a new thrust to the overall economy of Bahrain and the island started bolstering infrastructure to provide better government health services to its people.
“You have to realise that by the time oil was discovered here, AMH had already been serving people for more than 30 years,” explained Dr Cheriyan. “So, the earlier people, who came and served here, came to serve when there were no basic comforts. Today, of course, it’s a whole different story.”
As the Second World War raged in Europe and as US got involved, the heads of AMH who followed Dr Harrison, such as Dr Louis Dame and Dr Harold Storm, continued their faithful service to the local population despite irregular funding and sometimes barely any funds from their mission.
In 1940s, Dr Dame’s requests for donations to buy the first X-ray machine got many people giving their bit including Bapco. It was only many years later that the second X-ray machine in the country was installed, at Naim Health Centre in 1950.
AMH opened two new building blocks in Manama in the 1960s and kept serving everyone who came for healthcare.
“The hospital’s address is ‘P O Box 1’ because this hospital was the first place that began receiving letters and parcels from outside,” added Dr Cheriyan. “It had, in a way, caused the start of the postal system here.”
Steadfast local support
After Bahrain became independent from the British in August 1971, the health centres were strengthened, the Health Ministry was established and Salmaniya Medical Complex opened up for a greater number of patients.
So, with the success of the oil industry, the opening of government health facilities and the growth of the overall economy; the role of the mission hospital was challenged. “At one point, more and more people sought help in the newer hospitals so fewer people came to the old American Mission Hospital,” said Dr Cheriyan. “And, the revenue was such that it could not be self-sustaining and initial funding from the US had all but dried up.
“The late Amir Shaikh Isa Bin Salman Al Khalifa was resolute, however, that this hospital would never close. He had said it came to serve the people of Bahrain and it will remain that way. The late Amir was a big supporter of the hospital and so is his successor His Majesty King Hamad.”
Dr Cheriyan added that AMH’s strategy in its further expansion is fully aligned with the government's 2030 Vision.
"We are a not-for-profit organisation,” said Dr Cheriyan. “We do not have any shareholders who seek dividends and whatever surplus we generate is put back into our infrastructure and operations.”
Many organizations, therefore, support AMH in events like the Island Classic Golf Tournament, held in October and November every year in His Majesty’s private golf course in Saffriya. Originally started in 1997, under the leadership of Dr Paul Armerding, it is now a much-awaited tournament in the sporting calendar of Bahrain and in its 23rd year. The funds help in improving buildings, buying medical infrastructure and organising community outreach events.
The first satellite clinic was opened in Saar in 2000, but you could say that the real expansion occurred mainly in the last 10 years. "We couldn't grow in Manama because the buildings are old and we didn't have space,” said Ms Julia Tovey, the group CEO who joined the hospital in 2011. “And anyway, our changed strategic model was to make healthcare accessible to our patients wherever they lived.
“In 2014, a satellite clinic in Amwaj Islands was started and in 2016, the Saar clinic facility moved into a large newly rebuilt facility. In 2018, we opened the Riffa medical, dental and wellness centre and in 2019 we also built an accommodation complex for our staff.”
Meanwhile, Dr Cheriyan added that the Riffa clinic has a hydrotherapy pool, the largest in Bahrain, with physiotherapy services with all the latest treatments attached and with gym equipment.
“And the sports medicine clinic is headed by consultant Dr Paolo Luca Vaglio, the personal physician of Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton,” said Dr Cherian.
The hospital has been awarded Diamond Status, the highest level among accreditation statuses given by the National Health Regulatory Authority (NHRA) in April 2021. This accreditation, normally given after the assessment of all processes and systems, once every three years, reaffirms the hospital’s commitment to quality standards.
In May 2021, the hospital became the first private hospital in Bahrain to achieve the coveted College of American Pathologists (CAP) accreditation for its Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine.
It is now the second in the country, after King Hamad University Hospital, to win the prestigious CAP accreditation which is given only when stringent global quality standards are met.
Now and the Near Future
American Mission Hospital continues to remain on the frontline of Bahrain’s healthcare sector, delivering patient care from its state-of-the-art facilities in Manama, Saar, Amwaj Islands and Riffa.
“We are the largest private healthcare provider in Bahrain,” said Dr Cheriyan. “We see the largest number of out-patients after Salmaniya Medical Complex (SMC) and Bahrain Defense Hospital (BDF).”
In A’Ali, a new $66 million King Hamad American Mission Hospital is being built and this 100-bed eco-friendly solar-run multi-specialty hospital will be a unique facility, when it opens in October 2022.
AMH will then be serving Bahrain from five locations.
And, more importantly, for more than five score years.