It’s a museum hiding in plain sight.
Take the elevator down from the chaotic lobby to the basement of Hennepin County Medical Center in downtown Minneapolis on Thursdays between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Follow the Blue Building’s painted blue floor stripe through the labyrinth — dodge some orderlies, nurses and doctors — and you’ll stumble upon the Hennepin Medical History Center.
That’s where a band of retired nurses volunteer to curate a spectacularly odd collection of artifacts that includes a 1916 electric bone saw, a 1960s kidney transporter, a polio-era iron lung machine, a stained-glass window from the old Swedish Hospital and its first patient’s discharge papers from 1898.
That patient, Levald Andwood, was a 33-year-old bachelor laborer by way of Norway and North Dakota. His discharge form doesn’t say what ailed him, only that he was “cured” after a 19-day hospital stay. Total bill: less than $15.
“The amazing thing about that first patient is that he was Norwegian and they had just opened Swedish Hospital in 1898 to take care of Swedish immigrants,” said Carol Oeltjenbruns, 78, one of the three retired nurses who served as volunteer docents during a recent visit.
A petrified orange and a six-sided ceramic floor tile were two of my favorite artifacts. The hollow orange, now brown as a walnut, sits in a clear plastic cylindrical display case. It’s carved with the words “St. Barnabas Hospital, Mpls.” and the date: “Nov. 29, ’06.”
In 1977, 89-year-old Chester Leusman stopped by the hospital complex and pulled out an old story along with the old orange, which he donated to the museum.
In October of 1906, 71 years earlier, Leusman had just turned 18. The middle of five siblings, his farmer father had died when Chester was 9. After graduating from high school in Albert Lea, Chester headed up to Minneapolis and worked in a restaurant. But the $65 he earned that summer wasn’t enough to pay the tab at the University of Minnesota. So he took a job at Donaldson’s department store.
One hot day, waiting for the freight elevator to haul glass blocks, he chewed a piece of ice from a refrigeration room. Little did he know it was frozen, contaminated river water — prompting Leusman to grow delirious, his fever spiking from typhoid. Vaccinations preventing the disease were still five years away.
An ambulance took him to St. Barnabas Hospital — founded in 1871 by Episcopal pastor David Knickerbacker. By the 1970s, St. Barnabas merged with Swedish Hospital, becoming the private Metropolitan Medical Center until it went belly-up in 1991.
Meanwhile, Leusman, on the mend during a six-week stay at St. Barnabas, received an orange on his hospital tray on Thanksgiving.
“To me oranges were something special to be enjoyed only at Christmas time,” he recalled in 1977. “I fondled that orange, I smelled its sweet fragrance, but I could not bring myself to peel it and eat it.” He hid it under his pillow instead, while nurses looked the other way.
“When the skin became hard and dry, I carved the name of the hospital and date on it,” he said. “I have thought of it as a symbol of my recovery and longevity.”
He went on to work as a bank clerk in southern Minnesota and lived to see 96. He cherished that orange, he said, because it exemplified “the kindness, the sympathy and understanding that radiated from those wonderful nurses, which gladdened the heart and strengthened the spirit of the lonely, discouraged, immature, unsophisticated 18-year-old boy.”
A nurse of another kind — crafty and clandestine — became the heroine behind the hexagonal ceramic tile floor preserved in the basement museum. Claire Nelson was an obstetrics nurse at the old General Hospital — the precursor to HCMC.
“For nearly three decades, the General’s dilapidated old bones have been crumbling,” Dr. Tim Rumsey wrote in the hospital newsletter, when the old facility was about to be razed in the mid-1970s. Dozens of ambulance trips and moving vans transported patients and equipment to the new hospital a few blocks away.
“Now only one question remained: Could the General’s heart also be transplanted?” Rumsey asked.
Thanks to Nelson, the OB nurse, a successful transplant happened all right. Just before the wrecking ball demolished General, Nelson swung into action.
“I sneaked through the security fencing one night, found an unlocked fire escape, and explored the stately gloom by flashlight,” she said in 1994.
She rushed home, grabbed her husband, chisels, ropes and buckets and “spent the midnight hours chiseling up the Newborn Nursery floor.”
They lowered the tiles in buckets and zoomed off in her car. “After 17 years of safekeeping,” she said she presented the tiles to the museum because they “have borne countless footsteps of dedicated staff and patients.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: http://strib.mn/MN1918.
Hennepin Medical History Center
Treasure trove: Tucked in the basement of HCMC are two rooms of artifacts and documents that tell the story of the area’s hospitals from 1887, including Swedish Hospital, St. Barnabas, and General Hospital.
Background: Retired nurses Hillie Prose, Donna Hoover and Audrey Kuhne began collecting items in the 1970s, forming an archives committee in 1987 and opening the museum in 1994. It’s currently staffed by mostly retired nurse volunteers.
If you go: The free museum is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays or call ahead for appointments, 612-873-6485.
Location: The museum is housed in two basement rooms of the Blue Building at HCMC, lower level 226 and 227, 915 S 8th St., Minneapolis.