"You need to be in the hospital!"
Southeast History: Early Alaska hospitals offered stark options 080614 HEALTH 1 For the CCW "You need to be in the hospital!"

Roppel Collection

A patient and nurses are seen at the Metlakatla hospital in this undated photo.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Story last updated at 8/6/2014 - 10:24 pm

Southeast History: Early Alaska hospitals offered stark options

"You need to be in the hospital!"

That's a disturbing sentence to hear today, but go back in time, and it becomes downright frightening.

Early residents of Southeast Alaska knew they had to travel great distances to receive such medical help. Today, most towns have ambulances, private medevac airplanes, and the Coast Guard can send its helicopters to rescue the ill from boats and remote areas. In earliest times, rowboats and canoes and then small motorboats were the only means to carry the sick from remote sites to a few hospitals.

With this disadvantage, many people didn't make it. One of the publicized deaths was that of Charles Sulzer. He came to Alaska in 1902 to develop a copper mine on Prince of Wales Island at a place that became known as Sulzer. His brother William, also an owner in the mine, was active in New York state politics, and Charles followed in his footsteps.

In the territory of Alaska, he was elected as the delegate to the U.S. House but James Wickersham contested the election and Sulzer was ousted. Charles tried again for the 66th Congress in 1918 and won, but a little more than a month later, when he was at the mining camp, his appendix burst. Obviously in need of medical attention, he was put aboard a boat that started off for Ketchikan's hospital. Somewhere off Cape Chacon, he died.

The need for hospitals was evident even during Russian times when one was built in Sitka. After the Alaska Purchase in 1867, the military built and maintained hospitals in Sitka. The Presbyterian boarding school, Shelton Jackson, opened a Sitka hospital for Alaska Natives in 1892.

In those days, if you were anywhere in Southeast and in great distress, Sitka was the place to head for - in a slow boat!

The missionaries came to provide education at many of the remote villages. Soon, the churches began to provide health care as well. During the early 1900s, the Episcopal Church built eight hospitals in Interior Alaska in addition to the one in Ketchikan. Three Catholic sisters opened the Juneau hospital in 1886 when mining began in earnest. The Bureau of Education (later the Bureau of Indian Affairs) provided Native health care and in 1915 opened a 25-bed hospital in Juneau. The Native people of Metlakatla had medical facilities, as seen in the accompanying photograph.

Sparse comes to my mind when I view the facilities in the photograph. Was the training of the doctors in remote Southeast adequate? One example is Dr. Daniel W. Figgins, who opened a clinic and hospital in Craig in 1919.

He had practiced medicine for nearly 20 years. His medical training and first practice was in Idaho before he headed north around 1901-1902.

The next four years, he was the company physician in Hadley (another copper mine) on the east coast of Prince of Wales. When the mine closed, he returned to Ketchikan and opened a pharmacy.

Drug stores in those years compounded prescription drugs. These personalized medications were made from individual ingredients mixed together in the exact strength and dosage for the patron. This was common until mass drug manufacturing started in the 1950s and early 1960s.

I remember when we first came to Ketchikan, Race Avenue Drug sold compounded creams. We used the one that drew the fish poisoning infection out of a wound. Today, some pharmacies still make personalized medicine under government regulations.

Dr. Figgins closed his pharmacy and opened his Craig business in October 1919. The hospital had five rooms and a nurse in attendance. He and his wife, Lilah, purchased a home belonging to longtime Craig resident Amelia Hamilton. He secured a loan by mortgaging his hospital equipment.

The mortgage book was saved, and from this we have some idea of what was in his hospital and home. Of the six beds, four were called cast-iron "hooped beds." On the Web, I learned these beds were commonly used in hospitals.

A three-quarter-sized bed was also made of iron. Bed linen, two rubber sheets, and seven blankets are listed. The beds had white enamel bedside tables. Three of the rooms had coal-burning or wood-burning stoves.

On the floors were Congoleum rugs, or chunks of linoleum used like rugs, however, the dining and operating rooms were covered with linoleum. The only lights mentioned were two gasoline lamps. Let's hope there were more lights for his surgery.

As for medical equipment, there was an operating table, a Rochester sterilizer and complete irrigator. Also listed were one bedpan, eight enamel white basins, a complete set of splints, a pair of crutches, and a stretcher (note the stretcher in the photograph.) Undoubtedly his smaller surgical instruments, other equipment, and supplies had not been mortgaged.

A six-foot long leather cushion is included in the mortgage. Was this for his waiting room for his patients?

The doctor and his wife lived in part of the house. A double bed and two rocking chairs are included. On the floors, four rag rugs were placed in strategic spots. A "3-hole" oil range provided heat. In the kitchen was a cooking stove and table with two chairs.

Dr. Figgins continued to serve as a doctor for people in Craig and outlying villages. What kind problems did he treat? There were broken bones, injuries from beatings, gun shot wounds, childbirth, exposure, falls and many more reasons to see the doctor. He undoubtedly served as the coroner when people died.

In addition, he treated diseases. One was Bright's disease, a name no longer in use. It covered several types of kidney diseases including inflammation and/or kidney stones. Patients with pneumonia, heart and liver disorders and tuberculosis came to see him. Tuberculosis, at that time called "consumption," was the most prevalent disease in Alaska. Since it is contagious and treatment included bed rest, doctors sent their patients to sanitariums. Most likely Figgins sent his patients to Skagway, which had the only sanitarium in Southeast. In 1946, one was constructed in Seward and in 1947 another in Sitka long after Dr. Figgins closed his business in Craig.

The exact year Dr. and Mrs. Figgins left Craig and Alaska hasn't turned up in my research. However, he passed away in 1922 in San Diego, California.