So I found myself recently at a local hospital — don’t ask — with some time to kill.
Well, maybe that isn’t the best way to put it. Let’s just say I had an hour or so free to roam the astringently clean institutional hallways, check out the in-house Starbucks and the gift shop with its sad collection of get-well-soon trinkets.
Someone in the know told me to take the elevator down a floor to the basement, home of the medical records and nutrition services. I wouldn’t be disappointed, she said.
As soon as the elevator doors parted, a museum almost smacked me in the face. It’s Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital’s Museum of Medical History, a sprawling space lined with artifacts from earlier, more primitive eras in healing science. On display is everything from bloodletting devices to Civil War amputation saws to slides featuring tissue samples from conditions such as “syphilitic brain gumma” to an iron lung.
Now, medical history museums are not that unusual — Sacramento boasts a fetishistic one off Elvas Avenue — but to actually put on display erstwhile instruments of “healing” that today resemble torture devices in a hospital is something altogether different. People are queasy enough just stepping foot in a hospital corridor without seeing the tools of the trade that immediately make you understand why the mortality rate was so high in the olden days.
There I stood, gazing through the glass at something called a “Spring Lancet,” a 3-inch metal object with a kind of switchblade used in the mid-1800s for bloodlettings. My blood ran cold as I read how the device would “incise a patient’s vein” and bleed up to a pint a day to “relieve tension on constricted arteries and allow poisons to drain from the body.”
When I got to the part of the display where it matter-of-factly states that George Washington died after having nine pints of blood let to treat bronchitis, I was interrupted by a doctor hustling by — STAT! — on the way to the elevator. I turned and said to him, “You guys don’t bloodlet anymore, right?”
He kept moving with nary a head nod of acknowledgment.
You look at some of these antiquated and, frankly, quackish medical devices and wonder if docs back in the day knew about all that “first do no harm” Hippocratic oath thing. You also wonder if, a century from now, people will look with horror at some of the medical procedures we now consider state-of-the-art — inserting heart stents, for instance, or using dialysis machines for kidney failure.
But Anne Pauly, a docent for the hospital, says you should banish such dark thoughts. She says the look back at a cruder period of medical history actually should buoy our spirits and increase our confidence in the fancy, high-tech laser surgery techniques now employed.
“I teach schoolkids in the surgery area and, after seeing the display, I’ll show them a picture of the robotic surgery (equipment) we use now and how modern everything is,” Pauly said. “But I will show them how they used to perform it. A lot of guesswork, really. But (doctors) were doing the best they knew how. They didn’t have colleges or schools to go to. They just learned from each other. They had all these people in there with no protection on and it was a risk to the patient. They lost more than 50 percent of the patients, exposed to bacteria.”
The hope, Pauly said, is to spark an interest in medicine among young people, not scare the heck out of them. Pauly said the museum was the brainchild of retired Dr. June Dunbar, the hospital’s former chief of staff. In the early 1980s, Dunbar noticed that outdated medical equipment was being carted from the hospital unceremoniously. She convened a committee to reach out into the wider medical community, asking retired doctors to donate their mothballed tools. The hospital’s Volunteer Service League donated $75,000 for construction of the museum wing, and the hospital itself kicked in the rest to cover acquisition and construction.
When the museum was unveiled in 1998, Dunbar told reporters that it was believed to be the first of its kind.
“A lot of hospitals have cases with some items,” she had said then. “We are fairly unique in that very few hospitals in the U.S. have full antiquarian museums.”
It is fascinating, in almost a macabre way, to check out the tools of the trade from bygone eras. The two display cases of Civil War medical equipment is chilling to see. Crude saws with razor-sharp blades but sporting handsome pearl handles, and vein cutters made amputation on the battlefield if not clean and easy, then at least doable. A “mastoid drill,” which resembles a socket wrench, was used to drill holes in bone to wire them together. A foot-long device called a “bone scoop,” which looks like a primitive melon-ball cutter, didn’t have an accompanying card explaining its purpose. Maybe it’s better that way.
“They had nothing by way of anesthesia to put these poor guys out with — except liquor,” Pauly said.
The Civil War artifacts make up only a slice of the museum. Almost all the other tools were actually used by Salinas-area doctors. Women today should count themselves fortunate they weren’t born back in the 1940s, when the forceps looked like outsized barbecue tongs. And that nickel-plated brass late-1800s vaginal speculum doesn’t look fun, either.
The psychiatric profession is represented, too. Prominently displayed is an Orwellian electric shock machine, with all manner of dials and buttons and gauges, used by a Salinas shrink with the wonderfully ironic name of Dr. Raymond Hack. The card next to it states that Dr. Hack used the “Reiter Electrostimulator” to treat “postpartum and other types of depression.”
I’m going to spare you description of the wing dedicated to proctology, but suffice to say that I’ll take Preparation H over the 1930s-era electric rectal dialators any day.
I left the museum after nearly an hour, somewhat shaken yet ultimately grateful to be living in the current era of medical science. And I am happy to report that I did not hear the pronouncement “Dr. Hack to surgery” come over the hospital’s loudspeakers.