Ah-Gwah-Ching, the Minnesota Sanatorium for Consumptives, was built in 1907, just south of Walker.

With all the publicity over COVID-19, please permit me to talk about another bug [TB] that ravaged our area at the turn of the century. In 1907 the Minnesota Sanatorium for Consumptives was built south of our little town, and in 1985 I was honored to be added to the staff of Ah-Gwah-Ching as a dental consultant.

After 26 years of a very active “down-in-the-mouth” dental practice, running back and forth between my four offices in Walker, Hackensack, Backus and Longville, I retired in 1985 to accept a volunteer dental program on the Amazon River in South America. The program was sponsored by Esperanca, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit formed in 1970 to support the work of Father Luke Tupper, now deceased, of the Franciscan order. Esperanca was organized to promote the health of the human family and alleviate dental problems and human suffering throughout the world by providing dental treatment with public entities. Rotary International was such a public entity. My wife Joyce served as my dental assistant and we were sponsored by our Walker Rotary Club.

Because of economic problems and the belief and custom that fluoride was not beneficial or necessary to eliminate dental problems, we were forced to extract many temporary teeth and even permanent six-year molars on young children. Although we were on the Amazon during January, the climate below the equator is very hot and humid.

One day I walked down to the banks of the river and asked a few boys if they would join me in a swim to cool off. They replied, “You can swim in the river, but don’t go out too far as there are piranhas out there. And don’t spend too much time in the shallow water as the stingrays will get you.” With those words in mind, I settled for a cold shower to cool off!

When asked to return the following year, I realized we had just as many indigent people in our own back yard who needed dental care, so I continued with a volunteer dental practice in Walker, treating patients who were members of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, patients in area nursing homes and especially those at Ah-Gwah-Ching (AGC).

Have you read Mary Krugerud’s book, “The Girl in Building C?” It is a true story about a teenage tuberculosis patient at the now defunct, departed and destroyed development south of town. My dental office was in the basement of Building C. With my efficient dental assistant Edna Rodekuhr, we went out there every Monday to examine all patients and treat those who needed attention. At that time, the Minnesota Department of Human Services required every patient be examined annually, and since there were about 300 residents at AGC during the 1970s and 1980s, we saw about 150  patients in a six month interval and another 150 the next six months.

When antibiotics became the treatment of choice for TB, replacing the open air, fresh air treatment of the dreaded disease, AGC was converted from a tuberculosis sanatorium to a home for geriatrics, and dental treatment became very difficult. No one enjoys going to the dentist, especially patients with mental difficulties.

I recall one day we had a patient who was extremely apprehensive and fearful about sitting in our dental chair and literally beat up on Edna before I could get to them and break them up. There were many such occasions, but Edna, being a super dental assistant, managed to get through the 20-some years we worked together at AGC.

Every Monday when Edna and I went out to AGC, I was reminded of a classmate at the old Walker High School who left in our junior year of 1948. No one knew where she had gone until we celebrated our 50th class reunion in 1999. She came to the reunion and informed us that she had contracted tuberculosis; and the day we graduated in 1949, she laid in bed, three miles down the road, a patient at AGC; and we didn’t know she was there!

Recently I asked to put her story into a book, as did Mary Krugerud, but she did not want to be reminded of her three years at the institution.

What goes around comes around; and today, almost 90 years old, she is very healthy, doing very well, living a wonderful life with her children and her many grand- and  great-grandchildren.

Often our lives play unexpected and unforeseen tricks on us, as we travel through the years of the old and the new!


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