THE CORRIDORS ARE the kind you see in nightmares and scary movies--long, drab, endless, corners turning into doorways that give way to more corridors. You could walk around for hours under the fluorescent light, only occasionally passing people in vaguely otherworldly gowns. "Took me three months working here before I could go anywhere by myself," says the lady in blue scrubs who takes me part of the way.
The sign glows like a beacon in front of the open door. "Metropolitan-Mount Sinai Medical Center Historical Library," it says; inside stands a woman with a neat pile of gray hair and an expression you don't want to mess with. After reviewing my ID--"I don't mean to seem suspicious, but we have to be careful, with the state of the world today"--she leads me to an office stacked with boxes, papers, and files. A small open space surrounds a wooden desk with an engraved sign: "Helen Whiting, Librarian."
Curator might be a better word. Or guardian, custodian, watchdog; keeper of a century's worth of epidemics and disasters, births and deaths, dances and discoveries. These two rooms hold the stories of Minneapolis's oldest and second oldest hospitals, facilities that grew with the city and then folded into each other as health care became big business.
The short chronology Whiting hands me reads like an obituary column. St. Barnabas Hospital, 1871-1970. Swedish Hospital, 1898-1970 (the two merged to form Metropolitan Medical Center). Mount Sinai Hospital, 1950-1988. Metropolitan-Mount Sinai Medical Center, 1988-1991. Hennepin County Medical Center swallowed up the buildings that housed the last merger product after the doors closed for good, and allotted this corner of the basement to the memories.
"Look," says a lady bent over a photograph of a graduating nursing class in the back, waving at her companion. "That's the gal who ran our X-ray department. She graduated in the class right behind us. Remember that little corridor that went back to X-ray? The tiny offices they had back there?" The women are 1951 graduates of St. Barnabas's nursing school; one of them has come to donate her uniform, specially starched for the occasion. Close to 5,000 nurses went through Swedish and St. B.'s nursing schools in their time; many of them spent their entire careers at the hospitals.
Nurses dominate pretty much any hospital, and they reign over the museum, too. There's the tea service they used for socials in their lounge back when, flanked by pictures of interns swinging nursing students around. A row of mannequins in the back models various versions of the uniform, from '30s blue-and-white gingham to wartime gray and postwar white, many featuring aprons; a stately, solitary figure at the front wears the more recent, loose-fitting scrubs. "We all love Edna," Whiting grins. "Because she doesn't have an 18-inch waist. That's why we're giving her a special place."
Whiting has other favorites. "This," she points to a shriveled brown ball with the words "St. Barnabas, 1906," carved into the front, "is an orange that a patient got on his lunch tray. He was from a small town in southern Minnesota, came to the Cities to go to the U. To get money he worked the sewer crews, and they drank water or something that was from the Mississippi River. He got typhoid [which killed thousands each year back then], and was in the hospital for weeks.
"On Thanksgiving, the patients got a special dinner. You didn't get an orange very often back then. He put it under his pillow--you weren't supposed to do that, but the nurses let him." (Pause, smirk). "Sixty years later, he gave it to us. He sent a letter with it, where he had written it all down."
Whiting is a serious student of history, and she's proud of the library's collection of records, most of them kept back in her office, a few framed and hung for viewing like windows into another world. There's the bill for Swedish Hospital's first patient, Mr. Sevald Antwood, dated 1898. "Nationality: Norwegian. Residence: North Dakota. Religion: Lutheran. Married/Single: Single. Occupation: Laborer. Weekly Charge: $5. Condition at Discharge: Cured." You could lose yourself in that story alone.
But it's the other exhibits that give the museum its odd little edge--the kinds of things you haul around move after move, for no particular reason except the pang you know you'll feel when you pull them out again some day. There are little chapters of medical history; an old enema jar, a row of Lilly Co. drug bottles (burdock root, wild cherry, belladonna) from before they figured out how to replace herbs with synthetics. Many of the pieces you won't understand without a guide: A small white box in the corner puzzled Whiting for years, until a retired nurse recognized it as the stool they used for short surgeons in the operating room. And new stuff keeps coming in as the children of people who spent their lives at the hospitals pack up the attic: songbooks in Swedish, pictures of people without names, a pair of surgical shoes mounted like antlers on a hard-
Even pieces of buildings go into the collection: When St. Barnabas came down, someone saved the gargoyles from the entrance. A few pieces of wood from the Olive "Ollie" Peterson Memorial Chapel at Swedish (it's a long story) are mounted in a corner, and the rest of the paneling is coming soon. "We're not sure where we'll put it all," says Whiting. "But this is the only place for these things."