Sitka nurses recall war against killer disease

Pat Sarvela, one of the first nurses at Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital works with tuberculosis patient Agnes Prosoff at the Alice Island sanitarium in the late 1940s.

SITKA — In some places during the 1940s and 1950s, nurses were seen as being “at the bottom of the totem pole” of the medical establishment.


But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, said one longtime nurse who was in Sitka during the era of the Alaska tuberculosis epidemic.

“I learned later that’s where the strengths are,” she said.

Nurses are being recognized in this year’s Alaska Day theme: “Celebrating Nursing in the Last Frontier.”

“That’s the important part, that nurses are being recognized,” said Marge Ward, who had a 24-year career as a nurse, first in New York and then in Sitka.

“They contributed a lot to the town. Sitka became our town, and we remained active,” she said

“It also highlights how we can honor the patients as well,” said Dr. Marilyn Coruzzi, a Sitka internist. “They had the same resilience and courage (the nurses) had.”

“You had to — Alaska didn’t give you any choice,” Ward said.

Ward is one of the Sitka nurses who will take part Oct. 12 in an event Coruzzi organized, called “Nursing in the Last Frontier: Stepping into the Unknown.”

Some of the panelists — including Ward, Dorothy “Brownie” Thomsen, Judy Johnstone and Shirley Anderson — are from the era of the TB facilities on Alice and Japonski Islands, and others came to Sitka in more recent times.

“The way Alaska developed today had a lot to do with the medical field,” Ward said. “Attendants, doctors, nurses ... That all percolated into the communities.”

Coruzzi said she’s looking forward to sharing some information about the medical history of Alaska at the event, and seeing nurses get the recognition they deserve.

“I think it’s about time, because I love nurses,” Coruzzi said. “They keep me out of trouble, they’ve been my teachers. They’ve been a comfort to me over the years ... When a nurse gets disrespected, I flip out.”

Other veteran Alaska nurses who will be on the Oct. 12 panel are Ruth Roth, Michelle Kennedy and Kathy Ingallinera. The program will be presented at 7 p.m. Oct. 12 at Harrigan Centennial Hall.

Coruzzi said she hopes the event will let Sitkans learn more about the tuberculosis epidemic, the role played by nurses and the importance of Sitka as a treatment center for the disease that ravaged Alaska.

Tuberculosis is bacterial infection affecting the lungs, and can spread to the bones and joints (Potts disease), or other areas of the body. It is highly contagious, and it wasn’t until the 1950s that effective drugs were developed for treatment.

Ward and Thomsen, arriving in 1949 under one-year contracts, were on the front lines in treating patients with skeletal or pulmonary tuberculosis. They said it was an interesting time to be a nurse.

“We felt we were at the same level (as doctors) — the doctors expected us to be. We were expected to have an opinion,” Ward said. Many of the nurses had more of a background with some of the patients than the doctors had, and could pass on that information.

The Indian Health Service facilities on Japonski and Alice islands specialized in the treatment of TB, but even with patients being sent out to clinics and hospitals in Anchorage, Washington, and other parts of the Lower 48, there were still eight patients with moderately advanced pulmonary TB for every bed available in Alaska, Coruzzi said.

“This was such a huge problem,” she said.

Ward started her nursing career in upstate New York before coming to Sitka. She had originally planned to work as a nurse in China, but the Communist revolution derailed that scheme.

A letter arrived, saying, “they want us in Alaska right away,” she recalled. Arriving in November 1949, she spent the next six and a half years working with tuberculosis patients, and after that as office nurse for Dr. Robert Shuler for 11 years.

She considered an offer to become a part-time school nurse, but after 24 years in nursing she decided to go to work for Service Transfer Co. in downtown Sitka.

Thomsen also came to Sitka in 1949, arriving four months before Ward, and spent seven years assisting surgeons operating on patients with pulmonary and orthopedic complications of tuberculosis. Alice Island TB Sanitarium — “Alice Island San” — was for the treatment of pulmonary TB, and the children’s orthopedic hospital was in the old U.S. Navy hospital on Japonski.

Thomsen and Ward were busy.

“I always enjoyed it,” Thomsen said.

“We did surgeries three, four days a week,” Ward said.

Collapsing lungs, removing ribs, fusing backbones to control deformity and spinal cord injuries were all in a day’s work, Coruzzi said.

“These same problems are occurring today in Africa,” Coruzzi added.

Deaths in Alaska from TB declined sharply starting in the early 1950s, and was zero by 1968, and the number of cases started dropping in the mid-1950s. A major turning point was the development of three different drugs that were effective in treating the disease. That meant it was possible for outpatient treatment, both in cities and in villages, Coruzzi said.

When the new Sitka Community Hospital opened its doors in April 1957, Thomsen was the first employee. She worked in surgery, then became head nurse in the wards. When the hospital “became desperate for an administrator,” she took the job.

At one time or another she had to act as pharmacist, dietician, medical supply clerk and billing clerk.

“Anything that had to be done, I did it,” Thomsen said.

Ward said the exciting part was being front and center for the turning point of the TB epidemic, with the introduction of the new drugs developed in the U.S. and abroad.

“Even from the start we could see the patients were getting better, especially the kids, instead of going on a downward slide,” Ward said.

• This article first appeared in the Daily Sitka Sentinel. It is republished here with permission.

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