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Local videographer creates historical documentary on Ah-gwah-ching Sanatorium

Ah-gwah-ching Sanatorium

In the spring of 1949, a 19-year-old student at Bemidji State Teachers College went to the school nurse complaining of a bad cold.

The nurse took an X-ray. Instead of sending it to a local doctor for interpretation, the nurse gave the X-ray to a college biology teacher, who diagnosed tuberculosis.

"I had to leave school immediately because I was contagious," said Alma Turney.

Her destination was Ah-gwah-ching Sanatorium, the state isolation hospital for patients with TB.

His wife's recollections of her three-year ordeal at the sanatorium inspired Bemidji videographer Tom Turney to create a 90-minute historical documentary about Ah-gwah-ching, interviewing former inmates, staff and historians. The video on DVD is available at the Walker Chamber of Commerce and Cass County History Center and from John Grimley at 218-547-3018.

Ah-gwah-ching opened with two patients in 1907 as the State Sanatorium for Consumptives. It eventually grew to 30 buildings and several hundred patients.

In the early 20th century, one in seven deaths in Minnesota was caused by TB. There was no real cure until streptomycin was developed in the 1940s.

However, some patients responded to the "fresh air cure," in which they were on bed rest year round in open porches and fed nutritious meals.

"They put us in a lean-to - it was a rickety thing," Alma said. "There was snow on the beds, and the nurses wore gloves."

Ah-gwah-ching is the Ojibwe word for outdoors.

After nine months in bed, she was finally allowed to get up for five minutes at a time to use the toilet. Otherwise there was no privacy, privileges or telephones. The only connection with the outside world was a radio that pulled in three stations.

"I knitted and read a great deal," Alma said.

Ironically, Alma, and probably plenty of others who recovered and were released from Ah-gwah-ching, didn't actually have TB. It was a misdiagnosis by an unqualified X-ray reader. But with the death rate from TB so high and the contagion so dangerous, Ah-gwah-ching doctors erred on the side of caution.

Alma had pleurisy when the biology teacher read her X-ray, but she was treated as if she had TB. She recalled - with tears that choked her even 60 years later when she spoke of her months at the sanatorium - hearing children weeping in the long, lonely, hopeless nights.

"We heard them crying, and I joined them," she said. "Many died alone, and many of them were buried there."

Alma's mother had died a few years earlier, and she desperately missed her father and little sister. Her father farmed near Leonard and could only visit her about twice a year, and her sister couldn't visit because she was underage.

On June 22, 1951, the day before her 21st birthday, Alma decided she had been feeling just fine for some time and signed herself out of Ah-gwah-ching against doctors' orders. The nurse who handled the paperwork told Alma she would be dead within six month, but Alma decided she would rather die at home than be confined any longer.

She contacted her father to come for her at 10 a.m. the next day.

"He was there at 8 in the morning in his 1936 Ford. He was so anxious," said Alma. I can still see it."

Now, 60 years after that joyful ride home, Alma has lived a happy and healthy life.

Ah-gwah-ching was closed as a TB sanatorium in 1962 and transformed into a nursing home. It closed for good in 2000 and was demolished a few years later.