January 16, 2013

Digging into Kaiser Permanente’s history

Baxter bottle top, found at the site of former Contractors General Hospital. Photo by Steve Gilford, March 2006

Guest writer Steve Gilford

Some time ago, I located the archaeological site of founding physician Sidney Garfield’s original Contractors General Hospital. Built by Garfield in 1933 in the Mojave Desert 175 miles east of Los Angeles, the hospital is long gone.

In the facility’s trash pit I came across numerous large broken bottles. Each was embossed with the words “Property of Don L. Baxter — Chicago, Illinois.” The bottles were from Dr. Baxter’s fledgling company, which he had founded in 1931.

A few years later, I managed to track down Garfield’s first nurse, Betty Runyen, who had worked at that hospital 60 years before. When I mentioned all the broken bottles in the trash pit she smiled with delight.

She explained that “back in the day” those bottles had contained the ingredients for Ringer’s solution.This was a very useful medication — a solution containing sodium, potassium and calcium salts in a definite proportion — often given intravenously to surgical patients, trauma victims and to workmen who had collapsed in the desert heat due to severe dehydration.

Innovative syringe remnants found

Luer-Lok patent drawing

In the pit, I also came across a Becton Luer-Lok syringe.  The first product of the Becton-Dickinson Company in 1897 had been an all-glass syringe invented by a French instrument maker named H. Wulfing Luer. It had been a great success, featuring a standardized tapered fitting that guaranteed a leak-free fluid connection between syringe and needle.

Five years later, Fairleigh S. Dickinson made an improvement to the syringe when he added a twist­-lock mechanism that held the hypodermic needle safely in place. It was a simple way to attach and to remove a needle from a syringe, minimizing the danger of the needle slipping off the tip while in use; it also reduced breakage of syringe tips.

The Becton-Dickinson Yale Luer-Lok Glass Syringe, as it was known, was a new development when Garfield opened Contractors General. At the time, it was better than the average syringe and cost more, but it would eventually become standard.

Despite his limited finances, he selected the more expensive, but safer, Luer-Lok. The fact that Garfield chose to spend the extra money for the better medical equipment is a glimpse into his medical priorities.

For more about Steve Gilford's rediscovery of the Contractors General Hospital, go to the Permanente Journal.