A child with a club foot would be pitied and hidden away in the 19th century, back when Jessie Haskins — a Carleton College student with a curved spine — and St. Paul surgeon Dr. Arthur Gillette boldly proposed that Minnesota lawmakers establish a charity hospital and school for just such kids.
Remarkably, legislators agreed. Minnesota opened the nation’s first public hospital for children with disabilities in 1897.
Today, as Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare celebrates its 120th anniversary, it remains one of only a handful of nonprofit hospitals nationally that offer acute and long-term care and rehabilitation services for children with rare disorders and injuries that affect the muscular, skeletal and nervous systems.
Conditions treated include cerebral palsy, epilepsy, spina bifida, scoliosis and brain injury. Gillette also partners with neighboring Regions Hospital to provide Minnesota’s first level I pediatric trauma center.
Hospital staffers treated 26,000 patients in 2015, developing personal, long-term relationships with children and families. Doctors performed 3,700 surgeries in a year’s time — more than 10 a day.
“It’s one of the best-kept secrets. When you go to other states, you see the difference,” said Gillette CEO and President Barbara Joers. “I don’t care if people know our brand. What the families think is what matters. I thank the families for trusting us to be part of their families.”
The hospital, which became a nonprofit independent of the state in 1975, has an operating budget of about $240 million. Patients have traveled from all corners of Minnesota, 41 states and nearly a dozen countries to receive care at the hospital, which is connected to Regions Hospital in downtown St. Paul, and eight suburban and outstate clinics in places such as Burnsville, Maple Grove, Minnetonka, Duluth and Mankato.
Gillette also provides lifelong care for patients who first went there for treatment as children.
“We try to partner with families and get to know them,” said Dr. Tim Feyma, a pediatric neurologist. “Patients tell us Gillette has soul.”
While the pressing health conditions of the day have changed — tuberculous and polio no longer are the threat they once were, and technology and treatments have made dramatic leaps — Dr. Steven Koop, Gillette’s medical director, said that staffers and volunteers built and sustained Gillette and remain critical to its future.
“Finding dedicated people is essential,” he said.
Keeping kids on the move
Arthur Gillette, the son of a South St. Paul farmer who studied medicine and then traveled to New York to study the new field of orthopedics, was named the hospital’s first surgeon-in-chief in 1897 — and without pay.
His first patient, 10-year-old Royal Gray of Pine City, Minn., was suffering from tuberculosis of the spine and hips, his back so hunched that his body while standing took a 45 degree angle.
After nearly 18 months of treatment that included traction and a body cast, Royal was running around on a baseball diamond. He grew up to own a taxi business, marry and have children of his own.
Today the average inpatient stay is less than six days. State-of-the art treatments and services are provided by a pediatric intensive-care unit, a newly renovated inpatient rehabilitation unit and an assistive technology department that makes thousands of braces, prosthetic limbs, wheelchair adjustments and custom devices. Gillette’s physical, occupational and speech therapy unit features a gym and pool.
A gait and motion lab, one of only seven in the country, helps medical staffers pinpoint muscle and skeletal problems and create treatment plans that minimize the number of surgeries. The lab sees 500 to 600 patients a year, many with cerebral palsy.
“We are the busiest clinical lab in the country,” said supervisor Adam Rozumalski. “It’s the same technology used in Hollywood to capture special effects. We can get a very precise picture of how are kids are walking.”
After surgery, some children spend weeks or months in the rehab unit that opened in February. Some rooms are wired with environmental controls so patients can turn on lights and TV with a click of their tongues, head or eye movements or through voice commands, said charge nurse Stephanie Lurken.
A St. Paul public school teacher makes sure kids don’t fall behind in their studies. A new family room provides a place to play or rest.
Lurken, who started as a secretary at Gillette 29 years ago, was so moved by the hospital’s work that she became a registered nurse.
“I knew I wanted to help people,” she said. “The most rewarding part is when kids who are rolled in here are able to walk out.”