Cold War-era hospital-to-go goes on the block

The 'Packaged Disaster Hospital' had been in storage at the Walla Walla Regional Airport for decades.

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Twenty-five yards of surgical stockings.

Abdominal retractor.

Radiation detection kits.

Stethoscopes, 17 wrapped in black plastic.

It sits in stacks and stacks just east of town at an auction house, close to where it was stored, mostly undisturbed for decades.

Green surgical masks, 120 to a package.

Bone pin cutter the length of an adult forearm.

Sigmoidoscope, powered by battery or electricity. You may not want to know more.

Amputating saw of gleaming surgical steel.

He's never seen anything like it in 35 years of business, explains Doug Macon of Macon Brothers Auctioneers. "When I first got this, I thought 'How will I market this? Who will I market to?'"

Bone chisels, various blade sizes.

Speculum, stainless steel, four-inch blades.

Bags of test-tube stoppers. Cork.

Wooden crutches.

There's not but a handful as complete as this, Macon says, his hand extending toward the packed space. "This is the most unusual ... thing of this nature I've seen."

The auctioneer is referring to a "Packaged Disaster Hospital," a leftover relic of the Cold War. And next weekend, up for auction for those hungering for graduated glass beakers in perfect, vase-like shape or cases of virgin glass microscope slides.

Originally named Civil Defense Hospitals, the emergency and temporary medical centers were adapted from Mobile Army Surgical Hospital -- MASH -- units.

It started in 1953, according to the encyclopedia of civil war defense and emergency management developed by the University of Richmond in Virginia and information from the Civil Defense Museum.

Packaged Disaster Hospitals were created for a terrified nation during the Cold War and its threat of nuclear disaster. The idea was to put together a field hospital that could be deployed to anywhere in the nation, using equipment not needed for civilian purposes. The plan was to create medical units that could operate for as long as 30 days, to serve survivors stuck in one place by the event.

Although the hospitals were maintained until 1980, the first few years saw 1,800 of the units acquired by the Federal Civil Defense Agency before the operation was transferred to the government's public health service.

Each hospital set weighs 45,000 pounds -- give or take a few stainless steel bedpans -- and requires 7,500 cubic feet of storage space. Putting one together takes 120 hours to assemble the various departments, including a pharmacy, dental office, surgery center, kitchen, X-ray, offices and housekeeping. Supplies range from antibiotics (although all drugs have been disposed of for the Walla Walla unit), housekeeping supplies and gurneys, down to shovels, axes and hand tools. Once set up, the units took up about 15,000 square feet of floor space and could support staffs of more than 70 professionals.

The last disaster hospital was assembled in 1962. At the program's zenith, more than 2,500 had been sent out, including to rural areas like Walla Walla. As potential needs evolved, the hospitals did, too. Some have been used for events such as hurricanes and floods, here and in developing countries.

As support of the civil defense program waned -- allocating the $7 billion to $9 billion needed for maintenance ended in 1972 -- America's thinking turned from preparation for a nuclear event to prevention.

Here, the Packaged Disaster Hospital has sat more or less untouched in an unheated, unlit and slightly damp warehouse at the airport. "They tried to store these in places as safe as possible from a nuclear exchange," Macon explains.

Earlier this year, Walla Walla County officials decided the time has come to divest the county of the outdated medical bounty and declared the hospital as surplus.

After the "overwhelming" inventory was categorized and listed by AmeriCorps volunteer Nick Plucker, it was shipped a few blocks to the auction house on Aeronca Avenue.

The medical unit represents a dichotomy of thinking about what might happen during nuclear warfare, Macon has noticed. The four camp-type stoves on his auction floor, with aluminum cauldrons large enough to bathe a child, operate on white gas, he says. "They assumed there would be gas available after a nuclear exchange ... it's a strange premise."

For the auctioneer, who grew up working in the family war-surplus business, the Packaged Disaster Hospital is fascinating. As he and his staff have prepared to sell the goods, by the piece or by the case, Macon has found himself drawn back to the days of "duck-and-cover" drill of his youth.

There's plenty of toys for grown-up Cold War kids. The inflatable tank for a water supply management system, still in its wooden crate. The linoleum knife to cut flooring for sterile areas. The thick stainless-steel everything -- buckets with lids, pitchers, vomit basins, catheter trays resembling oversized butter dishes.

The huge trolley cart stacked with ceramic coffee mugs and bowls that would have held food like soup or shredded wheat.

To have the items in such pristine condition from good storage and un-pilfered is not like the fate of many of the disaster hospitals, Macon points out.

It will be interesting to see who's attracted to the Nov. 14 auction that is slated to begin at 9 a.m., inside and outside the building concurrently, he adds. Some of the medical items are clearly outdated, like the canvas hand washing station with multiple spigots, designed to hang down and clean many at once.

Much of the equipment is still very usable, Macon feels. The forceps clamps (to the count of about 450) and scissors look much the same as now, and in higher quality than most could afford to purchase new, he says. "There might be veterinarians who can use these things. A lot of it could go to humane societies or Third World situations."

For more information about the auction, call 529-7770 or see the listing at www.maconbrosauction.com.

Cotton duck sand bags. Empty.

Stainless forceps jars.

Push brooms and mops.

Plastic irrigating nozzles. Again, you don't want to know.

The display seems to go for a mile.

Hand-powered hair clippers.

Aluminium meal trays, enough to feed 300.

Glass sugar shakers.

Surgical lamp, freestanding with base.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom.

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