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Well at 100

Back in 1905, a group met above a downtown drugstore to discuss the possibility of building a Lutheran hospital in Fargo. "The hygienic conditions in town were bad," wrote Dr. Nils Tronnes, who would become one of the founders of what today is kn...

Jean Andersen

Back in 1905, a group met above a downtown drugstore to discuss the possibility of building a Lutheran hospital in Fargo.

"The hygienic conditions in town were bad," wrote Dr. Nils Tronnes, who would become one of the founders of what today is known as MeritCare. "Epidemics were frequent, with dozens of cases around town and no hospital facilities for transients and poor people."

MeritCare's predecessor, St. Luke's Hospital, opened with 35 beds in 1908. Its first patient was a young woman who needed her appendix taken out during the grand opening, forcing at least two of the founders to miss the festivities.

Break down the success of any long-lasting institution and those who remain will credit not the walls, but the people within them. MeritCare, which kicks off its centennial celebration on Monday, is no different.

The MeritCare Health System employs more than 7,000 people, more than any other business in the Fargo-Moorhead area, according to Job Service North Dakota. It's also North Dakota's third-largest private employer with a reach that spans a geographical area stretching from Jamestown, N.D., to Bemidji, Minn., and treating nearly 4,000 patients a day. Specialists here transplant kidneys and repair hearts, among other services. Yet, some say the people at MeritCare are the reason why the institution has lasted so long.


For at least three families, the health system's legacy is woven tightly into their personal histories. It's a place where co-workers became as close as family and their children learned the value of service.

It's those relationships that help give MeritCare its place in Fargo's history.

Growing fast

John Finnie was working in Grand Forks, N.D., when the head of St. Luke's asked him to run the Fargo hospital's pharmacy and take over purchasing responsibilities.

In 1953, one of Finnie's first jobs was buying everything needed for a north-wing addition to the hospital. He didn't do too badly, except he forgot to order bed pans, he said.

Finnie was named top administrator of St. Luke's in 1976. During his tenure, he recalls only two or three years without at least one building or remodeling project under way. But despite the growth, he still had time to walk the floors.

"In those days it was small enough that you knew everyone's name and what floor they worked on," he said. "It was small enough to feel like a family."

And indeed, part of his family was there. His daughter, Jane Roggensack, volunteered as a candy striper for a couple of summers and coordinated the program in the mid-'70s.


"In a way, I grew up there," she said. "I'd visit Dad after school and meet everyone."

Roggensack has spent nearly 30 years at MeritCare performing numerous duties, including serving as a staff nurse in the operating room and being a manager in medical education, which she does now.

When she started, her dad didn't always recognize his daughter walking the hallways in scrubs until she loudly whispered "Dad" to catch his attention.

She stayed because of the opportunities, she said. Her niece - Finnie's granddaughter - also works there.

When Finnie started at St. Luke's, nurses stood up when doctors entered the room and new mothers stayed in the hospital for 10 days after delivery.

St. Luke's and the Fargo Clinic, which merged to form MeritCare, needed to expand or get squeezed out by competition from other health systems in the region, he said.

The two institutions and their subsidiaries added "'MeritCare" to their names in 1985. At first the name wasn't too popular, Finnie said. "It sounded like Medicare and that wasn't well-liked among us," he said.

But the name eventually grew on leaders at the hospital.


" 'Merit' means 'good' and in the big picture, that's what we wanted to be," Finnie said.

Changing times

Lorrine Johnson started volunteering at St. Luke's in 1976. For nearly three decades, the Fargo woman escorted new patients to their hospital rooms or to the proper places for tests such as CAT scans. She stopped two years ago at the age of 90.

"I felt like I helped people," Johnson said.

The Fargo woman always wanted to be a nurse, but was too young to enter nursing school after she graduated from high school, she said. Instead, she took a job at the courthouse and postponed her hospital debut until she retired from one of two jobs.

Johnson at first wore the coral-colored jacket that gave volunteers the nickname "the pink ladies." Now volunteers wear maroon vests. She remembers coffee breaks when coffee cost 50 cents.

Her daughter, Cheryl Bjerke, was in her early teens when she volunteered at the hospital as a candy striper and wore the signature red-and-white pinstriped dress.

In 1999, she volunteered again. Since then, she has spent hours in the intensive care nursery rocking babies, lining up volunteers for the annual Festival of Wreaths and greeting people at the north lobby entrance.

"I've learned a lot about people and how important it is to take care of each other and show compassion," said Bjerke, 53.

But even volunteers' roles in the hospital have changed.

Federal privacy laws now restrict information available to volunteers. Something as simple as delivering flowers to a patient's room requires the volunteer to cover up the name card, Bjerke said.

Some of her favorite memories have been when her youngest daughter, Amy Fendt, also volunteered at MeritCare - the third generation in her family to do so. The two would work the same evening shift and eat potatoes and gravy in the hospital cafeteria.

"Sometimes it was the only dinner we shared together that week," Bjerke said.

A promising future

Jean Andersen learned how to work the night shifts from her mother, Ella Erwin.

The late Erwin operated St. Luke's switchboard at night for 23 years from 1961 to 1984.

Erwin would sleep until noon and then get up to make her daughter lunch. If Andersen was on a date at night, she'd have to call her mom at work to let her know she was home. Andersen's father was an on-the-road trucker.

"The hospital is what I grew up with," said Andersen, whose mother's twin sister also worked at the hospital. "It was like home for me. There was no question where I'd work."

Andersen started at St. Luke's as a nurse in 1977. Right away, she worked with friends of her mother.

Andersen now works as a house administrator, a management position, and still works closely with people who knew her mom and remember sharing Christmas oyster stew potlucks with the switchboard operator.

"My mom was a private person. I didn't know a lot about her," Andersen said. "Now I hear about the things she talked about and liked to do. For her, St. Luke's was like family. It wasn't a job."

Like mother, like daughter.

When Andersen's two sons were young, they'd wait until 7 p.m. before calling their mom to see when she was coming home. The youngest, Jordan, recalls spending time at his mom's workplace and meeting her circle of friends.

Now he's also a colleague. He works as a nursing assistant at MeritCare's transitional care unit on South University Drive. The 20-year-old also is taking classes toward earning a licensed practical nursing degree.

Andersen remembers years when the hospital and clinic were small enough to host one Christmas party for all employees. But growth has provided more opportunities for employees and patients, she said.

Jordan Andersen already feels like his co-workers are more like family members than colleagues. If someone in the department gets married, everyone goes to the wedding dance, he said.

"I feel valued, and you can make a difference," he said. "That's why I want to stay here."

MeritCare: Then and now

Then (St. Luke's Hospital)

- Number of patients treated per year: 941

- Cost for a private room: $10 per week

- Births at the hospital: 0 (they were all at home)

- Employees: 26, plus 10 doctors

- Facilities: One hospital in Fargo

- Square footage: 13,000

Now (MeritCare Health System)

- Number of patients treated per year: 293,857

- Cost for a private room: $781 per day

- Births at the hospital: 2,200

- Employees: 7,188, of which 429 are doctors

- Facilities: One hospital at two locations in Fargo; one regional hospital in Minnesota; 17 locations in Fargo/Moorhead/West Fargo, plus 26 regional clinics in Minnesota and North Dakota

- Square footage of downtown Fargo campus: 677,327

Source: MeritCare archives

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erin Hemme Froslie at (701) 241-5534

Meritcare timeline

1908 - St. Luke's Hospital opens Feb. 25. Within three days, all beds are full.

One of the founding doctors, Dr. Olaf Sand, was known as the "runaway doctor" because his spirited horse and buggy often took him places he didn't want to go.

Dr. Nils Tronnes, another founding doctor, decided to practice medicine after he assisted with an amputation in Norway. The high school private tutor administered the anesthesia, which was chloroform dropped on the patient's mask.

1911 - Ella Svenkesen McCannel, a graduate of the School of Nursing, missed being in the graduation picture because she was quarantined with a diphtheria patient in the hospital basement. The School of Nursing opened in 1908 and graduated its first class in 1910.

1918 - Flu epidemic hits Fargo. The hospital sets up a ward in the basement for high-fever patients who suffer from delirium.

1921 - Fargo Clinic opens. It is envisioned as a small-scale Mayo Clinic on the prairie.

1924 - A doctor at the Fargo Clinic suggests buying land for a parking lot. Board members overruled the idea, believing there would never be enough automobiles to fill it.

When cars were scarce, both founding doctors offered buggy and automobile rides around the city to help hospital patients feel better. Dr. Tronnes also brought his car to the nursing school and took students out for ice cream.

1928-29 - The Great Depression touches the clinic and hospital. The hospital attempts to collect accounts by offering a 30 percent discount on bills paid in 30 days. The two organizations reorganize work, cut staff and reduce salaries.

1941 - Pearl Harbor is bombed on Dec. 7. One-third of the clinic's medical staff serves in World War II. A growing need for nurses brings an influx of students to the School of Nursing.

1943 - Jennie Cross Pederson comes to St. Luke's as one of the first nurse anesthetists. Most operating rooms were on the top floor with skylights, she said. For ventilation, they opened the windows that faced Broadway. A cluster of 48 regular light bulbs hung from a single pipe over the operating table. Individual floor spotlights were adjusted for each case.

1948 - The first of three polio epidemics strikes the area. The others hit in 1951 and 1953. Doctors prescribe hot, moist flannel towels placed on afflicted joints. Some patients are placed in iron lungs.

1957 - A tornado hits Fargo on June 20. Twelve people die - 10 of them that night. About 150 are injured. The hospital cafeteria is converted to a large ward with beds on the floor and on the tables.

1964 - St. Luke's begins offering radiation therapy. An intensive care unit is added two years later.

1969 - First open-heart surgery is performed at St. Luke's. By 1971, the hospital averages three open heart operations each week.

1973 - The first computer is installed at St. Luke's for accounting. It's a National Cash Register Model 200, purchased for $225,000.

1977 - Four armed gunmen wearing nylon stockings over their heads storm the hospital pharmacy in search of money and drugs at 1:15 p.m. on April 23. They hold several employees hostage for 10 to 15 minutes. Three are arrested. A fourth suspect escapes by mingling with a crowd of visitors and incoming staff.

1983 - The clinic opens its first satellite clinic on 13th Avenue South in Fargo. It also opens its first regional clinic in Mayville, N.D. By the end of the decade, 18 more regional and satellite clinics will open and the Fargo Clinic will merge with Bemidji (Minn.) Clinic.

1984 - LifeFlight air ambulance service provides high-speed transport for emergencies. The flying intensive care unit includes a helicopter and later, an airplane.

1985 - As the clinic, hospital and their subsidiary organizations grow, it becomes apparent that a new name is needed. At a meeting, the president and executives are handed a pair of underwear and told to keep the name "undercover." Printed on the back of the underwear is the new name: MeritCare.

The name is added to the other institutions' names, but MeritCare becomes the only name when the hospital and clinic become one health system in 1993.

1985 - Trent Petrie of Dilworth is born July 29. The baby is born four months premature and weighs 12.5 ounces. Petrie is the smallest infant known to survive premature birth at that time. His story is featured in People magazine, Reader's Digest, Good Morning America and the Today Show. The Children's Hospital opens a year later.

1987 - Alvaro Garza Jr., 11, is brought to the hospital after he breaks through the ice of the Red River and is underwater for 45 minutes. He is resuscitated and left the hospital on Dec. 21, a Christmas miracle.

1989 - On July 6, Carol LeMier, 28, receives a kidney from her brother. The three-hour surgery is performed at MeritCare by Transplantation Services of Fargo, a joint venture of MeritCare, Dakota Clinic and Dakota Hospital.

1990 - Roger Maris Cancer Center, a comprehensive cancer treatment center, opens.

1997 - A cardiologist at MeritCare, Dr. Jack Crary, co-authors a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The study warns of the valvular heart disease risks associated with the diet drug combination Fen-phen.

1997 - The Eating Disorders Institute, a program for the evaluation, treatment and research of eating disorders, is established in Fargo. It is a joint effort of the Neuropsychiatric Research Institute, the University of North Dakota's medical school and MeritCare.

2001 - A robot named Homer joins the staff at MeritCare Hospital pharmacy. He packages, dispenses and can process credits and returns simultaneously.

2002 - MeritCare hosts the nation's first live webcast of a robotically assisted heart surgery. The procedure by Dr. Roxanne Newman is watched by about 8,000 people.

Sources: MeritCare archives and Forum archives

Jean Andersen

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