Obesity and opioid abuse are some of the big epidemics of today, but 50 years prior, hospitals were dealing with a much different crisis — violence from race riots.
In the summer of 1967, ”the national epidemic of riots” spread to Detroit in late July, leaving the city as one of its “most crippled victims,” according to the Aug. 16 issue of Hospitals magazine (H&HN’s former name). After just five days of violence in the Motor City, 40 were dead at the time of publication, with more than 1,500 wounded and $200 million in property damage.
Detroit General Hospital, in the heart of the city, was hit hardest, dealing with more than 26 deaths and 900 injured, Hospitals reported. The institution was already operating at capacity before rioting commenced, and was forced to put its disaster plan into effect, emptying out five wards and discharging dozens of less seriously ill patients to make way for the wounded.
As violence escalated across the city, TV and radio reports warned citizens to stay inside, spelling staffing shortages at hospitals like Detroit General. With public transportation shut down, some care providers drove ambulances out to checkpoints at the edge of the riot area to carry nurses and other staffers into work. To maintain safety inside, National Guardsmen patrolled hospital hallways.
After word of staffing needs got out through the media, employees did start showing up to help address the surge of patients at Detroit General, Hospitals reported. Food was in adequate supply to satisfy the appetites of patients, police and providers, but one item was in scarce quantity — handcuffs for all of the wounded prisoners. The hospital was also in dire need of blood to treat victims, and Detroit residents came out in big numbers to donate.
Hospital administrator Alfred Plotkin said it was one of the most amazing displays of camaraderie he’d seen at two decades of work at the institution.
“In the 20 years I’ve been here, I’ve never seen such spirit. It was completely amazing,” he said. “Some of our people worked 36 to 40 hours with only an hour or two of sleep when they could.”
The riot was incited after police raided an after-hours club frequented by African-Americans. It lasted five days and ended up killing 43, with police arresting 7,000. Detroit wasn’t alone in the epidemic; the American Hospital Association got similar reports from hospitals in Cincinnati and Newark at the time, according to a letter from the AHA’s director, Edwin Crosby, M.D., in the same issue of the magazine. Crosby offered hospitals 14 steps to take in preparation for further rioting, such as rehearsing disaster plans, locking all doors except the receiving area, and discontinuing visiting hours.
Another report, in the Aug. 1, 1967, issue of Hospitals, details a sniper shooting at Newark (N.J.) City Hospital while the institution attempted to treat violence victims during another race riot. Bullets flew at the institution from nearby abandoned buildings, possibly in response to the hospital closing its doors to visitors, according the report. Bulldozers went to work the next day knocking down those “nests,” but some tried to “continue their destructive binge” after the razing, bombing streets outside the hospital with intravenous bottles. All told, NCH treated some 700 wounded, hospitalizing 60.
Staff at Newark, upward of 80 percent of whom were black, kept in similarly strong spirits throughout the ordeal, C. Richard Weinberg, M.D., director of hospitals and institutions for the City of Newark, told Hospitals.
“We are very fortunate to have such dedicated people,” he said. “It’s remarkable how much you can get done when you’re under fire.”
(Top): Staffers scramble about in Detroit General Hospital's ED, which was the scene of intensive activity as the hospital gave aid to almost 900 riot victims. (Middle): Answering pleas from radio and TV broadcasts, donors lined up at the Detroit City County Building to replenish rapidly diminishing blood supplies. (Bottom): Shaded areas in this map indicate the riot-torn section of Detroit. That included Herman Kiefer Hospital (1), Henry Ford hospitals (2), and Detroit General (3), which handled the bulk of riot injuries.