SHERIDAN — The name on a brass plate on the walnut box reads in a script style, “Chas. F. Williams, M.D.” Inside, the maroon velvet-lined box holds the medical instruments for a field surgeon.
This medical kit most likely belonged to a Civil War field surgeon. It is a prized item in a collection of medical equipment owned by Dave Schwaiger, a registered nurse.
The kit holds some interesting pieces.
“There’s a trepanation that was used to bore a hole in the skull to take pressure off from bleeding as the result of a brain injury,” Schwaiger said.
Some other pieces in the kit are a cloth and metal tourniquet and a bone saw. The tourniquet would be placed before amputation with the saw. Both would be used by a military field surgeon, especially when irreparable damage was caused to the bone from a musket or cannon ball. Amputation would be necessary to prevent gangrene.
“This equipment is antiquated by today’s standards but probably saved a lot of lives,” Schwaiger said. “Some of the equipment looks like torture devices. These surgical tools had to be incredibly valuable to the people who used them.”
Medical equipment would often come in cases with brass clasps and velvet lining.
“The pride in the workmanship is really something,” Schwaiger said. “Could you imagine a doctor coming into your home, opening this beautiful box, and all these precision instruments coming out?”
One of the first pieces Schwaiger acquired was a cherry wood dental cabinet. He converted it to an armoire and built in felt drawers with divisions that he uses to house some of his other collectibles.
Schwaiger’s collection includes a doctor’s bag with obstetrical equipment. Doctors carried their medical bags during an era when they made house calls and delivered babies at home. That time period makes the doctor’s bags antiques. Schwaiger discovered a hidden compartment with a metal drawer in the bottom of a doctor’s bag. The drawer looked like a small safe deposit box that held sterilized equipment.
“They would sterilize their equipment in an autoclave and reuse them,” Schwaiger said.
His collection includes medical drapes made of cloth and not disposable material as today. Syringes were glass not plastic. Needles were metal.
“Needles had to be sharpened after so many uses,” Schwaiger said.
Schwaiger’s collection also includes clamps, retractors, towel clips and other equipment needed for exploratory surgery during the days when doctors had to open a patient to explore.
He also has an eye surgeon’s kit.
“I’m not sure how old it is. The scalpels are so fine,” Schwaiger said. “You probably would want them that fine when you’re working on someone’s eye. Much of the surgical equipment was made in Germany.”
Schwaiger’s collection also includes lab equipment. One piece he has is a balance scale.
“You would put your weights on one side and measure your medicine on the other side,” Schwaiger said. “It’s a really cool piece.”
Schwaiger estimates that his collection marks the progression of medical equipment and supplies for almost 150 years.
“Back in the old days, medicine was in tablets,” Schwaiger said. “You’d dissolve the tablets in sterile water and then inject them.”
Schwaiger can speak to the changes in medical equipment over the decades. He has worked in the medical field for more than 42 years as an ambulance attendant (now called emergency medical technicians), an orderly, a licensed practical nurse and a registered nurse.
His path brought him to the Sheridan Veterans Affairs Medical Center in 1986. He retired from the VA in 2013.
Today, Schwaiger is a registered nurse for the Sheridan Senior Center.
“Since I’m in the field itself, I’ve seen the evolution of equipment over time,” Schwaiger said. “Like glass intravenous bottles where now we use plastic bags.”
Schwaiger received the collection from his father who had a career as a pharmacist.
“He would buy up supplies from doctors’ offices that closed,” Schwaiger said. “Then he branched out to dentist offices. Dad acquired some interesting things.”