Retro Riley: Hospital broke new ground with oxygen therapy

Patient Care |


Respiratory Therapy Department oxygen therapy

On the wall outside the first-floor entrance of Riley Hospital’s Respiratory Therapy Department is a bronze plaque. Imagine a crowd of 300 people representing more than 50 Indiana chapters of Psi Iota Xi Sorority gathered on Feb. 2, 1932 – at Riley Hospital – to commemorate the opening of the state’s first-ever Oxygen Therapy Department with the formal unveiling of this plaque.

Respiratory Therapy Department oxygen therapy

Psi Iota Xi, one of the legacy organizations supporting the hospital since its opening in 1924, raised and donated the $7,500 that made the construction of Riley Hospital’s oxygen room possible in 1932. At that time, hospital authorities called this donation “one of the most important made by any organization in recent years to the improvement of hospital treatment facilities.”

In the crowd that day was Dr. Harold Trusler, Riley Hospital’s trail-blazing surgeon and director of Indiana University School of Medicine’s research department. It was Dr. Trusler who designed the plan for Riley Hospital’s oxygen rooms based on what he learned from visits to major hospitals in other states. Dr. Willis Gatch, then head of surgery and soon IUSM dean, was also there that day to acknowledge the donation. He supervised construction of the oxygen room, which consisted of four chambers, was airtight and fitted with apparatus for the manufacture of oxygen that could be regulated.

Oxygen therapy offered a new way to provide care, comfort and relief for pediatric patients in the 1930s. It was believed at the time that oxygen therapy could help children with a host of medical challenges, including pneumonia, high fevers, pulmonary edema, postoperative lung complications, embolism, laryngeal or tracheal obstruction, coronary occlusion and cardiac decomposition.

Within a year after the dedication, James Carr, executive secretary of the Riley Memorial Association, reported that the oxygen chambers were producing good results in critically ill children, and many delegations of physicians had come to inspect the department.

Respiratory Therapy Department oxygen therapy

Mary Brokaw, whose nursing career at Riley Hospital spanned 52 years (1956-2008), recalls that the oxygen room actually consisted of two rooms (fitted with double doors to maintain the oxygen concentration) and storge for oxygen tanks located outside what was then the Isolation Unit on the hospital’s second floor. At that time, the oxygen rooms were no longer in use. Theresa Miller Henshaw, former senior nurse leader whose 27-year nursing career at Riley began in 1958, said piped-in oxygen started about a year after she began, so the tanks were not used any more.

New and improved methods for monitoring patient oxygen levels and administering oxygen, along with the growth of respiratory therapy as a profession beginning in the late 1940s, replaced the need for patients to be in Riley Hospital’s oxygen room and brought oxygen therapy to the patient’s bedside. While in operation for a relatively short time, Riley Hospital’s oxygen room paved the way for progress in the use of oxygen therapy for pediatric patient care.

--Compiled by the Riley Hospital Historic Preservation Committee; photos provided by Sydney Gendron and IUPUI University Library Special Collections and Archives