Even in death, former Custer hospital lives on

By Ron Burtz

A team of 27 volunteers led by retired physician Dr. Al Wessel loaded the truck pictured with equipment and fixtures from the old Custer Hospital last Wednesday. Convoy of Hope is an interdenominational faith-based organization that collects and ships donated items to helping agencies both local and around the world.

The old Custer Hospital is nearing the end of its nearly 60-year lifespan, but like a dying patient whose organs are harvested to bring new life and health to others, the defunct facility recently yielded up many items to help needy people in the local area and as far away as Central America. 

The harvesting operation took place last week when two Convoy of Hope semi trucks rolled up to the entrances of the soon-to-be demolished building and a team of about 27 volunteers began loading out dozens of items ranging from office chairs to towel bars.

With the ribbon cutting for the new Regional Health Custer Hospital a block away set for Tuesday, the original brick hospital which opened in 1962 is set to be torn down at the end of the month.

Thinking about the impact the old hospital has had on the community of Custer for the past six decades retired Rapid City physician Al Wessel exclaimed, “What a blessing! Babies have been born here. Grandmas have been cared for. People have passed here.”

Wessel, who was in Custer to oversee the collection of donated fixtures and equipment from the retired facility last Wednesday, says although the old building is dying and will soon be gone, it continues to serve through the harvesting of its contents. He said many items which are deemed throwaways in America are considered treasures in third world countries and even for local groups that don’t have money in the budget for extras.

Wessel said used linens like hospital socks, towels and baby onesies are donated to nine different local organizations like Working Against Violence, the Hope Center and Mommy’s Closet where they are given new life.

“If you’re a lady that’s really in a tough situation and you’ve got two kids…two or three bath towels look pretty good,” he said. Wessel said donated blankets sometimes go to people who are homeless.

Most of the medical equipment and larger items like beds were simply moved to the new building, but other fixtures like file cabinets, handicapped bars for toilets and bookshelves were donated to Convoy of Hope. Wessel says those items will be put in an ocean-going shipping container and sent across the Gulf of Mexico to Honduras where they will find new life in a Honduran medical facility.

Wessel retired from practicing medicine a year-and-a-half ago, but continues to serve through Convoy of Hope, an interdenominational faith-based group he has worked with for 20 years. He says he has traveled to countries like Bolivia, St. Martins and El Salvador to help deliver equipment to medical clinics and hospitals. He says an item like a cork bulletin board which is readily available in the U.S. is a valuable gift in those countries. “If they have the money to buy it,” says Wessel, “they couldn’t actually get it.”

Wheelchairs and crutches are also items clinics in third world countries are happy to get, according to Wessel.

“In foreign countries you never get two crutches,” he says. “You get one crutch.” And Wessel says broken wheelchairs are never discarded. “You take three broken wheel chairs and you can make two working wheel chairs,” he says, noting they will receive 25 damaged wheelchairs and end up with 18 working ones.

Wessel says storage is always an issue for the organization, noting he would like to see someone donate an ocean-going container.

“I have a three-car garage that I can usually get an ATV in,” he laughed. “My wife loves it when we load these trucks ‘cause she can finally get her car in the garage.”

But although more storage space for donated items would be nice Wessel says he prefers to just keep them moving.

“We don’t like to store it,” he said. “If we get it, it needs to go someplace.”

Wessel says the old hospital has been a blessing to the people of the Custer area for many years, and now through Convoy of Hope it will continue to be a blessing to people in other communities.

“People we will never ever see in this life will benefit from something coming out of Custer hospital,” he said. “There’s new life brought in to this stuff. It’s not just thrown away.”

It didn’t take long for the volunteers to strip out the usable equipment and fixtures from the abandoned facility. At mid-morning on Wednesday Wessel predicted, “In a couple of hours you could shoot a cannon off in here and you probably wouldn’t hit much.”