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By the late 1930s, with tuberculosis reaching epidemic proportions and no cure or preventative in sight, it was clear that a much larger facility was needed. State Sen. Leo F. Nyberg of Helena — a TB sufferer who would eventually die at the sanatorium — worked to pass funding for a new main hospital and other buildings on the site. The state eventually appropriated $1.2 million for the project, with the federal Public Works Administration kicking in another $950,000. The 140,000-square-foot main hospital opened in 1940, and increased the number of beds at the sanatorium to more than 1,100. Nyberg didn't live to see the building that bears his name completed. A bas relief plaque honoring him hangs in the lobby.
In the Victorian era, the classic treatment for tuberculosis had been bed rest and fresh air. With the advent of more adventurous surgery techniques in the 1920s and '30s however, tactics for fighting TB took a turn to the horrific. With doctors believing that the lungs should be allowed to rest in order to heal, surgeries then in vogue included clipping and pulling out the phrenic nerve — the long, spaghetti-like cord that connects the spinal column to the diaphragm, usually while the patient was awake so he could tell the surgeon whether he was prodding at the right nerve. Other treatments had doctors collapsing the lung and temporarily filling the chest cavity with sterilized ping pong balls in order to keep the lung deflated, and thoracoplasty, in which a large chunk of the ribs and muscles of the chest were removed to make the afflicted lung collapse. Many of these treatments — such as they were — were pioneered or refined at the Arkansas State TB Sanatorium, which quickly became a model facility copied around the U.S. and the world.
That was all coming to an end by the 1950s, however, with the advent of antibiotic treatments to fight TB. By 1960, the number of patients had dwindled to a fraction of what had been seen only 10 years before. The last patients were discharged in 1972, and the Sanatorium was officially closed in 1973, reopening first as the Arkansas Children's Colony and then as the Booneville Human Development Center. Today, offices of the BHDC occupy a portion of the first floor of the Nyberg. The rest of the building is gone to ruin.
Inside, the patient rooms — row upon row — are all empty, and the once spic and span floors are hazed with dust. In the old operating suites, the ceilings have collapsed. A local high school has staged a haunted house in the basement during Halloween for the past couple of years, and the walls there are festooned with fake blood and horror show bric-a-brac. It is the work of a generation that has been blessedly divorced from death, and never known the word epidemic.
In the old morgue downstairs, near the ramp where the hearses once idled under a covered walkway so they couldn't be seen from the patients' windows, the great doors of the body coolers stand ajar. Nearby is the flotsam and jetsam of 70 years of life and death on The Hill: jumbles of file cabinets, beds, old bicycles, plaster molds, barber chairs, slides and random medical equipment long since obsolete. One room holds nothing but busted cases of Aqua Velva and Ace combs. Upstairs, there is the smell of age and decay, and birds nest in the elevator well.
On either end of the sixth floor, there is a small open sun deck, surrounded by a rail. On the roof at night, the Nyberg Building is far enough from the city that the stars are like pinpricks in black velvet. It is easy to imagine some dying man there; slipped away from his keepers long after midnight to see the sky. The wind there is clear and pure, with the Milky Way a dim smear across the heavens, and the lights of Booneville scattered on the horizon like a dream.
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