At Detroit hospitals, everybody ‘pulled together’
Medical professionals recall the overflowing ER, making rounds with soldiers and medical miracles that week
Besides the oppressive heat, July 23, 1967, was like any other Sunday afternoon in Henry Ford Hospital’s emergency room. That is, until those wounded from broken glass, stones and stabbings started flowing through the door.
“All the sudden we started getting really, really busy,” said Connie Cronk, an emergency room nurse. “There was lots of minor injuries, but I mean lots .... People who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or they were looting. There was lots of trauma.”
That Sunday, Cronk worked 19 hours straight. At one point, OBGYN physicians came to the ER to help sew injuries. The nurses even taught a receptionist how to give tetanus shots.
“There were so many people coming in the door, we wanted to make sure everybody got it,” said Cronk, 74, of Clinton Township. “So that was her job — to give tetanus shots to people who came in cut.”
Dr. Susan Adelman, meanwhile, set up stretchers in the hallways, where she operated to repair tendons and smaller injuries.
Over four days, the ER treated 656 cases related to the uprising. Of those, 400 were deemed “serious traumas,” according to the book “Henry Ford Health System: A 100 Year Legacy.”
“Patients were rushed to the OR immediately when necessary — no questions asked whether they were looters,” said Adelman, an intern at the time.
Now a 75-year-old retired pediatric surgeon in Southfield, Adelman attests those summer days were “trying times” for Detroit medical personnel.
Cronk, for one, didn’t go home until Thursday that week. When she could, she’d get a few hours of sleep in the nursing student dorms. She also remembers going up to the hospital’s 17th floor Sunday night and looking out the windows.
“It seemed like the whole city was burning,” she said.
But nothing sticks out more in her memory than the youngest fatality of the riots: 4-year-old Tanya Blanding.
Reports say a National Guard tank was stationed at night outside Blanding’s apartment on Euclid, staking out a sniper. When someone inside lit a cigarette, the machine guns fired right into the windows and struck the girl.
Cronk was on the team that tried to save her.
“I think she was dead when she got to the ER. That’s the only person I remember by name,” said Cronk, pausing. “I will never forget that child, ever.”
Blanding’s family declined an interview, not wanting to discuss their painful memories.
Henry Ford, like many area hospitals, didn’t have a crisis plan that week.
After all, “this was before they had disaster-type planning,” said Cronk, who served as a Henry Ford nurse for 40 years. “Everybody just pulled together.”
By the end of the unrest, there were thousands of reported injuries and 43 deaths.
Not reported was the number of doctors, nurses and medical professionals who worked tirelessly to treat patients that week.
Guarding the doctor’s office
Dr. George Mogill’s memory may not be what it used to — “I once had a memory like a sponge, it soaked everything up,” he said — but the retired family practice physician, who’s turning 100 this month, has no trouble remembering July 1967.
Mogill opened his office on 2nd Avenue between Peterboro and Charlotte soon after returning from World War II. He treated bloodied soldiers, casualties of D-Day, in a field hospital on England’s southern shore. A little civil unrest wasn’t about to stop the Medical Corps major from journeying down Woodward from his Huntington Woods residence.
But he wasn’t prepared for what he saw upon arriving at his office inside the Seville Hotel.
“When I got there, there were patients of mine in front of the office,” Mogill said. “They were protecting the office from being broken into.”
Located on street level, one block from the Masonic Temple, Mogill thought rioters may have been tempted to break in and loot his office stashed with drugs. Yet the patients and neighbors who stood guard with guns and baseball bats weren’t going to let that happen.
“They were very loyal people,” recalls Mogill, sitting last month at his Bloomfield Hills home surrounded by family photos. His black World War II veteran cap proudly rests on his head.
His patients had several reasons to be loyal.
Back then, doctors scheduled separate days to see black and white patients.
“I opened my office, and the office staff said, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ I said, ‘Going to do about what?’ ” Mogill said.
“You going to have separate days?” the staff asked.
“I says, ‘To hell with that noise. If we go down, we go down together,’ ” he continued. “And so we opened up the office, and if we didn’t have patients come because of the diversity, to hell with them.”
Whoever came walked in the front door. And Mogill’s doctor’s office became the third in Detroit to integrate the waiting room, according to his daughter, Jain Lauter.
“I had millionaires and paupers,” said Mogill, name-dropping Jimmy Hoffa as one notable patient. “I had rich and poor, and they sat side-by-side with each other, and I took the sickest first.”
He also said he charged based on what patients could afford. The poorest were charged 50 cents, so as to not strip their dignity.
“You have to maintain a person’s pride,” Mogill said. “And I did.”
Mogill, who practiced until age 92, remembers the police escorting him a half mile from the office to Grace Hospital, where he also saw patients. Lauter, now 62, also recalls suburban patients coming to their house in the evening because they were too scared to venture downtown.
A year after the riots, Mogill moved his office to Huntington Woods. As he explained, Cass Corridor had already been an oppressed neighborhood, and the riots sure didn’t uplift it.
“It wasn’t fair to the patients so I moved,” he said. “They had to come through a downtrodden area, and that wasn’t very conducive to people.”
But he kept a location on Woodward, so city patients could still reach him by bus.
Mogill acknowledges there are lots of “bad people” in the world. Yet, when his patients protected his office, he saw another side of humanity.
“There are good ones to compensate for the bad,” he said.
Making rounds with soldiers
While Mogill was busy tending to patients in Cass Corridor, his future son-in-law was holed up at Detroit General Hospital on the east side.
“You could look out the window at night and look down Gratiot and as far as you could see on either side, the sky was lit up ... from fires from all the buildings burning. It was both awesome and scary, obviously,” said Dr. Carl Lauter, a third-year internal medicine resident at the time. “We were happy to be in there.”
Lucky for Lauter, he had the foresight to pack a bag with clothes and shaving equipment.
“I had a feeling I’d be stuck,” he said. “I ended up being stuck there almost seven days.”
Lauter, 77, is the head of adult allergy and immunology at Beaumont Hospital. In the summer of 1967, he worked at Detroit General Hospital before entering the Air Force.
That infamous Sunday, he phoned the hospital to see if they needed extra help. They gladly accepted, but advised him not to drive. One doctor recommended calling the police for an escort.
“They were busy,” Lauter said. “But the police suggested that I call a cab. They said they doubted if the white cab companies were driving in the area, ‘but you might call a black cab company.’ ”
The first company he called agreed to come to his mother’s house on Burlingame in Detroit. Lauter told the driver he needed to get to General Hospital downtown. No problem.
But as they drove toward the John C. Lodge Freeway, it dawned on the driver that maybe it wasn’t a smart move to chauffeur a blond, fair-skinned 27-year-old in plain sight.
“He turns over and he says, ‘Doctor, you wouldn’t be upset or feelings get hurt if I ask you to scrunch down in the back seat, would ya?’ I said, ‘No, that’s fine.’ I understood exactly what was going on,” Lauter said. “I didn’t want to be shot by some sniper either.”
After ducking in the back seat and passing a police checkpoint at the exit, the driver dropped him off at the hospital’s front door. And Lauter’s unthinkable week began.
The surgeons handled the knife wounds that required sewing and removed bullets from gunshots. Lauter handled the heart attacks and diabetics.
“People were running out of insulin because all the drug stores were closed, and they had no way to get refills, so their diabetes would go out of whack,” Lauter said. “...Some of them were so sick they had to be admitted.”
One day, the emergency room doctors paged everyone. They had a medical miracle on their hands and wanted all to see.
“A fireman had been shot by a sniper,” Lauter said, pausing, “right between the eyes. ... The exit wound was in the back of his head, and all he had was a headache.
“We couldn’t believe it. We didn’t have to do anything.”
But by the third day, nearly every patient in the 500-bed hospital was a prisoner, Lauter said. Even patients who could be released stayed.
The doctors also needed protection, so Lauter made rounds with four soldiers dressed in military fatigues, helmets and M-16s swung on their backs.
“It would be little me and these four guys. ... it was something very crazy,” said Lauter, laughing.
Unintentional shots fired after the riots
On July 23, 1967, Dr. Marilyn Heins spent the afternoon swimming along Canada’s sandy beaches. Her carefree Sunday took a turn when she boated back on Lake St. Clair and spotted smoke.
“We were halfway across the lake and, we’re thinking, ‘God, that’s a lot of smoke.’ We didn’t have cellphones. We didn’t have any news contact,” said Heins, now 86. “Then we realized when we got closer that this was something catastrophic. This was the Sunday afternoon that the riots started.”
Heins was the head of pediatrics at Detroit General Hospital. On Monday, a citywide curfew prevented her from traveling, so she touched base with the hospital by phone.
By Tuesday, Heins needed to get to the hospital. Driving down Jefferson from her Grosse Pointe home, there were no other cars on the road.
“It was very scary. It was very unusual. It was like a post-catastrophic movie scene because nobody seemed to be living in or driving in or walking in the city,” she said in a phone interview from Tucson, Arizona, where she resides.
Heins came upon an armored personnel carrier with National Guard soldiers, their rifles out and ready to shoot.
“I’ve never forgotten that moment because I’m very progressive in politics, but when you’re scared out of your wits, to see the uniform and the guns was a protective thing,” she said.
The carrier headed in the direction of the hospital in Greektown, so the then-37-year-old followed safely behind in her sky blue Toyota.
After her arrival at the hospital, Heins soon realized the main disruption was a nursing shortage.
“We were not admitting new patients because of the nursing problem, unless it was really an emergency. The nurses were harassed because they were doing double, sometimes triple, shifts for the first few days, and then we got back to normal once there were no curfews,” she said, adding police transported tired nurses home and brought in replacements.
At the end of the week, Heins and her husband, a veterinarian, decided to “go exploring.”
“We said, ‘Let’s go see some of these burned out neighborhoods we heard of.’ I was almost sorry we went. It was a very sad thing to see,” she said. “... It reinforced my feeling about, like we have to take care of children, we have to take care of poverty.”
In the months after the riots, Heins said she treated several kids injured by gunshots. Guns were more prevalent, as households sought protection. Yet they were often left in plain sight.
“Some loaded guns were just under the sofa. Some were just on the bedside table, but loaded with little kids in the house,” Heins said.
The worst case she remembers was a 4- or 5-year-old boy who accidentally shot his younger brother.
“He found the gun under the sofa and was just lifting it up, and he killed him,” Heins said. “When I got down to the emergency room, the mother was crying, everybody was crying, including the nurses and doctors.
“And the little boy put his arms around my knees and said, ‘I would never do that to him again.’ Isn’t that a pang in the heart?”
Caring for the caretakers
Mary Renkiewicz also saw an increased number of gun injuries at Children’s Hospital of Michigan after the disturbance settled.
“Adults don’t lock them up as they should,” she said. “And they don’t separate the bullets from the guns as they should.”
At 84, Renkiewicz is still a registered nurse at Children’s Hospital, where she started her career Jan. 12, 1957. She also still lives in the same Hamtramck house she bought across I-75 in 1965. When the mayhem started, she could see fires and hear gunshots. Understandably, her children were frightened.
“They had no idea what was going on. The adults did, but how do you explain to a kid in your own country that people are killing each other?” she recently said in a Children’s Hospital conference room.
Renkiewicz worked the midnight shift but had to arrive by 8:30 p.m. because of the curfew. She and the other nurses were given civil defense cards so they could pass what Renkiewicz jokingly called “picket lines.”
“They were not picket lines. They were dump trucks, tanks on our streets … (that) would block anybody from coming into Hamtramck — unless you lived there,” said Renkiewicz, adding trucks blocked expressways “so nobody could get off.”
In the evenings, when it was still light outside, a National Guard troop occupied the hospital roof and nurses’ quarters. The neighbors who lived across the street also stood guard.
“They made sure those of us who worked afternoons and midnight were safe because we were taking care of their kids,” she said. “….They would sit on their front porch to make sure we got into the hospital at night. When we came out in the morning, I remember them standing there. So I felt comfortable. I felt more comfortable at the hospital than I did driving.”
Renkiewicz picked up the slack for the nurses who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, come in.
“Sometimes they didn’t — they were scared about coming down here,” she said.
Yet the parents of sick children pushed away any fears, as Renkiewicz said many traveled home at night because there was nowhere for them to sleep. They exited safely through a tunnel that connected the ground floor to the parking lot.
Not much changed at the hospital after that July 27 — staff were just told to “watch your surroundings.”
That week in 1967, she said, taught her an important lesson: “Learn to live with one another.”
“Life is short. And too many young lives have gone, and they shouldn’t have,” she said.
Sleeping on the floor
For Sharon Scherping Ossowski, the fires were more threatening than the rioting.
“I remember that acrid smell of things burning,” she said in a phone interview from Willis, Texas, where she retired.
Ossowski was a second-year student at Henry Ford Hospital School of Nursing in 1967. That summer, she lived with 99 female classmates in the Clara Ford residence behind the hospital — just over a mile from where the violence erupted on Clairmount.
“Henry Ford Hospital was in the epicenter of the riot area so a lot of things were happening within that mile radius,” Ossowki said.
Now 70, Ossowki was 20 at the time. Beside National Guard vehicles parked around the hospital, she remembers sheltering in place on the dorm’s third floor.
“We were told to sleep on the floor so people wouldn’t shoot through the windows,” she said.
Because staffers couldn’t get to the hospital, and some families wouldn’t allow nurses to travel, many nursing students, including Ossowki, took on shifts. Having limited skills, Ossowki and her classmates bathed patients and tended to general care. The patients, she noted, were segregated.
“You didn’t put black patients with white patients,” she said. “It was a whole different world.”
The experience of it all eventually became a chorus in their 1968 class song:
“In July of ‘67 when we watched the city burn,
We worked some crazy hours.
Brownie points we earned.
When the army camped below us, and the tanks around us roared,
We could hear the bullets zinging as we all dropped to the floor.”
Ossowki said she felt “well protected” at the hospital, but even 50 years later, her nursing classmates still talk about that week.
“Many of us,” she said, “remember this time and just how scary it was — the racial tension and the fear of what’s going to happen.”