Drs. George Pettersen and Richard Burman began a medical practice together in Aitkin that lasted 14 years. Dr. Pettersen recently died and those in the community who remember him, might like to review a history of their time working as a medical team both in Aitkin, and after opening the first medical office in McGregor.
The Aitkin Community Hospital opened in early 1955 after nearly a decade of fundraising. At first, admissions were down because some preferred a doctor’s house call and recovering at home. A bigger problem was a shortage of doctors in rural communities. People had to go out of town to see specialists and were hospitalized where their doctor practiced. The new hospital was built with a hope of attracting new physicians.
Two years after the Aitkin hospital opened, a couple of young doctors came to town. Dr. Richard Burman had grown up in Malmo, graduated from Aitkin High School and the University of Minnesota Medical School. Dr. George Pettersen grew up in St. Paul, graduated from Central High School and the U of M’s medical school.
The community openly welcomed two new doctors. They were also beneficial to “old timers” Drs. Petraborg and Closuit, who had separate medical practices, but carried full patient loads. The hospital’s census began to rise since the ER could take more accident victims, heart attacks, OB’s, etc. More surgical patients were also handled locally. In 1963, the 48-bed C&NC nursing home opened following more community and federal funding.
In a 2009 interview, Drs. Burman and Pettersen shared memories of setting up their first medical practice together in Aitkin on a shoestring budget:
Memories of Dr. Richard Burman
“I remember they began raising money to build the community hospital back when I was attending Aitkin High School. Seed money from the 1940s just kind of sat there until Albert Fenske, Jim Cluff, and Ed Wold (Dick Burman’s father-in-law) began pushing to build a hospital.”
Along with many others in the community, they found efficient ways to raise money. (In 1954, a Woman’s Auxiliary formed with over 100 women and the auxiliary operated a food county fair booth.)
One photo (circa 1960 from Riverwood Healthcare Center) in the Aitkin Independent Age shows the Women’s Auxiliary fair booth. In it were Mrs. Kenneth Lyons, Mrs. Charles Ziske; Molly Call and Mrs. Walt Wagner.
“At their own expense, Ed, Al, Jim and others went around the state looking at hospitals built under the Hill-Burton fund,” Burman said. They became well organized in planning and spent a lot of time fundraising in the 1950s.
After the hospital opened, Dr. Clark Marshall came from Crosby and did surgeries. “He was a real source of help for Dr. Petraborg and Dr. Closuit. At that time, there weren’t enough physicians here to make the hospital a go.”
“I met George at Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul. He was a surgical resident who took me under his wing and helped me a lot. One day George said, ‘let’s go and practice together.’” By then, George and Eleanor, Dick and Beverly, were good friends. Aitkin was also the hometown of Beverly (Wold) Burman.
“George loved it here and we both knew the community needed more doctors. Since Bev’s dad had worked so hard to make the Aitkin Community Hospital happen, we agreed to practice here. We decided not to join either of the other doctors, but to start an office by ourselves.” Burman said doctors didn’t call offices “clinics” then unless you were a multispecialty group. “The word clinic has changed its meaning over the years.”
They rented space above the First National Bank. “Everyone had to walk up those steep stairs. Neither George nor I had had funds to start an office. We went into the First National to get a checking account and the president, Dick Hassman, said ‘I suppose you boys will need some money? To start with, I’ll cover your checks and you can pay me back when you get money.’ That’s how it all started.”
With limited funds, both families lived frugally. “We had our expenses covered, but we pretty much lived hand-to-mouth for two to three years,” said Burman who recalled shopping at Ackey’s Grocery store, (about three doors down from where Aitkin Flowers is today), next to the old Hanlon Drug. “We bought on credit. Whenever our girls came into their store, they always gave them each a weiner to eat.”
“Shortly after I started practicing in Aitkin, I took care of my very first snowmobile accident patient on the Fourth of July! The patient had become intoxicated and started driving his snowmobile around the yard when it stopped suddenly, throwing him over the handlebars and breaking his collarbone.”
Burman recalled some long hours and being sometimes short on sleep. The ER sometimes had mundane things like sunburns or removing fish hooks, but there was plenty of excitement with accidents from cars and snowmobiles plus heart attacks, OB’s, etc.
They shared their patient load by being on call every other night and every other weekend, and then saw patients during regular office hours. They also did house calls for a number of years, plus they covered for each other’s vacations or helped each other in emergency situations.
Memories of Dr. George Pettersen:
“I first practiced medicine in Mabel, Minn.,” said Pettersen (in 2009). After four years, he and his wife Eleanor, an RN, and son Chuck moved to St. Paul to do a surgical residency at Bethesda Hospital. Dick Burman was one of several interns. “I had four years of experience in private practice and did some surgeries and assisted at a lot of others. “Somehow, Dick and I got together and he told me about where he had come from, which was the Malmo/Aitkin area.”
In the spring of 1957 they visited Aitkin and talked with Dr. Fred Closuit about his practice and toured the new hospital. Dr. Closuit assured them the community needed more physicians. Their rental space above the bank had been used previously as a doctor’s office and they began acquiring office equipment.
“Fred Burman, Dick’s dad, made a stand for an old Frigidaire we found,” said Pettersen. “The office had two examining rooms, a business office, plus a long room where I did refractions and tested eyes. We didn’t do too many because Dr. Bob Orazem was in town, but I did those in Mabel.”
They also bought an old oak examination table, a desk and simple equipment for testing blood and urine. “We borrowed money for other equipment and hired a young girl right out of high school, Cherie Hogan, who did book work and directed patients. We were accepted pretty well by the community with a big article in the paper about two new doctors coming to town who were needed here.”
“Dr. Burman and I were the only ones who treated patients from out of the area who were in need of emergency care at the hospital,” said Pettersen. “We handled a lot of accident victims given the location of Aitkin at the intersection of two major highways. We also traveled to McGregor two days a week to see patients in an office in the back of the drugstore. Dr. Burman and I performed minor surgical procedures and worked with Dr. Clark Marshall from Crosby when a qualified surgeon was needed.”
“As we became busier, we looked around for some place for an office building. In 1965, John Koenig contracted to build our office building near the hospital. We moved in during the summer of that year thanks to the support of the First National Bank.”
BOTH MD’S ALMOST HIT BY A TRAIN
Drs. Burman and Pettersen made it a habit not to ride together in case a car accident incapacitated them and left their office and community short staffed.
“One day we both jumped into my car for a quick trip to the hospital,” said Burman, “but the car stalled right on the railroad tracks.” It was at the crossing near McDonald-Wold and today’s Beacon Arch. “While we were trying to get the car started, we could see the train coming!”
They both jumped out of the car and the train smashed into it. Unhurt, they quickly went to McDonald-Wold’s and told Roger Wold to please get the wrecker for the car. Burman recalled someone came running out of Fred’s Café with his camera to get a picture, but they’d already removed the wreckage.
Neither doctor thought about telling the police, or anyone else for that matter, as they were late for their appointments. Pettersen went to the office to see patients and Burman went to the hospital to read an X-Ray. However, word of their mishap spread like wildfire.
“A variety of reports regarding the severity of our accident were going around town,” said Burman. His wife Beverly received many calls expressing concern. “When Bev called our office, our receptionist Myrtle Anderson (not knowing anything about the incident since neither George or I had told her), said, ‘Dr. Burman’s not here. He’s at the hospital.’ Well, that had a very different meaning to Bev! Later, the body shop restored my old car so we would continue to be reminded of the unfortunate incident for some time.”
In the spring of 1957, two young physicians came to Aitkin and opened their medical practice above the First National Bank on Minnesota Ave and 2nd Street (today’s Ryan and Brucker building). They also began trips to McGregor to see patients.
Drs. Richard Burman and George Pettersen called it their McGregor “office” instead of “clinic” because back then, clinics were multi-specialty groups of physicians such as the Mayo Clinic.
“We decided to open our McGregor office after we met with Arnold Hoppenstedt in 1957,” said Pettersen. “Hoppenstedt’s plan was to move to McGregor. He offered us a room in the back of his drugstore (previously a Catholic church) for Dick and myself to see patients twice a week.” Hoppenstedt also agreed to provide a telephone and desk.
“We bought an old oak examination table and borrowed money to buy other items,” said Pettersen. We went to McGregor every Tuesday morning and Thursday afternoon.” He said they’d sometimes see 10-15 patients and Hoppenstedt kept busy filling prescriptions. “When we were in Aitkin, there were three drugstores then who filled prescriptions. I guess we kept our charges down and didn’t make much at first, about $2 a visit, and $3 for a penicillin shot, which was less than Crosby was charging.” He said it wasn’t always handy to operate the McGregor office. “We felt we had to in order to serve that community. It seemed easier for one person to go and take care of 15 patients than it was for 15 to try and get to Aitkin. They did that, too, of course.”
After a time, Drs. Pettersen and Burman acquired more patients, both obstetrical and those needing hospitalization, which helped Aitkin Community Hospital’s census. Room rates were $12 and $15.
Emergencies had to be brought to the hospital. “Dick and I saw many people in the ER for $5. We often came down night or day to deliver babies, see people with heart attacks, etc.” He said at that time, there wasn’t much that physicians could do for heart attack victims except keep them comfortable with morphine, oxygen, and IV medications. “Now of course it’s an entirely different situation.”
He said that he and Burman did all the ER work except for Dr. Closuit or Dr. Petraborg’s patients but handled them in the ER if their own MD’s were gone. Dr. Clark Marshall helped out with major surgeries. “Dick and I did appendectomies, hernias, hemorrhoids, tonsils, and adenoids. That was the extent of what we felt comfortable doing.”
As their medical practice grew, so did a need to expand Aitkin’s office. They wanted something handier for elderly and handicapped patients and chose land near the hospital. John Koenig was their contractor.
“We moved into our new Aitkin office in 1965,” said Pettersen. “We raised our office fees to $3. It was when Medicare was coming in and at that time, Crosby was charging $5 for an office visit, but Medicare held us to $3.”
END OF THEIR PRACTICE
After 14 years together, Dr. Pettersen wanted to switch to public health career. “I left Aitkin in June of 1971. My wife Eleanor and I went on the SS Hope.” They served several months in Jamaica and Natal, Brazil. “I left because I was running out of gas, pretty much burned-out over the years; mostly because we worked so hard. After I left, Dick worked extremely hard. It was difficult to get doctors to come. By then Dr. Petraborg had retired and Dr. Closuit wasn’t anxious to take on further work.
“We both went our own way,” said Pettersen. “We never had an argument and always got along extremely well.” He said they worked for each other and covered vacations. “I’d call him when I had two women in labor about to deliver and I’d help him if he had things he couldn’t handle alone. We really worked well together and are still good friends.”
After receiving a degree in public health from UCLA, Pettersen became the Olmstead County health officer before being appointed by Governor Al Que as state commissioner of health. He then became San Bernadino County’s director of health in California until his retirement.
Burman practiced alone for two years. “The medical school had a program for trying to attract people into family practice,” said Burman. “As part of their residency, students would be under a rural physician for a year. I had Dr. David Bransford, a medical student, as part of his rotation.
“George and I sold our building and equipment to Aitkin Community Hospital,” Burman said. It was the hospital’s administrator Floyd Snodgrass who recruited Dr. Carson to come to Aitkin. “I had made a lot of efforts to attract someone to partner with me, but was unsuccessful. The main reason was our fee structure was just too low to attract doctors, but we couldn’t raise it because of a government price freeze.”
Burman added that by discontinuing their former practice and the hospital starting a new one, incoming physicians could then set their own fees and not be limited by federal attempts to control costs.
Burman left Aitkin July 1 1973 and joined the Richfield Medical Group. Shortly after that, Dr. John Carson and later Dr. James Hover took over management of the clinic which was renamed Ripple River Medical Center (RRMC). Later, Dr. Bruce Adams followed by Dr. Charles Schotzko joined them.