Listen: Rural health care (part 2 of 4)

As part of the Mainstreet Radio series “Rural Health Care,” Rachel Raebe visits Browerville, Minnesota to see how town is coping after losing its hospital. Only an empty building remains.

This is part two of four-part series "Rural Health Care."

Click links below for other parts of series:

part 1:

part 3:

part 4:


1989 Northwest Broadcast News Association Award, first place in Series - Large Market category


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RACHEL REABE: There are signs of progress today in the small Minnesota town of Browerville. On Main Street, a new gas station convenience store is going up. Residents recently passed a major bond issue to build onto the elementary school. The population is holding steady at 712. People here are grateful for the modest prosperity, which comes just two years after their hospital closed down. City Administrator Don Frie.

DON FRIE: It was a portion of our big assets that we showed to strangers that came to town. Our school systems, our churches, and the hospital, of course, was one of the first few things that were always shown to newcomers.

RACHEL REABE: The hospital, with 35 workers, was also the town's third largest employer, right behind the Land O'Lakes plant and the school system. Its closing was almost more than the community could bear. Today, up on the hill above downtown, St. John's Hospital, a tidy brick structure set on an expansive green lawn, is quiet.

DON FRIE: It's pretty much the same, except for the equipment. This was the labor room, and that's the delivery room.

RACHEL REABE: In the green-tiled delivery suite, the delivery table is still positioned in the center of the room. The accompanying pair of stainless-steel stirrups are casually resting nearby on the floor. Don Frie says it holds a lot of memories.

DON FRIE: We had three of our children were born here. My wife's a nurse, so she worked here part time for about 20 years. So she was one of the teary-eyed ones when they closed up.

RACHEL REABE: St. John's was a community hospital, bought and paid for by area residents in the late 1950s. Numerous spaghetti suppers, bake sales, and dances were held to raise money to furnish the hospital. For 30 years, it stood as a tangible sign of community pride. Vince Leisen, who operates Leisen Pharmacy on Browerville's Main Street, says they all watched the hospital's patient count go down in the 1980s. Sometimes on weekends, the 32-bed facility would not have a single patient. But the end was still a shock.

VINCE LEISEN: Would we be able to continue to have a physician in the community without a hospital? There's always a problem with small towns any time a business closes and you have another empty building. So of course, our mood was down, let's face it.

RACHEL REABE: When the hospital closed its doors in December of 1987, Leisen said healthcare in their town went rapidly downhill. The lone physician, nearing retirement age, was winding down his practice, seeing fewer and fewer patients at the town's clinic. Leisen's business crashed. In 1988, he was filling less than a fourth of the usual prescriptions. People started going to neighboring towns for health care. But then things turned around dramatically. A large five-doctor clinic in Staples, 20 miles to the north, came in and reopened the Browerville clinic as a fully staffed satellite facility.

VINCE LEISEN: Let's see-- one tablet every day for thyroid.

RACHEL REABE: And once again, Vince Leisen is busy filling prescriptions at the high counter in the back of his small drugstore, crowded with everything from children's socks to framed religious paintings.

VINCE LEISEN: The health care picture now is upbeat because we now have the facility, the clinic, being utilized every Monday through Friday on a full-time basis. I would say that right now we have double the medical coverage we had before. I hate to say it because we miss it, but we are getting by very well without the hospital.

RACHEL REABE: Medical clinics continue to operate in all seven of the Minnesota towns that recently lost hospitals. In some cases like Browerville, the clinics are staffed by doctors from a nearby town. In others, doctors stayed on to run the town clinic even without a hospital. Barb Beck, an X-ray technician who worked for 16 years at St. John's Hospital in Browerville, now is in charge of the X-ray department at the clinic. She says they've geared up to handle cases that would have traditionally ended up in the hospital emergency room.

BARB BECK: If a really bad laceration comes in or something like that, severely broken bone, those sorts of things, we are equipped here to take care of most everything. People usually with chest pain or something like that used to go to the hospital, but now it seems that they're coming in to the clinic and being screened here first. So we're able to take care of those sort of things too.

RACHEL REABE: Beck says almost all of her former hospital coworkers were able to find other jobs at nearby nursing homes, hospitals, or clinics. Most still live in the Browerville community, a fact that softened the economic blow of the hospital closing. But, emotionally, the town continues to deal with the loss of their community hospital. Some likened it to a death in the family. Beck, who says it still hurts to drive by the dark hospital, says it takes some getting used to.

BARB BECK: So I guess it's just kind of learning a different way of things. It's not as easy just to drive up the hill and check into the hospital. You have to drive a little ways. It's a sad thing that we don't have our hospital, but I think that we've all-- life goes on, and we've all survived.

RACHEL REABE: X-ray technician Barb Beck. In Browerville, I'm Rachel Reabe.


In 2008, Minnesota's voters passed the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment to the Minnesota Constitution: to protect drinking water sources; to protect, enhance, and restore wetlands, prairies, forests, and fish, game, and wildlife habitat; to preserve arts and cultural heritage; to support parks and trails; and to protect, enhance, and restore lakes, rivers, streams, and groundwater.

Efforts to digitize this initial assortment of thousands of historical audio material was made possible through the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. A wide range of Minnesota subject matter is represented within this collection.

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