Savannah walking tour explores the medical history of Georgia’s oldest city

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Matt Schafer’s Pandemic Passion Project is a little different than most people.

When he’s not stationed as a cardiac catheterization lab nurse in Savannah, there’s a good chance he’s reviewing the city’s medical history – not just to satisfy his own curiosity, but that of anyone with a Savannah Medical History Tours ticket.

Matt Schafer (Credit: GPB.org)

In a city as old as Savannah, founded in 1733, there is no shortage of historical tours: around 480 tour guides were registered with the city government in 2021. But Schafer’s tours, which he started leading in August , are a bit off the beaten track.

“And so we’re going to start our tour here, outside the old Telfair Women’s Hospital,” Schafer told a group of five gathered on a Saturday morning right in front of the city’s famous Forsyth Park.

“They have, to their credit, given their services to both the black and white people of Savannah, at a time when this was generally not the rule,” Schafer said of Georgia’s first hospital created exclusively for the women.

The building is now a service residence for the elderly and disabled. But the facade still bears the name of Telfair Women’s Hospital, even though it has not seen a patient for over 40 years.

While this first stop on the tour quite clearly has a medical history, the others are a little more below the surface.

One example is Congregation Mickve Israel, two blocks north of Forsyth Park. One of its first members was Samuel Nunez, a Portuguese Jewish doctor who Schafer said was instrumental in helping Savannah get through its first outbreak, of which there were several, including outbreaks of yellow fever.

“He was doing radical treatments back then: let’s treat the fever and put wet rags under their armpits to cool them down,” Schafer said. “And he also appears to have started Savannah’s first public hygiene to make sure mosquitoes maybe couldn’t grow all over town.”

What makes Nunez’s story even more remarkable is the fact that Jews were initially barred from entering Georgia in its early days as a British colony.

“We literally owe our city to the fact that people ignored this anti-Semitism and came anyway,” Schafer said.

So who typically participates in these tours? Most of the guests, Schafer said, are medical professionals from out of town. But some are just local history buffs who live in the city, like Robert Trithart.

“I did ghost tours and visited historic homes,” Trithart said. “I don’t know anything about the [medical history of] Savannah.”

Most of the tour stops are in Savannah’s Historic District, but Schafer makes sure to touch on other aspects of the city’s medical history that are a bit outside of walking distance.

Take the building that once housed the Georgia Infirmary, about a mile south of the Historic District. It was one of the first nursing schools in the country to teach African Americans. Schafer also mentions the infirmary because it is easy to ignore its true origin.

“It started off in a really excruciating way,” Schafer said. “If you think of it in an allegory, it would be the Auschwitz hospital. It was not a very good place. It was a hospital exclusively funded and run by whites who looked after the enslaved population because they wanted to protect their investment.

The commemorative plaque outside makes no mention of slavery. What comes closest to this is the wording of the original infirmary charter: “for the relief and protection of afflicted and elderly Africans”.

One of the tour guests, Sue Yacker-Frischer, has always found this phrase misleading. A former Medicare and Medicaid case manager, she worked in construction, which later became a facility for stroke patients.

“Medical history shapes so much, and we don’t really talk about it,” Yacker-Frischer said. “I feel like it’s important too – especially now with the pandemic and how it’s shaping things. And in 50 years, someone will be talking about how COVID has shaped the city. “

For Schafer, looking to the past has become a way of dealing with the harsh reality of the present.

“There have been times of sheer sadness for the entire nursing profession over the past two years,” said Schafer, whose family includes five other nurses, with a sixth member in nursing school.

“I am a great planner,” he said. “I’m still looking forward to the next vacation. And I lost that during the pandemic. ”

Quarantined at home during the first days of the pandemic, Schafer made the most of his time alone, delving into obscure books and crafting a business plan.

“It became the project I could use to focus on that there would be better days at the end of this,” he said.

This story comes to Atlanta Intown / Reporter Newspapers through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a nonprofit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.







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