A Look Back at X-Rays and Early Lab Days

Suzy Hopkins
By Suzy Hopkins March 15, 2010 17:53

Jim Rucker, 1962, in Sonora Community Hospital lab

In the 1950s and ’60s, two brothers were Tuolumne County’s entire workforce of laboratory and X-ray technicians: Jack and Jim Rucker.

“Jack moved here in the late 1940s and was putting in 100 hours a week and getting kind of tired,” says Jim of his late brother, whose extensive community involvement over half a century  included 12 years on the Sonora City Council. “I considered it for about a minute, put my house on the market and joined him up here in 1951.”

Working from two Sonora labs, Jim and Jack served patients at all three local hospitals and throughout the region. Their daily duties would make modern-day lab techs marvel. For Jim, a typical day started with house calls and blood draws, then lab work to create by hand the solutions and stains needed for the myriad tests doctors ordered – blood sugar, cholesterol, pregnancy, thyroid, infections and more.

“Now you just put your samples in a machine and tell it what to do,” Rucker says.

They reported results to doctors in an era devoid of cell phones and pagers. “When we couldn’t get through on the phone, we’d go over to the doctor’s office and beat on the door.”

Their duties included X-rays, electrocardiograms, and cross-matching patient and donor blood prior to surgery – sometimes in the middle of the night, and always nerve-wracking because a mismatch can be fatal.

Jim’s college training as a lab technician, paired with an unbending work ethic, made him well-suited to the job. The Sacramento native joined the Marines as a pharmacist mate, serving in the South Pacific during World War II. He worked for the state agriculture department for six years in veterinary bacteriology until Jack’s 1951 phone call.

In Tuolumne County, Jim found a rural community with a strong economy, tourist appeal, and its fair share of related injuries. Logging and mining contributed plenty, as did skiing and the Tri-Dam Project, whose workers built the Beardsley, Donnells and Tulloch reservoirs. “We also had a lot of automobile accidents, valley people coming up who didn’t know how to drive these mountain roads,” recalls Rucker, now 88.

Those accident victims often suffered broken bones and other injuries that required X-rays. Rucker lugged his portable X-ray machine weighing 70-plus pounds to the hospitals and on house calls, once using a broom to position it over a bedridden patient. He estimated exposure times and worked without protective barriers. “We took a lot more risk then, things we wouldn’t do now,” Rucker says. He hand-developed the films until the county got its first processor in the early 1970s.

In his early years on the job, the community had three ambulance services – two were run by mortuaries – and a half-dozen or so doctors working between the three hospitals. He and his brother worked from labs at the old Columbia Way Hospital, which now houses ATCAA offices; and Sonora Hospital, at the site of today’s Yosemite Title parking lot. “All of the injured had to be carried up the steps to the surgery on the third floor,” Rucker recalls.

Jim also did lab work for the county hospital a few blocks away, plus electrocardiograms and plaster casting for broken bones. At times he helped with surgical procedures. Sometimes patients would call him at home and ask him to explain lab results.

Occasionally Jim accompanied Jack, a pilot, on a quick flight to San Francisco or Stockton to pick up blood when supplies fell short. For several years as a sideline, the brothers handled water testing for wells throughout Tuolumne and Calaveras counties. “I think we charged $7.50, and now it’s about $40.”

Despite the long hours and intense pressure, there were benefits. Jim met his future wife, Gloria, in 1955 when she sliced her finger cutting lettuce at her restaurant job and needed an X-ray. A year later, she went to work as the Ruckers’ secretary and bookkeeper – and keeper of the caged rabbits used for pregnancy testing.

This was long before urine-stick testing, and it worked like this: Rucker would inject a patient’s urine into a female rabbit’s ear vein. Two days later he’d cut open the rabbit. Inflamed ovaries meant “pregnant,” and the rabbit was stitched up to serve another day.

Married in 1966, Jim and Gloria recently celebrated their 44th anniversary. Gloria owned and operated two retail stores, Sanfords and Touch of Class, before retiring in 1992. Jim retired in 1983, shedding the rigors of three decades of night and weekend work. But he looks back with gratitude on a fascinating career and his role in the county’s health history.

“We worked awful hard, but it was so rewarding,” he says. “I loved the one-on-one with patients, and it was always exciting – you never knew what was coming in the door. It was a feeling of real accomplishment.”

Suzy Hopkins
By Suzy Hopkins March 15, 2010 17:53
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