Helga Ekman was a nurse who strove to make better healthcare available to everyone. She started a sanatorium and children’s home for tuberculosis sufferers.
Helga Ekman was born in 1880, the daughter of Isidor Ekman, the city physician who also ran the local hospital. She grew up in Hudiksvall and after completing her schooling she was accepted as a pupil at the hospital in Hudiksvall in 1897. Helga Ekman later continued her training as a nurse at the hospital in Sabbatsberg. Her first appointment was at the hospital in Norberg in 1901 and after that she worked as a surgical nurse at the Akademiska Hospital in Uppsala in 1903–1904.
In 1905, Helga Ekman visited Erik Johan Ljungberg, the works manager at Stora Bergslagen, to investigate the possibility of working at the Domnarvet ironworks. The overcrowding and sanitary conditions of the works’ housing were substandard, among other things because of the rush of people moving in. The houses had no electricity, running water or sewage system, and illnesses, among them tuberculosis, were rife. Helga Ekman had plans for setting up and becoming the manager of a private sanatorium for tuberculosis sufferers. She was immediately offered a post with a monthly salary of 50 kronor, free lodgings and food. The physician at the ironworks, Karl Edvard Hällsjö, became Helga Ekman’s ally and together they worked for better healthcare and housing for the labourers at the works. Helga Ekman’s first assignment was to teach the workers’ daughters about domestic hygiene. She also taught women’s hygiene and supervised the sanitary care of homes in which tuberculosis already existed. The same year as she was appointed, 1905, she wrote to the works manager that the planning for the sanatorium at Domnarvet was under way. She looked after all the planning and worked out the running costs of the sanatorium.
Helga Ekman simultaneously carried out a comprehensive and thorough investigation of the workers’ and their families’ living conditions, and the spread of tuberculosis at the works. The study showed that 70 percent of the population at the works had only a kitchen as their living quarters, and the rest lived in one room and a kitchen. This report on living conditions lay the foundation of the new housing office Bergslagets Bostad AB, that was to take over the responsibility for the housing issue from the ironworks’ manager. The housing was upgraded bit by bit and modern amenities were installed as time passed.
Helga Ekman made study trips around the country in Sweden and Denmark, and also in Germany, Switzerland and Northern Italy, to learn more about sanatorium healthcare. The ironworks had allocated 100,000 kronor to the fight against tuberculosis among the works’ labourers and their families, a sum that was very useful to Helga Ekman. The work on the sanatorium was started in 1906 by Domnarvet ironworks and in 1907 it was ready for use with 24 beds. Close by, 16 flats had been built for the families of those with tuberculosis. A children’s home was added later to care for children with tuberculosis.
On Helga Ekman’s initiative, a summer camp was started in Lindesnäs for children with tuberculosis. Helga Ekman was appointed to the role of independent leader of the ironworks’ dispensary enterprise based on works’ manager Ljungberg’s donation of funds for that purpose. Helga Ekman was strongly engaged in increasing the nurses’ influence over healthcare, as well as their right to fair salaries and pensions, and in 1920 she was one of the founders of the nurses’ association Dalarnes sjuksköterskeförening. It organised lectures in which Helga Ekman spoke about tuberculosis care and how it could be made more effective. She ran the sanatorium and children’s home for 18 years, until her death.
After a period of illness, Helga Ekman died in 1922, at only 42 years of age. She was described as “an outstandingly orderly person, loyal and untiring in her work right up until the last” and as such “especially suited to her position”.