Cresson TB Sanatorium Remembered
Newspaper 13

The following article was published in the  Pittsburgh Tribune Review on Monday,  June 14,  2010.    My thanks to Chris Togneri ( ) for the following article.


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Retiree's website recalls terror of TB, life at Cresson Sanatorium

Monday, June 14, 2010

Chuck Felton pulled a surgical mask over his face, climbed into the back seat of his parents' Nash Rambler and settled in for a four-hour drive that would forever change his life.

It was a cold and dark April day in 1955. Just three weeks before, Felton — a high school senior in Towanda, Bradford County — had been preparing for graduation.

Then doctors discovered that parts of his lungs were missing. Felton had pulmonary tuberculosis. His only option was to seek treatment at Cresson Sanatorium in Cambria County.

"We didn't talk the whole trip," Felton recalled of that drive 55 years ago. "What the heck could you say? My parents had taken me out of school, they were taking me to a hospital, I had TB, the prognosis was not very good. ... I'm pretty sure they thought they were taking me on a one-way trip."

Felton spent 16 months at the now-defunct sanatorium. He made a full recovery, went on to earn his degree at Penn State University, and worked for 38 years in California as a structural engineer for an airplane manufacturer. Today, he is retired in South Texas.

Through it all, he never talked much about his time at Cresson. But one day last year, he was looking through old photographs and came across one of himself at age 18, wearing a leather jacket and standing on a snowy walkway in front of the sanatorium.

Memories filled his mind. Felton decided to create a website — for his kids — documenting his time at Cresson.

The response was more than he expected.

Overwhelming response

"Within two weeks, I started to get all these e-mails," Felton said recently from his home in Lakehills, about 40 miles west of San Antonio. "I mean, this was meant just for me and my family, so I could show my kids what it was like there. But it soon became apparent that all these people out there had memories about Cresson, but they hadn't talked about them in years."

The messages came from long-ago patients and their relatives, and from former Cresson workers, including nurses, lab technicians and "people who worked in the kitchen," Felton said.

Felton and his website became their outlet.

And the stories started rolling in.

"I thought I was going to an orphanage," recalled JoAnn Mihailov Eck, who was 7 when her mother drove her from Titusville, Crawford County, to Cresson in 1944. "She dropped me off and she's crying, so of course I started crying. And then she left, and I was all alone."

Eck, who lives in Sugar Land, Texas, discovered Felton's website last year.

"It brought back a whole lot of nightmares," she said.

Loretta Johnson Obusek of Jefferson Hills found the website when she logged on to her son's computer and typed "Cresson" into a search engine.

Obusek, originally from McKeesport, spent five months in Cresson after contracting TB in 1960. She recalled crying her first night there and waking up another night to a blur of bright lights, nurses and orderlies rushing toward a woman in a nearby bed who had become violently ill.

"The next morning, her bed was made up again, and all of her belongings were gone," Obusek said. "No one ever explained it to us. You didn't ask a lot of questions."

Sudden deaths were common, Felton said.

One night, he recalled, he awoke to see a man sitting in his bed, "coughing and choking and spewing blood." Within 30 seconds, staff rushed in and wheeled the dying man out of the room, never to be seen again.

"It was just the suddenness of it all," Felton said. "Nobody ever knew who was going to be next."

Bizarre treatments

Cresson Sanatorium opened in 1913 and closed in 1964. Today, the building is part of the state prison system.

Treatment regimens at Cresson and other sanatoriums at the time ranged from simple — sunshine and rest — to bizarre.

Felton recalled the strange sensation of pneumothorax treatments — referred to as "air" or "pneumo" by patients — in which doctors injected air into the chest cavity to partially collapse a lung and let it rest.

"The first time was the worst," Felton said. "The air would bubble up through your organs, even after the treatment."

Sanatoriums were created because TB was difficult to treat and highly contagious, said Dr. JoAnne Flynn, professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Medicine.

"The idea was, you go away, rest, get sun and then undergo a lot of very strange treatments," she said.

Sanatoriums no longer exist in America, where TB rates have plummeted, drugs have been developed and treatments have advanced, Flynn said. But TB remains a major killer in developing countries: 2 million people die and 9 million people contract the disease every year, she said.

Some patients at Cresson — such as Eck — never had TB.

But her doctors in Titusville labeled her as "high risk" because she was underweight and frequently sick. So they sent her to the "preventorium" wing at Cresson. She got out when her father, who had been fighting in World War II, returned home from overseas, drove to Cresson and demanded his daughter back, Eck said.

"My mom was a sweet, meek woman," Eck said. "She thought she was doing the best thing. Like everybody else, she was terrified of TB, and she thought her kid was going to die. ... Look at this past year with H1N1 (influenza), how panicked everyone was we were all going to drop dead. That's what it was like."

Lifelong friendships

Not all memories of Cresson are bad.

Felton and others spoke about lifelong friendships they made, of watching Doris Day films in the theater, listening to Pirates baseball games on the radio, and learning crafts such as embroidery or leatherwork.

Felton has not returned to Cresson since his release in August 1956. He said he might come back if someone organizes a reunion or a 100-year anniversary marking its 1913 opening.

Until then, he continues to check his e-mail, waiting to hear from the next survivor who stumbled upon his website.

"It's almost like being an armchair psychologist," he said. "Somehow it seems to help them by getting it out in the open. They say, 'Thank you so much for putting this website up. I've been waiting to talk about this for 50 years and now I finally can.'

"I'm reaping the benefits, too, because I get to talk to all these people, and I went through the exact same thing they did."