Sanatoriums in Pa. treated thousands for tuberculosis
To the patients housed there, it was called simply
"the san," a part of Pennsylvania history that has nearly been forgotten. The Cresson Sanatorium for tuberculosis patients was located a few miles to the east of the small town of Cresson, between Johnstown and Altoona.
show that between 1913 and 1964 when it ceased operation, more than 40,000 men, women and children were admitted for treatment.
The majority of them stayed for years before being discharged as cured, but a number of them died there. Because of the stigma
associated with TB, some of the patients who died were never claimed and are buried in nearby Union Cemetery, some with a
grave marker with no name or date, but just a number for identification.
The Cresson Sanatorium was one of three large
TB facilities run by the state, the other two located at Hamburg and Mont Alto. The Cresson Sanatorium sat atop 500 acres
of pristine mountaintop woodlands that had been sold to the state in 1911 for $1 by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie with the stipulation that the state build a TB facility on the property. Its 2,600-foot altitude assured an abundance of
Opened to patients in 1913, the sanatorium
offered treatment consisting simply of bed rest, good food and fresh air. Photos show patients bundled up in heavy winter
clothing sitting on lounge chairs on open-air porches in the middle of winter with snow on the ground.
Up until mid-1940
when antibiotics were discovered, there were no drugs available. Hence, before then, the cure could take years. However, despite
long continued periods of rest for tuberculosis patients, the tubercle bacillus continued to take a high toll of victims,
and the outlook for the moderately advanced and far advanced case remained very grave.
Before the introduction of drugs
in 1945, lung-collapse therapy brought new hope to the physicians and patients to help speed recovery. The theory was that a collapsed
lung would achieve more rest and heal quicker.
One method was a surgical procedure in which sections of several ribs
by the infected part of the lung were removed, with the remaining rib sections allowed to sink in and collapse the lung, a
procedure which often left the patient disfigured. Another method, called pneumothorax which had no serious after-effects,
consisted of injecting air into the pleural cavity to collapse the lung.
My knowledge of the Cresson Sanatorium comes
from firsthand experience. In 1955, when I was 17 years old and a senior at Towanda Valley High School in Towanda, I was looking
forward to graduating from high school and enrolling at Penn State that fall.
But my plans suddenly changed when in
March 1955 I was diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis and was sent to the Cresson Sanatorium where I spent 18 months recovering.
Upon arrival, my clothes were fumigated and sent home with my parents. I didn't get them back until 12 months later, as I
spent the next year in pajamas, slippers and a bathrobe.
I was fortunate that in 1955 effective drugs, such as the
antibiotic streptomycin, were available. I also received pneumothorax treatment during my 18 months at the sanatorium and
continued them at a local hospital for an additional year after my discharge.
A year in bed can seem like an eternity
to a 17 year old. To its credit, the sanatorium did its best to provide entertainment and recreation for the patients. The
patients could spend lots of time playing cards, with bridge, pinochle and hearts being the favorites. Board games like checkers
and chess were popular. Of course, in 1955 there was TV to watch but black and white only.
Listening to the radio and
reading books were by far the favorite pastimes because they could both be done while sitting or lying in bed at rest. Each
bed had a small white metal box strapped to the bed frame with headphones attached. A toggle switch allowed you the choice
of two radio stations. One station usually played music while the other might be a soap opera or the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball games during the summer.
The sanatorium also had a well-stocked library and even provided a mobile library
cart, which came through the wards twice a week. Magazines such as Saturday Evening Post and Life were available to keep us
up to date on the latest world news.
Chuck Felton, who lives in Lakehills, Texas, has been researching the history and stories of Cresson Sanatorium, which he has compiled into a website that includes photos of patients and staff showing their daily routines as well as personal stories submitted by other former
tuberculosis patients. His e-mail is email@example.com.