Cresson TB Sanatorium Remembered

Harvey's Story

I received the following writeup from Harvey Docchio of New Brighton, Pa.  It was written in collaboration with his brother Jerome.  They have a compelling story to tell about their time in the preventorium at Cresson san and the effects of TB on their family.  Their story gives many details of what life was like for children placed in the preventorium and includes the names of many of the staff who attended them.  For clarity, I have edited the writeup in several places to make it read like Harvey is the author.

September 3, 2009 

My brother Jerome and I compiled this letter together, what he remembers and what I could add.

 I stopped at the Cresson san in June 1971 on my way home to New Brighton, PA while attending graduation for my wife's sister, who was finishing Hershey Medical (A division of Penn State).  I drove to the main building and was stopped from going anywhere. It was now a mental facility, so we couldn't roam freely. I explained that I was a patient back in 1941.  A staff member accompanied my wife and me to Children's House.  I stepped inside the lobby to reminisce, but couldn't go any further. The guide did not know about it being a TB facility.  I took some pictures around the grounds. I could see patients looking out at us.  The windows were barred, which seemed weird. 

My brother Jerome took a trip  there on  August 6, 2009,  He was not allowed to visit at all for it is now a prison. Jerome explained the situation that he was a patient there in the 40's when it was a TB Sanitarium. They had no idea what he was talking about. I am going to see if I can get to someone who has clout to help me visit.



The previous time we were there was during the years of 1941 to 1945, intermittently.  We cannot remember the exact dates.  We do remember that we were there before the war had been declared by President Roosevelt on December 8, 1941.  A nurse was hysterical saying  We have been bombed by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. I asked her where was Pearl Harbor?  She said in Hawaii. I said that is not the United States.


We did not complete the whole school year at home in December 1941 for we went to Cresson san. We were sent to Cresson again for a year and a half in late 43 to August 45 and came home after VJ Day. [Victory Over Japan].  So, we spent 2 & 1/2  years in Cresson between the start and the end of War World II.  Sixty-eight years ago.


Cresson at that particular time was a sanatorium for tuberculosis.  My grandfather had TB and my mother and her sister caught it from him and they were both patients at Cresson. Jerome was the first of the children in the family to be admitted.  Several months later us older brothers  Kenneth and I joined Jerome.  How my dad pulled that off, I cannot imagine.  Neither Ken nor I had any signs of tuberculosis other than being associated with our mother. Jerome did have a spot on his lung. I can recall my oldest brother Bill spent some time there but he was released early and he joined the Navy shortly after.


My mother was a patient there in1939-1940, released and died on February 20, 1942 at a local sanitarium in Monaca PA.  She was 36 years old. I can remember that day as if it were today.  Miss Mary MacKereth, our school teacher and head principle, gathered us together, Kenny, Jerome and I, and  told us that our mother had passed away that afternoon.  It was a very cold February winter’s day.  The news was difficult, and of course, we took it hard.  It’s ironic - my father passed away 55 years later at the age of 92 on the same date on February 20th 1995.  Except for the weather:  it was mild here in Ellwood City PA  in 1995 compared to that February’s hard winter’s day at Cresson in 1942.


The news about our mother was terrible. We were all small children.  But looking back, my mother had a very hard time seven months earlier. On July 7, 1941, my second oldest brother, Eugene, was killed in a shooting accident.  I always believed that my mother stopped living then, being ill with tuberculosis.  She died of complications of that terrible disease seven months later.  I am convinced she died of a “broken heart”.  She just went downhill from then and never did recover.  Not long ago I mentioned that to our doctor and he told me that he believed it to be true, for he had experienced a similar situation with his mother.  His mother had died, he believed, from a broken heart, when his brother got killed in an automobile accident.


Well, there we were in Cresson, Pa. at the ages of seven, nine and eleven.  We can honestly say that we just went along with the whole thing.  First time, really, separated from our family and friends, a considerable distance from home.  Cresson wasn’t that bad, although we thought it seemed like reform school. There is good and bad in everything, but we just went along with the flow.  When we first arrived we were put in isolation.  We were put in a small hospital home with three or four other kids that have arrived there along with us.  We were kept in bed for two weeks while some medical tests were being performed.  Yes! Kept in bed.  We hadn’t any activities and we were always in our pajamas in bed.  The only time we were out of your bed was to go to the bathroom. We did everything from our bed until released from isolation.  After two weeks we were released from isolation and joined the rest of the children.


The place we went to was called  Children’s House.   And as you would suspect, that is exactly what is was, a place for children.  Boys and girls of various ages, from infancy to 16 years old.  It was a two story building.  You entered a small foyer and then entered the Nurses station.  On the opposite side of the Nurses station was a waiting room. From the nurses station you entered a large lobby with a tiled floor.  The lobby was the center of the building.  On the left side of the lobby was an entrance to a hallway.  The left side of the hallway was a large ward that held twenty patients or so and at the end of the ward was a separate room that  the “Ward Master” occupied.  From the Ward Master room was another ward but smaller that was used for infants.  The Ward Master could enter each ward from his room.  The “Ward Master”, Fred Kunsman for the boys, and "Ward Mistress", Miss Troy for the girls, were former patients who stayed on as hired help.   Sort of masters of their little domain.  They called the shots and kept the kids in line.  "Stop running!  Make your bed!  See that the bath rooms were cleaned after their use."  Things of that nature.  The right side of the lobby was the exact same layout as the left side. We only saw the Ward Master at the beginning of the day, when we awoke, and at evening time when we went to bed.  The boys resided on the first floor and the girls resided on the second floor.  At the back  of the building, on the first floor, from the lobby, was an attached wing that was the dining hall.  In other words as we approached the lobby, directly in front of us was the wing of the dining hall and to the right and left of the lobby were the patient’s wards.


The nurses’ station had a panel of buttons. The buttons controlled an electrical bell system to specific rooms in the building.  At the bottom of that panel was a red button for all rooms.  When you pressed the red button all bells would ring in all the rooms in the building. There was always a nurse in attendance, three nurses a day.  The nurses work shifts of eight hours.  The nurse would ring the bell at six o’clock in the morning.


Everything was controlled by bells.  From habit and the particular time of day, you knew what each bell represented.  You awoke, went to the bathroom and did what you had to do.  We all had our own metal cubicle locker connected to each other.  Four wide and four deep.  Personal.  It contained a small bench that extended the width of the cubicle and the bench also acted as a lid.  That was what we sat on to get dressed.  The bench lid lifted and this is where we stored our clothes.  A hook hanger with three prongs was bolted on each side to hang your clothes, and when we closed the door, which we could secure if we wanted to, a mirror was secured on the back of the door.  The cubicle was just about large enough to contain us.  Each ward had a bathroom which had a bath tub, two showers, several wash basins and several stalls for toilets.  It was an all tiled floor.  When we finished washing and getting dressed we went back to the ward and made our bed. On Friday nights we did an overall of the place.  Despite the fact that we were just small kids we pulled our share, no grownups to do it for us. We mopped the bathrooms daily. We swept the wards daily. We mopped and waxed and buffed the ward and hallway floors with a buffing machine weekly.  Monday’s we aired our bed.  Strip off all the covers, rolled up the mattress and stored it at the end of the bed.  It aired out all day.  When we came home from school in the evening we went to the laundry to exchange linens.  We got one pad for the length of the mattress.  One rubber sheet that lay across that pad in the middle for those who wet the bed.  Two sheets, a pillow case, and a bed spread.  We had a nice hospital bed and bed-stand.  It was always in order.  We never sat on our bed.  It was only for sleeping.  The bell would ring again and we were off to breakfast. I remember they would keep the windows open even in winter. I would sneak up in the middle of the night and shut the windows and turn up the thermostat in our ward. The nurses never knew who did this and nobody squealed on me.

Meals were prepared at the main wing and carted down in an electrical cart made especially to contain hot and steamed food to keep the food warm during transportation.  The food cart came through a tunnel that extended from the main wing of the hospital to the Children's House, about a quarter mile away.

Breakfast was like any other breakfast, including fruit, eggs, bacon, toast, cereal, cocoa, pancakes, and milk.  We went to a dining hall with girls on one side and boys on the other.  The permanent staff, that is, the nurses, the ward masters, and other help had their own eating area several tables in the back of the mess hall.  We sat at a long table that held 6 or 7 people on each side.  We ate from a tin tray and had a tin cup and bowls for soup or dessert. Never a glass.  No talking at meal times.  If you needed salt and it wasn’t in reaching distant in front of you, you extended two fingers and someone would pass the salt to you,  If you wanted a slice of bread you put your hand out in front of you and extend five fingers and someone would pass you the bread.  If you wanted butter you would extend your butter knife and someone would pass you the butter.  If you wanted sugar you extended your spoon.  I can’t ever remember if we had pepper at the table.  You always cleaned your tray.  No waste of food.  You had to finish what you had on your tray or stay until you did.  I never had any trouble finishing my food.  Every once in a while a kid would have trouble finishing and had to stay.  I never knew if they finished their food for I was not there when they were allowed to leave.

We finished breakfast and went back to our ward and prepared for the day.  Put on coats and gloves and whatever was suitable for the weather and got ready for school.  The bell would ring and you were off to school at 8:30 till 11:30 am.


Ken and I had a daily duty.  Every morning we would go to the main building and put up the flag which was in front of it and then take it down at night and drop it at the front office.  You went to school with everyone.  Boys and girls.  No particular order.  Just went to school.  The school was located several blocks away and we walked through a small wooded area that had a sidewalk that winded slightly uphill.  To my limited knowledge the school contained about four buildings.  Each building had three or four rooms. There are pictures of them in the aerial view and also  Children's House (Unit #3 now)


When we were there, the first buildings you would run into were on your extreme right and we can only remember being used but once and that was at Halloween time where they stored costumes of all kinds for the kids to celebrate Halloween.  The other building nearby was called the pavilion.  It was directly in front of you.  We would roller skate there and do other things when we had inclement weather.  You walked thru the pavilion and came out the other side and you had the playground to the left and on your extreme right were two buildings which contain the school.  The rooms were used to teach but they weren’t always occupied.  If there were a lot of students, you used several rooms.  When the student attendance was low, several grades were taught in each room.  Once we had 5 grades in one room.  We always got a kick out of that, for when Jerome was in first grade, he was taught first grade subjects and learned second, third, fourth, and fifth grade subjects at the same time.  So really, he should have started 6th grade instead of 3rd grade when he returned home.  Our school teacher, Miss MacKereth, would put up a list of birds every spring and have the kids look for birds that were located there.  If we recognized a bird, we had to show her to witness it and if you were the first one to discover the bird, she would put your name beside the bird name on the list.  There were all kinds of birds at the san that we never saw in our home town area, such as Scarlet Tanagersand Rose Breasted Grosbeaks.  Not that you don’t find them in this area at home but not in one place.  We would have to go to different parts of the communities and even counties to see the birds that I saw in one place at Cresson.


There was a nice lady, Miss MacKereth.  How the heck she put up with us kids I will never know.  She was stern and demanded respect, and got it, but she would do anything for you.  She did most of the teaching there.  She read a chapter from various novels. We looked forward to that at the beginning of classes.  I can recall when she said these dates would not happen at all this century, then she wrote the dates. 1/23/45 and 12/3/45. She tutored Harvey in her spare time, teaching him algebra and how to type in 6th grade.  This was unique for she would crank up the old Victrola and play John Phillip Sousa marches and we would learn to type to that beat. They would never do that in today's high schools. The most I can remember about Miss MacKereth was when things bothered her she would bite her bottom lip.  Whoo! Run for the hills.  But most of the time she kept her hostility in.  I don’t know how she did it.  There were a few other teachers whose names I can remember.  There was a Helen Fisher who was originally from Ellwood City where we live today.  She was a nice woman.  Then there was Howard Cole, a cured patient that wasn't released yet. He was from Carnegie PA, near Pittsburgh. Howard was the greatest.  We had him during our second tour at Cresson as a 4th grade teacher.  I believe he was fresh from college and this was his first teaching job.  “Howard”, all the kids called him instead of Mr. Cole.  It didn’t detract from his respect in the class room.  In fact, I can’t ever remember his class  having any disorder in it.  Howard played the guitar and many times we would have “sing-a-longs” and Howard would chord away on his guitar.  He also played the piano.  We thought he was the greatest.  Here is Howard, not many years older than us and a college graduate.  Why, it was far above our imagination.  Howard would draw the present month on the blackboard, and every day he came to class he would draw a diagonal line through the previous day.  This one particular day, April 12, 1945, he drew a red, white, and blue diagonal line through that day.  It was the day that President Franklin Roosevelt died.


In the wintertime we went to school all day.  That is, we went in the morning, then came home for lunch.  Again, you got ready for lunch.  Put your coats, gloves, etc. away and wait for the bell to ring to go to lunch.  After lunch you sat around for a while and at one o’clock sharp the bell would ring and you would take a nap until 3 o’clock.  The bell would ring again.  You got up, straightened your bed again, got things in order, and went to the main lobby and got your temperature taken and took your pulse rate.  This was done every day.  Then you prepared for supper.  After supper you prepared for school again until 7 o’clock.  On Friday evenings we would gather in one school room and have a “sing-a-long”.  A Mr Dodson would play the piano and we kids would sing songs that the  kids requested.  Then we came home to  Children’s House and prepared for bed.  About an hour before bedtime we would go to the kitchen and Clara Barlick, a nurses aid, would give us cocoa or milk and once in a while some toast or cookies and ice cream and, of course, your teaspoon shot of castor oil to keep your bowel movements active.  We had castor oil so many times, that to this day, we can swig it from the bottle without breaking a sweat.  How is that for a combination! Milk, toast or cookies and castor oil?  Clara Barlick would also take care of the infant children in the nursery.  She was a very attractive girl about 20 years old.  We have a picture of her. All the kids liked her. Then showers and cleaning up and all that to prepare for bed.  At 8:30 PM the bell would ring and everyone would kneel at the foot of the bed and pray the Our Father, then  lights out.  And it was exactly that: “Lights Out,”  no fooling around.  Everybody went to sleep at that time.  Once in a while a kid would fool around and talk and be punished if they got caught.  They were taken out to the main lobby and had to kneel on the tiled floor for a time at the nurse's disgression.  If needed, to the bathroom again but at 8:30 PM that was it for the day.


In the summer time we attended school in the morning and proceeded with the rest of the day’s activities as usual and in the evenings, instead of having school, we would have playground time.  On Saturdays you would have school in the morning only.  Afternoons were playground time. And we would get treats on Saturday afternoon.  It would be candy bars, pretzels, peanuts.  They would send the older children to the main wing to report to a man named “Mr. Kuhn”.  Mr. Kuhn would give you 7 or 8 boxes of candy bars or several large sacks of peanuts.  I went up several times with my brothers to bring the treats down for the children.  And, of course, we would sneak a candy bar or two.  I believe Miss MaKereth knew this but never said anything.  The first time my brother Jerome ever saw a potato chip was on the 4th of July 1942.  He never saw or ate one before then.  I always get a kick out of that to this day.  When can you ever remember seeing or eating something for the first time in your life and on a specific date?

On Sundays, we Catholics would attend mass at ten o’clock and Catechism after Mass until dinner time.  My brother Ken and I were altar boys at the chapel. The Priest's name was Father O'Donnel. Us boys had our First Holy Communion there. Perhaps a hundred children resided at the Children’s house.  We, the Catholics, numbered about 10.  On Sunday evenings we would go to the playground while the non-Catholics would have their Bible study.  It was great in the winter, for you got the best equipment that you couldn’t achieve while the other kids were there.  For example, the best skates, skis, sleds, etc.  After all, got a lot of use and they did break down.  The sleds don’t steer properly, slats are missing, runners are bent, or the skates couldn’t tighten properly about your shoes.  It was first come first serve.


The playground was nice.  We had a ball field and played a lot of softball in the summer.  We never had ball gloves.  You caught the ball with your bare hands.  I could still catch the ball with my bare hands today and sometimes catch a baseball the same way.  This was another first for me.  We were introduced to a baseball up close.  A kid named Joe Annania, [Ann – ah – nee – ah]  got one from home and he always wanted us to play with him.  Harvey and Jerome are the only ones that would play baseball with him just to satisfy him.  He was an excellent ballplayer.  Never missed a ball.

 We had plenty of swings, seesaws, maypoles, merry-go-round, and other assorted playthings.  In the winter we would roller skate in the pavilion, ski, sled ride, or just play games inside the school rooms.  My brothers and I learned how to ski at the san.  These things were all provided.  Winters were always rough there.  Harsh winters.


I can’t really remember any of the kids having or suffering from tuberculosis, except one.  There was one girl that had it really bad but she was isolated from us.  She had a room of her own.  She was a negro girl and her name was Bernice.  I can remember her so well, even though we weren’t allowed to associate with her.  I would see her when we went to get weighed once a month.  Her room was located directly across the hall where we got our medical shots or got weighed.  I would sneak back and see her every so often on my own.  Now looking back, we can still see that girl today.  She was so thin and sick and when she spoke, she could scarcely make her voice audible and had a hard time just to lift her head. We never saw her sitting up in bed and the nurses would have to turn her and feed her during the day.  We never understood why she was a patient at the Children’s House.  We didn’t have any children with tuberculosis.  In her condition, she should have been at the main wing.  When I would see her and she would recognized me, her eyes would light up and the prettiest smile you would ever see on a person.  She was so lonely there.  She hadn’t any companionship.  No recreation.  No visitors.  Can’t ever recall any of her friends or family coming to visit her.


One morning we woke up and the windows in our ward, next to the hall, were all closed.  We never had those windows closed and it was very strange.  Later we were alerted that Bernice died that night.


One other person died while we were there at the Children’s House.  Her name was Helen Guthridge.  We always called her, “Flat-top”  She wore her hair in pig-tails.  She had swollen glands and succumbed to that.  Anyway, that was what we were told.  We remember her so well because we would have races in school with the eraser on your head and she would always win because the top of her head was flat and the eraser would never fall from her head.


Medical attention was provided.  You had dental appointments or went to the dentist when necessary.  I remember Jerome's first visit to the dentist.  He sat in the chair and within two minutes they  pulled four of his top front baby teeth.  You know that first grade smile kids give to you!  We all laughed.  He would smile and no teeth would show.  He had tonsillitis several times and the nurses would swab his throat, tonsils with Iodine or a creosote product.  It appeared that Iodine was used for everything, all cuts and bruises.  Penicillin was not in use then. Ringworm was a problem and it was constantly being passed around. Some sort of salve was applied to cure it.


You were allowed visitors anytime.  Most came on the weekends.  Parents and friends would come to see you and spend some time.  The parents were responsible for the children during the visit.  You didn’t have to go through the activities of the day but you had to be home at night for bed time.  Our father would come up to see us once or twice a year.  Once he brought along some of our neighborhood friends and they spent a day with us.  And, there were the kids who never, to my knowledge, ever had a visitor.


Packages sent from home with fruit and games and assorted things were always coming thru the mail for the kids.  There was a boy named Richard Long who had his cubicle locker next to mine.  He was a heavy set kid with bad teeth.  His parents would send him a package every week.  You were fortunate if he shared any of his goodies with you.  He was always walking around eating an apple or a banana or an orange.  One Christmas, we,  received a bushel basket of goodies, bubble gum, games, candy of all sorts, notes from the kids.  It was sent to us from the kids in Koppel, PA, our home town school.  The teachers asked them to donate some thing for us at Christmas time.  We never forgot that.  Yes, we did share our goodies with the other kids.  Many of the kids in Cresson didn’t get anything at all from home.  Then there was a kid whose father worked in a paper mill.  His dad would come up to visit his son and bring hundreds of paper tablets of all assorted colors and sizes and hand them out among us kids.  That was a God-sent thing, having your own personal tablet and pencil. We never had homework. You were not allowed magazines, newspapers or comic books. Never had access to a radio, The Ward Master had one, but was off limits to us children.  We never knew what was going on out in the world. Our teacher would inform us how the war was going or other topics in the world. The only thing in our nightstand was writing paper or penny postcards or a Weekly Reader from school or a prayer book.


Holidays were celebrated like all others. On Decoration Day (Memorial Day now), Ms. MacKreth would gather us kids and we would go down to the main highway (Route 22) and cross it, for there was a cemetary in that area for those individuals that had died at the san and had no one claim their body.  So we would cut brush, mow grass and move dirt, fix the graves as best we could. She would conduct a prayer and back to Children's house. On the 4th of July we would dress in different costumes and present a program for the patients at the main wing. We would have soda, candy and cake and play games and were awarded prizes for your costume.  Uncle Sam won every year.  James Jordan, one of us patients, wore that costume both times that I was there.   That was the year we would get potato chips and pop (soda). We had sack races, three-legged races, egg and a spoon race and ring tosses.  Dr. Royer, the san head director, would visit and watch us. He had a garden every year and we would help him tend it.  At Christmas, we had a large Christmas tree in the lobby that extended about twenty feet in the air, above the second floor balcony.  Any gift packages sent from home were searched for articles not allowed and were then placed under the tree until Xmas. We then opened them Xmas morning. Some kids never got any packages from home. On Halloween, you selected your own costumes and we had a Halloween party in the gym, which was below the dining room.  I have a Halloween picture with the kids names on the back.  I look at it today and Uncle Sam wasn’t that great of a costume.  But it was the war years and patriotism ran high.

 Your birthday was your birthday.  The kids sang “Happy Birthday” and that was the end of that! Our greatest joy in life besides being discharged from the military was when we left the sanatorium and went back to our family and friends. There are probably many more incidents we can recall but that covers quite a lot.