'Whatever care we needed, we got'
Sunday, October 25, 2009
DAVID WENNER firstname.lastname@example.org
It was called "the san," and it's part of a haunting and nearly
forgotten chapter in Pennsylvania history.
The Cresson Sanitorium for tuberculosis patients was located 140
miles from Harrisburg, between Johnstown and Altoona.
Thousands of people were sent there between 1913 and 1964.
Some stayed for years. Some died there.
In a reflection of the fear and stigma that surrounded tuberculosis,
some who died were never even claimed by their families. They remain buried on a nearby hillside.
Charles Felton, who lived there for 18 months in the mid-1950s,
has breathed new life into the facility by creating a Web site devoted to it.
Felton, a 71-year-old retired aerospace engineer who lives in
Texas, began the site for personal reasons. In his later years, he had been nagged by questions about the facility, where
he was forced to live while his classmates graduated from high school.
In addition, Felton wanted to convey to his family a place and
experience he couldn't fully express in words.
He found a trove of information and photos in state archives kept
in Harrisburg. He posted much of it on his site.
He was surprised by the response he's received since launching
the Web site in February. He has been contacted by about 30 former patients, employees and relatives of people who spent time
there. Some contributed personal photos and stories.
"When people began writing to me, it became more of a historical
Web site and, I guess you could say, a memorial Web site. It has really developed into something totally unexpected," he said.
A year in pajamas
Tuberculosis is a highly contagious and often fatal disease of
the lungs. It was a dreaded diagnosis up until the early 1960s. By that time, widespread vaccination and better treatments
had nearly wiped it out in the United States.
Felton got sick in 1955. He was 17 and the president of his senior
class in Towanda, Bradford County.
He and his parents soon set out for the sanitorium, with Felton
wearing a surgical mask during the five-hour drive. It occurred to him that his parents didn't expect him to come home.
The Cresson sanitorium was one of the three run by the state,
with the others in Mount Alto and Hamburg, according to Felton. He believes it was the largest, and had about 700 beds.
It occupied a pristine mountaintop setting on 500 acres donated
by Andrew Carnegie.
Upon arrival, Felton handed over his clothing, which was "fumigated"
and sent home with his parents. He spent the next year in pajamas and slippers.
He was assigned to a ward with 15 other men, most of them much
older. He was soon confronted with some grim realities: Patients would begin coughing uncontrollably in the middle of the
night. In the morning there would be an empty bed with fresh sheets.
Still, Felton's lasting impression is of a well-run institution
staffed by highly caring people. There was a camaraderie among patients.
"The doctors, the nurses, they were top-notch people. Whatever
care we needed, we got," he said.
Each bed had a radio. There was a store, a library and a closed-circuit
radio station in the basement.
There was a school for the children. Older people could receive
vocational training to help them overcome physical limitations and separations from the work force.
College-age patients, including Felton, received scholarships
to Penn State University.
One of the main treatments was rest and fresh air, although patients
also received drugs, surgery and painful injections of air into their lungs.
In Felton's case, his energy quickly returned, and he became confident
his lungs hadn't been severely damaged, and he would survive.
Yet it was impossible not to notice others who were less fortunate.
Felton observed that all of the steel-framed beds had wheels.
The wheels had an important function, which became clear when patients began hemorrhaging.
"Every second counts when you're choking on your own blood," he
wrote. "They simply rolled the bed with the patient in it down the center aisle and out of the ward. Looking back, it seems
they could do this drill with the efficiency and speed of an Indy 500 pit crew. But then, at the san, they got lots of practice."
Felton became aware of myths surrounding the facility. One involved
the unclaimed bodies of tuberculosis victims.
While at Cresson, Felton heard of nearby graves, but didn't know
if they really existed.
His recent research showed they exist in a nearby cemetery. What's
unknown is the number buried, because the records, stored in Harrisburg, were destroyed in the 1972 flood.
Through his research, he learned that the air-injection procedure
had no benefit and it involved a chemical later discovered to increase the risk of breast cancer in women.
Here's something else that surprised Felton. Up until the 1940s,
many young children were sent to Cresson. In many cases, they weren't sick, but had only been exposed to tuberculosis. Some
hadn't even been exposed, but were merely underweight.
The purpose was to strengthen them and prevent them from getting
tuberculosis. Yet some who contacted Felton said they hadn't known their stay was related to tuberculosis and had thought
their parents didn't want them.
"This is something they've carried for all these years," he said.
'An unspoken topic'
Linda Ondriezek's father had to go to Cresson for two years in
the mid-1950s. She was about 4 at the time and remembers her father coughing up blood during a family vacation.
Her father never talked about his experience at Cresson.
"It was just an unspoken topic in our family, like it never happened,"
said Ondriezek, 61.
It left her with dark memories. Healthy children under 12 weren't
allowed into the facility. So her uncle would cover her with blankets and smuggle her though the gate.
"I would just wave to Dad from the car," she said.
The family was devastated financially, and her mother had to take
a job in Ohio.
Her father, Samuel Sherman, died in 1968, while in his 50s. He
died as a result of surgery for stomach ulcers. His daughter is uncertain if his health problems were related to tuberculosis.
As for Cresson, it was a foggy memory until Ondriezek, who lives
near Johnstown, read a newspaper story about Felton's Web site.
She said she cried upon viewing the site and realizing the breadth
of what happened there, and the impact on her father.
The sanitorium became a state mental hospital in the 1960s. It
is now a state prison.
Harvey Docchio of New Brighton in western Pennsylvania was sent
there, along with his brothers, in the early 1940s for preventive purposes. His grandfather had tuberculosis, as did his mother,
who died of it in 1942 at age 36.
The children were sent to bed at 8:30 p.m., even if it was still
light outside during summer. He recalls making beds and scrubbing floors.
It was hard living away from family and friends. "We always wanted
to go home. ... I really was kind of depressed there," he said.
Yet even Docchio expresses respect for how the facility was run
and what it accomplished.
Docchio, who later worked as a college administrator, said he
took a college algebra course at 12 and learned to type. He was about to begin piano lessons when he and his brothers were
In the early '70s, he decided to stop in while passing through
the region. It was a mental hospital. Docchio spoke to a guard who was unaware of the facility's history, but who allowed
Docchio and his wife to enter the lobby of a building where he once lived.
He noticed the bars that now covered the windows.
Docchio, 77, said he would still like to go back and walk the
"If they found out you had this disease, they did their best to
take care of you," he said.