Towanda native’s recollections of Sanatorium go viral
By Wendy Post
A 1955 Towanda High School (THS) graduate who now resides in Lakehills,
Texas, embarked on a journey last year to document and recount his memories of life in a Sanatorium designed to quarantine
and treat patients stricken with forms of Tuberculosis. This recollection, to his surprise, would soon go viral, with a website
that now serves as a sort of memorial for the old Cresson Sanatorium which now serves as part of the Pennsylvania Corrections
Charles "Chuck" Felton, a 1955 graduate of THS and son of Philip
Felton and Ester (Anderson) Felton, was at the top of his game at the age of 17. Serving as Class President for Towanda High
School with plans of enrolling at Penn State, Chuck was at the prime of his life when illness struck, and he soon found himself
traveling to a facility for what ended up being a 16-month recovery process for Pulmonary Tuberculosis.
After remaining relatively quiet about this experience for nearly
50 years, Chuck soon began to pull together the history of this experience, along with copies of articles that were printed
in The Daily Review, for posting worldwide on the internet. But what started as a simple website to help educate his own children
on what his experience was like soon went viral - with hundreds of emails arriving and uncounted thousands clicking in to
read Chuck’s story of his initial diagnosis and the sometimes horrific journey towards recovery.
"My intent was to put up photos of my experience," said Chuck who
is now residing with his wife Peggy (Weissenstein) Felton in Lakehills, Texas. Chuck, who is a model airplane enthusiast,
noted that he already had a website for model airplanes he built, so designing a site to document his personal experience
But now, serving as a sort of memorial for the old Sanatorium, Chuck
is getting emails from former patients at the facility, former staff members, children of patients that stayed at the Sanatorium,
and even grandchildren of those patients.
But what was really amazing for Chuck was the fact that people emailed
him through the website to thank him. In one email, according to Chuck, a person wrote, "I was there years ago - nobody talks
about it." Many of the emails received, such as this one, are now posted on his website.
"It’s become a memorial website with personal stories and
everything," said Chuck.
And the stories, which can be viewed at www.feltondesignanddata.com/cressontuberculosissanatoriumremembered,
highlight Chuck’s miraculous recovery along with some of the horrors faced during his 16 months of quarantine at the
The year was 1955 when Chuck Felton was playing baseball and serving
as Class President for the senior class at Towanda High School. The month was April, so Chuck was looking forward with anticipation
to his high school graduation and his hopeful acceptance into Penn State.
But on graduation day of 1955, Chuck’s younger brother Tim,
who was 11 years old at that time, was the one that walked to the podium to accept Chuck’s diploma. Chuck was already
quarantined at the Cresson Sanatorium.
Chuck, who is now 72, recounts his story.
In March of 1955, Chuck caught a cold that developed into what he
thought was bronchitis. "I was run down and tired all the time," said Chuck. Traveling to the family’s doctor, Dr. Tom
Johnson of Towanda, Chuck was told that it was probably pneumonia, but x-rays were ordered.
But when the x-rays returned, the news was not good and Chuck was
told that he probably had tuberculosis - an illness that was considered taboo in the mid-fifties.
It was a school morning, and Chuck was taken to Robert Packer Hospital
and put in isolation for three weeks of testing. According to Chuck, when anyone came in or out of his room they had to wear
face masks as tuberculosis was very communicable.
At the end of his stay, the hospital concluded that Chuck had tuberculosis
and they immediately went to work to find an open bed at a sanatorium. The hospital soon found an available bed at Cresson
Hospital, a treatment facility located just outside of Cresson, Pa.
Chuck’s world soon came crashing down around him as his parents
took him home for one night following his isolation at Robert Packer, and then loaded him up in the car for what would end
up being a 16-month stay at the Sanatorium. For Chuck, he thought the next four years was all set, until that long and lonely
Upon arrival at the sanatorium, Chuck remembered the large oak trees
that graced the landscape of the several hundred acre property that facilitated the large buildings made of brick and stone,
and housed and treated patients afflicted with tuberculosis.
Chuck described, in a recent interview, his feelings. "It was much
the same feeling as joining the service," said Chuck. "You suddenly get sent some place where you don’t know anyone.
Then you go to war and you don’t know who is going to die."
Chuck also described the three ways in which patients died at the
sanatorium, with the first being hemorrhaging. Because tuberculosis eats away at your lungs, hemorrhaging, according to Chuck,
could be very likely to happen. "If it eats through a blood vessel it’s like drowning in your own blood," said Chuck.
"You never knew who it would happen to or when."
Chuck recalled an experience that still haunts him today. He described
how lights would go out at 9 p.m. each evening, and you would go to sleep. But then, as if awakening to a nightmare, the lights
would come on at 3 a.m. and there would be people all around. "Some guy would be spitting up blood and they would wheel the
bed right out of there," Chuck recounted. "They would be gone in 30 seconds."
Then there was the frightfully eerie morning after, when Chuck would
awaken to find the bed, which had been rolled out the evening before, empty and made up with clean linens.
The second way that Chuck said people would succumb to the illness
would be from surgery. "They would try and remove the diseased lung... and they wouldn’t make it."
But the worst form of demise, according to Chuck, was for those
who not only had tuberculosis, but for those who had it in combination with silicosis - or black lung from working in the
Pennsylvania coal mines. The coal, according to Chuck, permeated their lungs.
"I saw guys struggle for months for every single breath," said Chuck.
"It was like slow strangulation... they couldn’t get enough air to survive." Chuck also noted that it was a very strange
feeling to see people die at the age of 17.
But Chuck was one of the fortunate ones that didn’t succumb
to the terrifying fate that some of his colleagues at the sanatorium were delivered. Because Chuck sought medical attention
with only a mild fever, he was able to catch his tuberculosis at an early stage. The symptoms at a later stage, according
to Chuck, would have been coughing, spitting up, or spitting up blood.
So for his 16-month journey to Cresson, Chuck was pumped full of
streptomycin, or antibiotic, and then monitored for the duration of his stay. And even though his symptoms were gone after
the first month, Chuck had to be tested every month until his sputum test was negative, and then had to remain in a hospital
ward for the remainder of the time until a fourth negative sputum test was revealed.
The rehabilitation portion of his stay, which took place while awaiting
the fourth negative test, was in what Chuck described as a small apartment building for two people. He also described that
throughout his stay, the only attire allowed was pajamas, a robe and slippers.
And back home, throughout Chuck’s period of quarantine and
treatment, Chuck’s father - who worked for The Daily Review, and his sister Barbara (Felton) Hill and brother Tom Felton
- who later worked at The Daily Review, had to wait and hope for Chuck’s safe and healthy arrival back home.
While dealing with tuberculosis organizations recently, Chuck learned
from them that Tuberculosis, at that time, had the same stigma that is associated with AIDS today. Chuck agreed with this,
and recounted another story. While in the sanatorium, Chuck’s mother would talk to neighbors and ask them to send a
postcard or note to their son who was miles away.
Chuck recalled his sister becoming upset one day when she saw her
mother asking a neighbor to send a postcard. According to his sister’s account, her mother talked to the neighbor and
then had a sudden look on her face. When his sister asked their mother what was wrong, she told her that the neighbor was
appalled that she would even ask anyone to write to him. "How dare you ask people to write him - we know how people get tuberculosis,"
was the account of what was said.
This angered their mother, but Chuck eventually assured her that
he had only kissed a girl - and that was it. But even today, according to Chuck, people still feel that mark about having
In a recent email received by Chuck, an 84-year old woman confessed
that she never told anyone about her tuberculosis. "There was a shame connected to tuberculosis," said Chuck. "At 84, she
still has that shame."
But Chuck never felt that stigma back home and said he was totally
accepted upon his return after 16 months. Carrying a letter from the hospital with him that stated he was totally discharged
and cured, Chuck took a year off to rest and then continued his dreams of attending Penn State and then graduating with a
degree in Engineering Mechanics.
Following his graduation Chuck relocated to Long Beach, California
where he fulfilled a career with Douglas Aircraft and pursued his life-long hobby of building model airplanes.
After retiring from Douglas Aircraft in 1999, Chuck and his wife
Peggy moved to Lakehills, Texas, an area that Chuck selected because of its geographical resemblance to Towanda. "I miss Towanda’s
beauty," said Chuck, "so that’s why I picked an area in Texas with hills." He did note that although there are hills,
they still don’t compare with Towanda.
And Chuck’s children, 50 year old Debbie Felton and 44 year
old David Felton, also live in Texas near the Dallas area.
As for Cresson Sanatorium, like most others, it was closed when
tuberculosis was eradicated. Now, resting on the same landscape, the old facility now serves as part of the Pennsylvania Corrections
system - its memories shared only by those who visited its inside walls.
To learn more about those memories you can visit Chuck’s page
at www.feltondesignanddata.com/cressontuberculosissanatoriumremembered. You can also visit asylumprojects.org.