Cresson TB Sanatorium Remembered
Newspaper 8

The following article was published in the Hazleton Standard Speaker on Sunday, February 28, 2010.    Click the following link to go to the newspaper website:


The above article was reprinted in the Wilkes Barre Citizen's Voice on Sunday, March 21, 2010.    Click the following link to go to the newspaper website:


The above article was reprinted in the Shamokin News Item on Saturday, April 10, 2010.    The News Item does not have a website. 



Man puts memories of TB sanatorium online

By WENDY POST (Staff Writer) Published: February 28, 2010

A Towanda native last year embarked on a journey to document and recount his memories of life in a western Pennsylvania sanatorium where people stricken with tuberculosis were quarantined and treated.

Chuck Felton's recollections, to his surprise, evolved into a Web site that serves as a sort of memorial for the old Cresson Sanatorium, which is now part of the Pennsylvania corrections system.

At age 17, Felton was at the top of his game - serving as senior class president at Towanda High School, with plans of enrolling at Penn State University - when illness struck. He soon found himself traveling to the sanatorium for what ended up being a 16-month recovery from pulmonary tuberculosis.

After remaining relatively quiet about his experience for nearly 50 years, Felton began to pull his memories together to post on the Internet.

"My intent was to put up photos of my experience," said Felton, 72, who now lives in Lakehills, Texas, with his wife, Peggy. A model airplane enthusiast, he already had a Web site for model airplanes he built, so designing a site to document his experience at the sanatorium came simply.

It started as a simple Web site to help educate his own children on what his experience was like. Soon, however, Felton began receiving hundreds of e-mails - from former patients and staff members of the sanatorium, and from children and even grandchildren of patients. In addition, thousands were clicking in to read Felton's story of his initial diagnosis and the sometimes horrific journey toward recovery.

But what Felton said is really amazing is that people e-mailed him through the Web site to thank him. Many of those messages are now posted on the site.

"It's become a memorial Web site with personal stories and everything," Felton said.

The stories, which can be viewed at remembered, highlight his miraculous recovery along with some of the horrors faced during his 16 months of quarantine at the Cresson Sanatorium.

TB was taboo

In March 1955, Felton caught a cold that developed into what he thought was bronchitis. "I was run-down and tired all the time," he said.

The family doctor told Felton it was probably pneumonia, but X-rays were ordered. When they came back, the news was not good, and Chuck was told he probably had tuberculosis - an illness that was considered taboo in the mid-'50s.

It was a school morning, and Felton was taken to Robert Packer Hospital in Sayre and put in isolation for three weeks of testing. He recalled that anyone who came in or out of his room had to wear face masks, as tuberculosis was very communicable.

At the end of his stay, hospital staff went to work to find an open bed at a sanatorium. One was found at Cresson Hospital, a treatment facility located just outside of Cresson, Cambria County.

Felton's parents took him home for one night following his isolation at Robert Packer, then drove him to Cresson for what would be a 16-month stay at the sanatorium.

He remembered the large oak trees that graced the landscape of the several hundred-acre property and its large buildings of brick and stone that housed tuberculosis patients.

"It was much the same feeling as joining the service," Felton said. "You suddenly get sent someplace where you don't know anyone. Then you go to war and you don't know who is going to die."

Felton described the three ways in which patients died at the sanatorium.

The first was hemorrhaging. Because tuberculosis eats away at a person's lungs, hemorrhaging could be very likely to happen.

"If it eats through a blood vessel it's like drowning in your own blood," Felton said. "You never knew who it would happen to or when."

He recalled an experience that still haunts him today. The lights would go out at 9 each evening and the patients 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," Felton recounted. "They would be gone in 30 seconds."

Then there was the eerie morning after, when Felton said he would awaken to find the bed, which had been rolled out the evening before, empty and made up with clean linens.

The second way people would succumb to the illness would be from surgery. "They would try and remove the diseased lung ... and they wouldn't make it," Felton said.

But the worst form of demise, according to Felton, was for those who had tuberculosis in combination with silicosis, or black lung, from working in the Pennsylvania coal mines.

"I saw guys struggle for months for every single breath," Felton said. "It was like slow strangulation ... they couldn't get enough air to survive."

Felton also said it was a very strange feeling to see people die at the age of 17.

Caught it early

But he was one of the fortunate ones. Because he sought medical attention with only a mild fever, Felton was able to catch his tuberculosis at an early stage. The symptoms at a later stage, he said, would have been coughing, spitting up, or spitting up blood.

During his 16-month stay at Cresson, Felton was pumped full of streptomycin, or antibiotic, and then monitored. And even though his symptoms were gone after the first month, he 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, while he awaited the fourth negative test, was in what Felton described as a small apartment building for two people. He also said that throughout his stay, the only attire allowed was pajamas, a robe and slippers.

While dealing with tuberculosis organizations recently, Felton learned that the disease, at that time, had the same stigma that is associated with AIDS today.

In a recent e-mail received by Felton, an 84-year-old woman confessed that she never told anyone about her tuberculosis.

"There was a shame connected to tuberculosis," Felton said. "At 84, she still has that shame."

But he never felt that stigma back home, and said he was totally accepted upon his return after 16 months. Carrying a letter from the hospital that stated he was totally cured, Felton took a year off to rest and then fulfilled his dream of attending Penn State and graduating with a degree in engineering mechanics. (He attended Penn State Hazleton in 1957 and 1958).

Following his graduation Felton relocated to Long Beach, Calif., where he fulfilled a career with Douglas Aircraft and pursued his lifelong hobby of building model airplanes.

After retiring from Douglas in 1999, he and his wife moved to Lakehills.

Cresson Sanatorium, like most others, was closed when tuberculosis was eradicated. The facility now is part of the state corrections system, and its memories are shared only by those who visited inside its walls