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
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
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 www.feltondesignanddata.com/cressontuberculosissanatorium
remembered, highlight his miraculous recovery along with some of the horrors faced during his 16 months of quarantine at the
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,
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
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
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