Cresson TB Sanatorium Remembered
The following story was sent to me on March 17, 2010 by Thomas A. Domin.
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The San Through the Eyes of a Six Year Old……..1946

It was one of those days at school.  When the bell rang you stopped talking and turned your head forward.  But before things got too quiet, we had to march over to the other classroom where the school nurse was waiting to take the patch off our arm where it had been placed a couple of days before to see if we had TB (Some kind of dreaded thing that killed you).  When my patch was ripped off, the look of horror in her face told the story.  “I got a positive,” she broadcast across the room and my life changed forever.  I came into that room as just another head to count.  Now in the blink of an eye, I’m dreadful Tommy.  The murmurs started with my classmates. “Domin’s going to die.  Domin is as good as dead.” It was instant trauma that kept escalating.  Sometime later as I stood in a hallway, my mother appeared.  I threw my arms around her and with tears in my eyes told her I didn’t want to die.  Well we left 5th Ward School, Greensburg PA.  We walked home to Jacks Street, up by the State Police barracks.  My daddy was a State Trooper.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        The following days were a litany of doctors’ visits and X-ray visits. Now there is something for a six year old boy, X-ray.  A vertical torture machine, you pressed your bare chest against a cold black plate.  Then you put your arms out to your side with hands on hips like chicken wings.  Someone always pushes them in and then your chin is placed in a cup type plate at the top of the machine and it starts going up and up.  Just when you thought your tonsils were going to hit your brain, it stops.  A guy yells” Hold it, don’t move.”  Boy did he have a sense of humor.   There was something going on in the upper left part of one lung.  So the pictures told.  No one knew how I might have contracted that TB spot.  My mother later said she thought our pet dog gave it to me because he was always licking my nose. 

I’m sure more than a few days have passed and I spent most of my time in bed.  No one came to visit me.  My mother moved our big radio in for me and I would listen to everything, from music to dumb shows, Brunch with Bill.  The song I liked best was “The Old Lamplighter of Long, Long Ago”.   My mom told me one night that soon I would be going to a big hospital up on a mountain where they would make me get better.

Then the morning came when a big car pulled up and Mom and I sat in the back with two guys in the front and we drove and drove. It seemed like forever, when we pulled off onto a narrow road with trees on both sides.  We passed a building with a big tall smokestack, then a clearing where big buildings appeared.  The place looked nice but too big for me.

Some stops (paperwork probably) then we were ushered into the lobby and nurses station of the children’s building.  A nurse greeted us “Come with me” and we made a left turn and followed her down the end of a long hall.  Another right turn and we were there, we were where?  A small room with a bed and a bathroom connected.  “This is where you will stay for a while Tommy,” the nurse told me.   “Here’s pajamas.  Let me get those clothes off.”  I assured her I was a big boy and could get my own clothes off, but she had the last word when I tried to slip into my jammies with my underwear still on.  “No, these too Tommy” and they came off like a prom dress. Then into bed.  Then mom left saying “Be good Tommy, I’ll come see you when I can.”  Then the nurse went, saying “Be back later.”  Everything was a time element. It’s just I wasn’t sure about the time span. Two weeks to wait here.  Wait for what? A nun once told me in Catholicism she was sure I would have to do time in purgatory before I went to Heaven.  Was this purgatory?  The place was quiet enough, an occasional bell and some shuffling way down the hall.  My only contacts with the outside world were the nurses who brought me good stuff to eat.  I got to like them.  I had a real nice nurse who came often.  One day she came with a long rubber hose with a shinny ball on the end.  I remember she said “Now Tommy I wouldn’t hurt you for the world.”  Somehow I believed her.  And she inserted it down my throat and drew up some fluid.  Oh and I was awarded a sputum jar and told to make some occasional donations. 

I never remember the door being locked. As I remember, at times I would push it open, just to see if I could see someone.  This part of the wing was a dead end. Not much went on.  Across the hall was an examination room and sometimes the door would be left open.  From my bed in the far corner of the exam room was a skeleton hanging on a rack.  I wondered if it was someone who died here and they just left him to rot in the corner.  I would look at him for so long I thought I could see his jaw move.  May be he was trying to tell me something. 

A new day and feet scuffing in the hall with voices.  Great!  They were moving two girls in an adjoining room by me.  They used my bathroom because it was the only one. One was older and one about my age. We talked all day and tried to say funny things to each other and be gay, but at night I heard the sniffles.  They might have heard some too.   We had a common fear, what’s next?  In a couple of days I was telling them about the skeleton.  He and I were having a conversation.  I made them laugh.  I felt good.

Then came the day I was sprung.  How many times in one’s life do you graduate from something, but it was significant to remember, because now I was accepted into the ward.  Accepted meant you took your dirty linen and threw it in the laundry bin and got fresh linen.  You were hastily sized up and a jumpsuit was handed to you. Yes, a jumpsuit or playsuit if you must, we all wore the same thing.  It was a cross between a farmer’s blue bib type coveralls and a red shirt sewn right into it.  A real laugh by today’s standards, but hey, I felt like part of a team now, almost military.  Then I was introduced to the ward, a ten bed room with windows almost all the way around (only maybe fifty feet from where I spent my quarantine.)  Only one thing, the ward was empty except for Bill.  Bill was a black kid about seven beds up on the left.  I was given three up on the right.  And there we were.  We made friends fast.  He was there longer than me.  At that time three days meant longer.  Then another boy came, then another.  That was nice because now I had seniority and could tell them things.  What’s to tell, when the bell rings get ready to move.

I was O.K. now. We followed a regime, which meant life had a purpose.  Above it all I felt good.  I don’t remember a cough or being sick.  Our temp and pulse were taken regularly and I’m sure a close eye was on us and it seemed like the guys around me were O.K. too.  The big kids ward was beside ours but it was twice the size.  And it seemed like someone new was always coming in.  Then in the stillness of the night a fast shuffle of feet and some hurried words meant they were hauling someone off the hospital.  The big boys helped us at times, and other people in white saw that we were dressed and clean.  All staff wore white.  I asked a big boy one time to take a knot out of my shoe. He said leave it by his bed.  He brought it back unknotted, but he was mad at me because I was trying to take the knot out with my teeth and the shoestrings were wet. 

At night we kneeled at the bottom of our beds and said the Lord’s Prayer all together.  Then lights out. I lay on my bed and looked out the window.  We were on the end of the building and my view took me across a narrow road where a sidewalk started through the woods and up the hill where we went to school and played. At the beginning of that sidewalk was a tall old streetlight. The acorn shade on that light glowed all night.  I laid there night after night looking at that light, sometimes with drifts of snow around its base, sometimes drifts of leaves, sometimes tufts of grass That streetlight like the others at the san, became an icon in my life.  I guess I was doing meditation before I knew what it was.  The house I live in today is on a three acre tract on a mountain ridge near Hazleton, PA.  At eighteen hundred foot elevation, I have a driveway about five hundred feet long.  And along my driveway are five of those wonderful old fashioned acorn shade street lights.  I walk it twice a day with my dog.  (Part of my meditation.)

I was a bad boy.  Another kid there wanted to know where the girls stayed.  I told him upstairs, but he wanted to see.  So when the lights went out, I took him by the hand and up the back steps by the ward we snuck, trying not to make a sound. But I don’t think we got ten feet beyond the upstairs door when a big flashlight came on. We were caught.  Back down the stairs we went.  Did she have me by the ear?  “O.K. boys, I’ll fix your tin clock” were her words.   I was ushered a few feet down the hall past my ward.  A door opened and I was shoved inside.  The last beam of her flashlight told the story, Yep, it was the examination room I had stared into.  Yep, there was Mr. Skeleton.

I never liked any dark rooms, now he was there too.  I was traumatized just imagining him moving toward me.  The door opened in what seemed like hours and I was asked if I was going to be good.  I’m sure I answered “Yes”, anything to get out of that place.  I know I didn’t make any more night excursions.

Another time we were introduced to a new ward master or something like that.  He was a hero supposedly back from the war.  They brought him down at bedtime so he could watch us say our prayers. We kneeled at our usual position at the bottom of the bed.  I don’t know how it happened ( I’m not that brave ), but somewhere around “Thy Kingdom Come”, I leaned a little too far over the metal pipe that was the bed bottom, and over I went.  Good thing my hands were on the bed pipe as I made a complete flip landing on my feet, much to the amazement of my buddies (much to my amazement).  I climbed back up on the bed. It must have looked like a cheap prank, and the ward was in stages of giggles and laughter.  Somehow the prayer concluded, but not before a not so happy nurse saw it as a stunt, and wiped my grinning face with a slap.   When I think about it in life as I do now, I get a deep belly laugh.

Our new ward master was a real good guy.  He took us on hikes, sometimes just the boys.  He showed us places, I think coal mines.  One day he wasn’t around anymore.  There were lots of whispers but no one would answer my questions. (If there is anyone who can pick up on this feel free to e-mail me)  But life went on at Cresson.

Miss Boss (probably a name us kids made up due to her nature) was the night nurse.  She was older, very thin and had silver hair.  She was more direct and all business. When she made her rounds at night she was quiet, but you could hear her very starched uniform swish as she came down the hall.  She would take our temp by the light of her flashlight, and when she shook down the thermometer her bones would rattle in her fingers.  But she never seemed to be too far from the ward.

Then there was Miss Chris (probably not her name either).  If anyone can fill in the name blanks kindly do so.  She was on days. She was young and beautiful, and she seemed to love everyone she looked at, and I loved her too.  She would come up to the ward to say goodbye at the end of her shift, and I would follow her back down to the lobby like a love sick puppy dog, just to watch her swing that wonderful dark navy nurses cape with the bright red lining around her back and up on her shoulders.  It was a movement my minds-eye never forgot.  Boy what I wouldn’t give to see that once more.  Maybe in retrospect that’s why I am married to an RN today.

But we were cared for.  We walked to school as a group, up the sidewalk through the pavilion, and out the other side to the school.  Most of us were in one building. I think four or five classes were in one room.  We had numbers and reading and spelling to learn. I don’t know how that school teacher did it, but we were always busy. We had a nice playground and when the days were rainy and cold we played in the pavilion.

The days rolled on.  Once a week in an evening, Saturday I think, a nurse would greet us at the door of children’s hall and give us a paper cup with milk of magnesia in it.  Liquid chalk as I remember it to be.  I stood at the drinking fountain and sip for sip, I got it down. Yuk! We ate in the dinning room, girls on the right and boys on the left.  Good stuff it seemed like.  I remember those big cauldron type tin pitchers we got milk in.  I spilled one.  Someone threw me a rag and I started wiping the floor. “First wipe the table, Dummy” someone yelled.  The things a boy learned and it seemed like you better catch on fast.                                                                                                                             But we had good times.  Cartoons in the gym downstairs, underneath the dining room.  I used to like Fatty and Skinny as I called them (I’m sure Laurel and Hardy).  We bounced a basketball, played games, dressed up and put on skits.  One time in another building we dressed up and did skits and the big people came in robes and some were in wheel chairs.  One time we did Farmer in the Dell.  I was the farmer and my buddies were dressed as animals.  And when they sang the farmer takes a wife, I had to walk over and take the hand of a little black girl and bring her into the circle. Everyone laughed.   There were outside games and picnics and walks.  One time we went for a long walk to a pig farm.  We crossed Rt. 22 and down a dirt road and there were big round pens with what seemed like hundreds of pigs, all eating anything they could see.  It was real stinky.   We were taken to a circus in Altoona.  I remember the girls on a trapeze. They were dangling by their teeth it seemed like hundreds of feet in the air.

I made my first Holy Communion at the chapel.  There were two boys and two girls. We practiced and practiced and someone still didn’t get it right.  I have a picture of me outside Grace Chapel.  It’s the only picture I have today of Cresson.

My mom and dad still would come to visit me but it got strange because they came at different times.  They didn’t live together anymore.  I couldn’t help wondering if I was to blame for it because I was ‘sick’.

We would be obsessed with the tunnel, which started at the bottom of the steps, before you went into the gym.  We got all kind of stories from the big kids, that there were dungeons down the tunnel where people were chained.   When we were outside we could look down into rooms with gurneys and they would tell us in that room is where they cut off your legs and over there is where they cut off your arms.  This was a great concern for us small kids.  Of course as time went by the power of reasoning took over and I didn’t see anyone without arms or legs, but the tunnel did have its mysteries, such as the bare light bulbs on the ceiling as far as you could see.  We saw the train (we called it) bring the food from the big people’s place, so we knew the tunnel went there anyway.

It was a big dare to see who would be the bravest and go further up the tunnel than anyone else.  We would all start out and inch our way further and further.  Then someone would yell “I hear the train,” and we would all turn around and run back to the entrance, afraid we would get run over by the train.

As days went on, we ate, slept and grew bigger, smarter and healthier (I hoped).

The Christmas Season was getting closer, and we saw changes. There were decorations going up, and that big, big tree in the corner of the main lobby with big colored lights.  It went right up to where the girls lived.  We gathered there and practiced singing Christmas Carols.  Then came the big night when we all walked as a group up to where the big people lived.  In and out of the wards singing our Christmas Carols.  Everyone seemed happy and liked us.  From building to building, bath robed people applauded.

We crossed an all windowed hallway up in the air into another building. (This just amazed me).  Now here is where my mind needs jogged.  Somewhere in time my mind’s eye records going into a ward with iron lungs lined up on each side. About five on each side with people’s heads sticking out of them.  Did this ever exist at the Sanitarium, or was I remembering something of another time frame?  Help me out!  Does anyone remember iron lungs at the San?

Well anyway, we sang “All Ye Faithful” till I thought my legs were going to fall off.  Then back to the kids building where popcorn balls, fruit and nuts and hot chocolate greeted us.  When we got back to our ward we found more.  There was fruit and gifts and small items on our beds.  I was delighted in finding a wooden train and track and some other toys.  It was a Christmas Remembered.

Well, Spring has come and I was sprung. Evidently my body did the right thing and I was healed.  My mother came for me.  I remember standing on that big front porch where we sat so many times, even bundled up in the cold.  The doctor was saying to me “Tommy, you are healthy enough to go home.  If you don’t remember anything else about us here,   remember one thing:  Get plenty of rest for the rest of your life”   Some farewells from staff and off to home.  Home was different. Mom said I had to be the man of the house now.  I had a little sister. She wanted to know about every minute I spent at Cresson. At night when I turned out the light she would ask me to tell her from one day to the next exactly about life at Cresson. I spent night after night repeating some days that were her favorite remembering my life there.

As the years went by I was encouraged to put that part of my life behind me. “Don’t talk about it Tommy” my mother would say.  We took on a stepfather. We moved around.  Adolescence came and I held my own in school.  I developed some outside interests like some football and some track.  I loved scouting, from cub to explorer.  Became an Eagle Scout.  After graduation I left Jeannette, PA.  and headed to Hazleton to live and work with my father.  I joined the Air Force a year later and spent time in Texas, Wisconsin, and Alaska.  I was on helicopter rescue.  I always had a love for flying.

After my discharge from the Air Force 1964, I bought an RV, and left Anchorage, Alaska and spent a couple of months touring the country.  I came back to Hazleton, PA., where I reside now.  I built a mobile home park in 1965 and in 1968 put in twenty more spaces for a total of forty two spaces.  I spent two years in Charlotte, North Carolina and while I was there I got my private pilot’s license.  I came back to Hazleton because my park needed my attention.   In 1984 I built a solar passive home on a hilltop.  The front is all glass, a solarium if you will.  A real nice place to sit and read.

As the years rolled by my memories of the San  would creep into my mind, especially when I would drive to Pittsburgh to see my sister.  We would travel along Rt22, now a four lane divided highway that bypasses Cresson.  I would say to my wife “One of these days I’m going to turn into that place just to reminisce”. But it never happened.  Now of course you can’t. 

But in a way it did happen, kind of.  In 1995 I started working at White Haven Center, aka in 1964 as White Haven Sanitarium. It closed then.  Probably by the same hand that closed Cresson, and the same hand that opened it as State School for the mentally retarded.  So there I was as a residential service aid, taking care of people from age 20 to 80.  Once in a while, when I got to know a nurse, I would tell her my story and she would be amazed. We had one nurse there who came from Cresson.  She told me how it was now and that I wouldn’t recognize it because it was a prison. She worked in the infirmary.  Her name was Mrs. Birch.  We feared White Haven too might become a prison. 

I had many deja vu flash-backs of Cresson that took me right back to being six years old.  The sight of a metal bed, walking into a ward (they’re called dorms here).  But the smell really did it, one sniff and it takes me right back, usually a disinfectant odor.  God knows they must have used drums of it at the San.   I retired from White Haven Center three years ago. I still keep in touch with a few people I worked with.  There are less than one hundred and eighty residents and I think the writing is on the wall.   Hamburg is about fifty miles down the road (I was there a few times), and I think they have even less.  If we get a republican governor, he will combine the two in a heartbeat. 

O.K., so what’s the philosophy?  You can take the man out of the San but you can’t take the San out of the man.  Today as I reflect on Cresson I get a warm feeling.  In my adolescent and early adulthood I reflected on my bout with TB and the San as possibly a strike against my life.   But now having seen a lot of life (and death), I look at those nine months there more as a jump start in life.  My lungs?  I do see a pulmonary specialist once a year, but not because of TB.   I had been diagnosed with Sarcoidosis in 1989.  I immediately told them of my TB history, but they said “No connection”.  At that time I was into running and I started training for a marathon, but somewhere around fourteen miles I felt a general tiredness that led to a malaise condition. That’s when I went to Hershey Medical Center, now a part of Penn State.  They awarded me a six pack of prednisone (a steroid) and I was back on track. This morning I walked my two miles with my wife and at age 69, I feel great.  I once asked my pulmonary specialist who got to know me through the years, “With my lung history, what are my chances of a long life”?   He said “Thomas, you are probably going to die in the arms of a jealous lover”………Amen. 

     Thomas A. Domin



Thomas, dressed up in his Sunday best,  and his mom.   The occasion was his 1st Communion at Grace Chapel.
(Left)  A young Thomas.   (Right)  Thomas always had a love of flying and was on helicopter rescue while in the Air Force.  This is one of the airplanes Thomas flew after he got his private pilot's license while in Charlotte, NC.