I, for one, have never in my life come across a perfectly healthy human being.
— The Magic Mountain (1924), Thomas Mann
Just when I think I’m done writing about the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium, more compelling information comes my way. Here’s a patient’s account of her two years at the sanitarium. It tells of a bright moment when state, county and city provided effective public health care to those in need.
In January 1964, fifteen-year-old Kathleen Felters from Chicago’s Lawndale neighborhood on the West Side was admitted to the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium at 5601 N. Pulaski on Chicago’s Far North Side. She was transferred to the sanitarium by bus from Cook County Hospital, accompanied by a nurse.
At the time Kathleen weighed 97 pounds and had just undergone a pulmonary lobectomy, which in her case meant the right lower lobe of her lung was removed. She had had TB for six months before she was taken to Cook County.
Kathleen wasn’t the first in her family to reside at the sanitarium. In all, at least ten members of her family suffered from TB. From the 1940s to the 1960s six were admitted: her father, who died of TB at the sanitarium in March 1957; her grandfather; her uncle’s wife; two of her uncle’s siblings; and her uncle’s niece, who died as an infant from TB.
Kathleen spent the first seven months in the infirmary fighting for her life. Once her condition improved, she moved into a transition area called the sun porches. At the time doctors believed fresh air and sunshine aided recovery.
Later, Kathleen moved into a cottage and her life took on the ordinary routine of a teenager, except she was confined to the sanitarium. She attended school, made friends, had fun. Teachers came into the sanitarium and taught a regular school curriculum.
Kathleen formed a friendship with a woman who became godmother to her firstborn. She recalls with pleasure the movie theater and entertainment featuring well-known performers like Ramsey Lewis. There was a church and arts and craft classes for the adults. Once she no longer tested positive for TB, she could have visitors and weekend home visits.
The doctors educated patients about TB. Kathleen recalls learning not to compare her condition to other patients because each person was different. She also learned about the origins of the disease and how it spread.
“At that time, a lot of people didn’t understand TB. They believed it came from a lack of cleanliness. I was educated about my condition from the beginning until I was discharged from MTS. When I left, I continued to be monitored by Dr. Haus, one of the doctors I adored. He saw me through my first pregnancy,” said Kathleen.
I asked Kathleen whether she had the opportunity to enjoy the grounds. “Yes,” she replied, “it was beautiful. There were rabbits and geese and we thought it was like a college campus.”
“Even though I was admitted to MTS because of TB, it was one most profound and wonderful experiences that I’ve had in my life,” Kathleen added. She would love to hear from former acquaintances at the sanitarium.
My thanks to Kathleen Felters-Brials for sharing her story.
Credits: WPA posters, Library of Congress Online Catalog.
Read more: A companion piece to this story is an essay by Gilberto Gonzalez, M.D., who was a medical resident at the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium. These blog posts also are about the sanitarium: Forbidden Places I, Forbidden Places II, Forbidden Places III and Forbidden Places, Epilogue.