I still recall being brought into a room and seeing my Mom sitting on a hospital gurney, cross legged, with a big smile on her face. We were placed about 12 feet apart because we were not allowed to touch, even though we hadn’t seen each other for almost a year. It was January 1955.
Mom had been admitted to Dunham Tuberculosis Hospital in February 1954, just a few days after my eighth birthday. She had been sick for a long time but had put off going to the doctor, knowing the diagnosis would be, “TB”. This was the same diagnosis she had received eight years earlier, about the time my older sister, Dolores, was born. But this time it was much worse.
As she sat cross legged on the gurney smiling at her little girl, you would never have known that some months earlier the doctors had surgically collapsed one of her lungs and then filled it with Lucite balls. Later in life Mom would squirm and twitch, saying that her “ping pong” balls were moving. I learned later that she almost died from that surgery.
When Mom went to the hospital my brother, sister, and I were left at home in the care of an aunt, my Dad’s older sister, because Dad had “disappeared” once again. A “Quarantine – No Admittance” sign was placed in the front window of our little apartment on State Avenue and family members or friends would leave food and other items by the side door for my aunt to retrieve. Sometimes this included alcohol which my aunt had someone purchase for her with the welfare food money we received. Like Dad, she was an alcoholic. I learned later that soon after Mom was hospitalized Dad was arrested and sent to prison for a year for abandoning his family and not paying child support.
The normal procedure when someone was diagnosed with TB was to test other family members for the disease. Fortunately, my older brother and sister had not contracted the disease but I was not so lucky. This should have come as no surprise because I had always been sickly and, at age eight, weighed only 48 pounds and was severely anemic. The doctor said I had TB and must be admitted to Dunham Hospital. This was several months after Mom had been admitted for her surgery and extended care.
I will never forget the taxi ride to the hospital. I was an extremely shy little girl, dreadfully afraid, and with no Mommy or Daddy to comfort me. My brave sister, just 16 at the time, sat in the back seat of the cab with me, both of us crying as she cuddled me close to her side. I clung to her for dear life, terrified of going to the hospital. I knew Mom was there somewhere but that was little comfort now.
The hospital was a beehive of sick kids. There were so many children with TB that they had a girl’s wing and a boy’s wing, with two beds to a room. In spite of my loneliness and fear I soon adjusted, which I owe to the loving care the nurses provided, especially a nurse named Miss Norma who was like a loving mother to all the girls on my ward.
A few months after arriving I got a new roommate who, unfortunately, brought head lice with her. There was only one remedy. A nurse placed me in the bathtub and began scrubbing my head so hard I thought it would catch fire. I remember sitting there in the tub crying my eyes out and thinking she was mad at me because she scrubbed so hard despite my tears. I realize now this was a hurtful but loving act she needed to perform just like the loving care she provided the rest of the time.
Not long after the lice episode I had the misfortune of getting the flu. I was immediately quarantined to a room by myself at the end of the hall, where I received three big shots in my behind for several days. Across from my room was a walk-in closet where the nurses kept all the toys, games, and books for the children. Because of my isolation, one of the nurses took pity and granted me the special privilege of making the closet my own little playroom. I would sit in there for hours playing with toys, reading books, and just having a great time. I remember having the most contented feeling sitting on the floor of the closet and reading, which I still enjoy doing to this day (reading, not sitting in the closet.)
After six months of healthy meals, vitamins, and new medications (which we were so blessed to have) I began putting on weight and recovering from my bout with TB. This was during the 1954-55 school year when I was in the third grade. A teacher came 2-3 days per week to tutor the children and leave assignments for the next week. I studied hard and upon my return to Olyer School the next fall I was able to reunite with my good friend Sue and other classmates in the fourth grade.
One day in the spring Aunt Estelle and Uncle Leon brought my brother, Jim, and their four year old daughter, my cousin Mary Ellen, to see me (you may know her as M.E. Steele-Pierce). They weren’t allowed to come inside but I opened my second floor widow and we laughed and shouted to each other for a long time. It was a happy precious moment during that long year of my life, but I couldn’t help but cry when they left.
Returning to that visit with Mom in January 1955, even though we were not permitted to touch, those few minutes together were the highlight of my nearly yearlong stay at Dunham Hospital. I was released in May. Dad returned home from prison in June, a Christian and determined to care for his family. Mom was finally released in August, and once again we were together in our little apartment on State Avenue, more closely knit as a family than ever before. I’m thankful for the kindness of the nurses and teachers at Dunham Hospital, and for my Heavenly Father who kept a watchful eye over a frightened little girl and still does to this day.
George and his wife Yvonne are freelance writers. They live in Jackson Township.