My Stay in the San

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Dec 16, 2015 3:30 PM
The author with a patient from the women's sanatorium in the 1950s

In the early to mid-1900s, most people in Newfoundland and Labrador were affected in one way or another by tuberculosis (TB). I was reared up in Point Verde, a community of some 80 families, where it was nothing to hear that so and so had died of consumption - a common name for TB.

With me, it all started on October 2, 1952. That was the day I got an envelope in the mail from the federal Ministry of Transport in Ottawa containing my long-awaited Wireless Radio Operator License. I was one of the first wireless operator graduates from the Training Institute in St. John’s. With my diploma I travelled to St. John’s to see the federal representative for the Ministry of Transport. 

“So you’re looking for a job,” he said, with a pleasant smile. “Well, we have a number of openings, but I would like for you to go to Cape Race.” 

I was delighted. Cape Race was the busiest radio station around. While my posting was being arranged, I was sent home to Point Verde to get a medical, including a chest X-ray. I went to the local hospital in Placentia (about four miles from Point Verde) for the required medical. A few days later I was asked to return and was given the devastating news that I had TB. My first dream job went down the drain and on December 4, 1952, I was admitted to the St. John’s Sanatorium.

The San

The St. John’s Sanatorium on Topsail Road was built in 1917, overlooking Bowring Park. I was put in a room with two other guys. They were probably in their 30s - old by my 19-year-old standards. The fellow in the middle bed looked like he could be a wrestler. The guy by the window also looked hale and hearty, but he had a big stomach. Overeating, I thought. I would soon find out otherwise.

During the first weeks we were confined to complete bed rest. We were not even allowed to go to the bathroom and had to rely on a nurse with a bedpan. I promised myself I was never going to use a bedpan when I was quite capable of walking to the washroom, so I found a way around that rule. I learned that at 7:00 every evening, the night shift nurse made her rounds and then went to the nursing station. From a couple of kids I learned where the nearest washroom was, and very soon after I made my first successful, unauthorized bathroom break. I made that my routine, and if the nurses were suspicious, they didn’t investigate.

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The author relaxing on the Sanatorium verandah, getting fresh air as was prescribed for TB patients.

The cures

If you broke your arm, the doctor would put it in a cast until it heals. But what could you do for injured lungs? In the case of TB, complete bed rest and fresh air were at one time the most relied-upon treatments. Other methods employed to stabilize the lungs included Pneumothorax, bed raising and “rib jobs.” Pneumothorax was a method of pumping air into the stomach cavity to restrict lung movement; one side effect of this frequent treatment was a swollen belly, like I’d seen on my roommate that first day. Raising the foot of a patient’s bed by about six inches caused gravity to push the stomach and other organs up against the lungs, thereby restricting their movement within the chest cavity. Rib jobs involved removing one or more ribs so that the soft body flesh could fall in and help immobilize the lung. As this treatment was disfiguring, it was not popular among patients. Surgery to remove part or all of an infected lung was only just emerging as a successful treatment.

None of these treatments were applied to me. I was given a weekly injection of a new wonder drug called streptomycin, combined with oral medication.

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Checking the weather before going out to exercise - a great privilege after months of bed rest!

The privileges

Upon admission, the regimen was normally two months complete bed rest, after which you’d get gradual return of “privileges.” The first to return, to my relief, was toilet privileges. Next it was the bath privilege, where you could bathe on your own. Then came the half-exercise privilege, with which you could get dressed, go outside and walk around. Full exercise was the last one. With this you could go outside twice a day. That first time going outside, after 17 months, was unbelievable!

Once you were released from bed rest, patients found ways to pass the time, such as playing cards. While playing for money was strictly taboo, I can tell you many a dollar was passed over the bedspread.

Reading was another pastime, as was writing - we had a monthly newsletter, called San Beam, that everyone looked forward to. I usually contributed with a joke or two, plus a few riddles. 

Educational training was also available. The young kids had a private tutor who kept them up on their schooling. Many patients learned to do leather work, making wallets and purses that they then sold through their family and friends. They were of good quality and commanded a handsome price. I availed of a typing course, which helped me get a job after my release from the San.

At Christmas, a local radio station came in and recorded messages so that all our relatives and friends could hear from us and know that we were doing well.

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One of the younger patients the author met during his stay in the San

Surgery and discharge

After 19 months, the last two of which I exercised outdoors every day, I went for another X-ray. I was shocked to learn another cavity had developed in my left lung. The doctor recommended surgery to remove part of the lung.

I called my parents, who were devastated by the news. My mother left my father, who was then battling stomach cancer, at home and came to St. John’s to be with me. But by the time she arrived, my fortune had been greatly improved. In another meeting with my doctor, I was told they had made a mistake in reading my latest X-ray. That was not a new cavity they had seen, and based on my overall fitness they concluded I had beaten TB. I said goodbye to my San friends, packed my things and returned with my mother to Point Verde.

Life after the San

After 19 months and 15 days, I was finally back home. But I still had to wait a year and pass four more X-rays before I could return to work. That first year is critical, as relapse in that period was many times higher than any other period afterwards.

Once cleared for work, it was a challenge finding an employer willing to hire a former TB patient. I was ultimately turned down by the Department of Transport and Trans Canada Airlines (forerunner of Air Canada) because of my medical records. Fortunately, Canadian National (CN), which operated the Newfoundland coastal ferries, was in need of wireless operators to fill in vacation time for permanent staff. My first assignment was aboard the SS Baccalieu, on the Argentia to Port aux Basques run. After I was hired, I was told to get a medical. I put it off and kept working for as long as I could, knowing that the results would mean the end of my job. I quit before they could fire me in April 1955.

For the rest of my career, I worked as a wireless operator for the Canadian Marconi Company at Cabot Tower; as a communication technician with Eastern Telephone and Telegraph Company in Clarenville; and as station supervisor for Canadian Overseas Telecommunications Corporations (COTC) in Deer Lake. COTC was operating a communications undersea sable from Thule, Greenland to Deer Lake as part of NORAD (North America Air Defense) monitoring system during the Cold War. The highlight of my stay in Deer Lake was that I married a young local lady, who remains with me to this day.

In 1975, relations between the Soviet Union and the United States had improved, and there was no need of the communications system in Deer Lake, so it was closed down. I was transferred to COTC head office in Montreal, where I remained until retirement.

Even though TB left me with one functioning lung and presented an early obstacle to my career, life overall has been good to me since my stay in the San. I am now 82 and pretty well active all the time. My wife and I are living in Ontario, enjoying retirement. - Submitted by Roger Judge of Beamsville, O.N.

Ashley Gushue

I believe my grandmother was there in the 1950s... Her name was June Clarke or June Gushue or Mary Jane Gushue... I don't know much about her ! Did anyone know her there ?

Roger Judge

Hi Margaret. Thanks for your comment. I can't say I knew Eric or Ike. That is not to say that I didn't meet them. I live In Lincoln (Beamsville), which is not very far from Burlington. Roger J. Hi John. Thanks for your comments. You mentioned penicillin. I can't remember this drug been used. However, you probably meant Streptomycin. This was a so called wonder drug, and came in use in the early 1950's. It was the drug I was prescribed. Thanks again. R. Judge

margaret Russell

Mr.Judge would you have known two men Eric & Ike Russell .During your stay at the san in ST.Johns...They have both passed away...Eric was my husband.As i now live in on burlington .We lived in Corner Brook nl for many years....thank you your friend Margaret Russell

John Cornick

I remember working at the San during the summer of 1952. I had just graduated from Prince of Wales College. I remember my job was cleaning up the rooms, including getting rid of sputum bags. I got to know many of the patients well. Most seemed to be from Labrador where I believe TB was endemic at the time. An operation known as a Pneumo, where they operated and collapsed the infected lung, was routinely carried out. The operation had a very low recovery rate, and those operated on only had a 50:50 chance of recovery. Age had no bearing on whether you pulled through the operation. I remember two guys I knew, one in his 20s and another in his 60s undergoing the operation; the older guy pulled through while the younger passed away. With the advent of Penicillin, however, TB became less prevelent and eventually the San closed down. The miracle of antibiotics. John Cornick Halifax, Nova Scotia