Palabras Pintorescas: That evil bug called Tuberculosis

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By Editha Bartley

I suspect quite a few of my readers have no idea what the white plague is, was. Yes, that is why so many sanatoriums where built in our western states. Tuberculosis was running rampant in the first two thirds of the last century, around this big world we live in.

James Markert just wrote a novel about the white plague, titled, “A White Wind Blew.” I discovered this book quite by accident, but it paints a vivid picture of why my grandfather Brown decided to build a tuberculosis sanatorium very near Las Vegas, at Valmora. Back in 1904 when he (a doctor) practiced medicine, tuberculosis was a disease that nobody knew how to cure. It was highly contagious, and sufferers were always left to die a painful and always solitary death in a sanatorium, a hospital that was isolated from the rest of the world because it was so contagious.

Sweet brother Bill and I were never allowed near a “positive” patient, a patient who coughed up a lung full of sputum laced with the deadly tuberculosis bacteria at any time.

For many years, most of the Valmora patients arrived by Santa Fe railroad trains at our flagstop railroad station there.

They were treated with a range of options that surely would befuddle us today, from putting weights on their collarbones, deflating a lung by pneumothorax (a surgical procedure perfected by my doctor father Carl H. Gellenthien) and sometimes even removing a rib so the patient could breathe easier. Our patients were taken out to our solarium year-round or lined up on our reception hall porch to take the fresh air, no matter how cold it was.

Some of our patients also had their own ideas, potions, things that they felt would cure them. Many had very strong religious beliefs as well, which included having their ashes scattered at Valmora when the TB bug won the battle.

Thankfully the sanatoriums of yesteryear are no longer needed and Doc. G. always said the wonder drugs, isoniazid and streptomycin put him out of business. The sanatoriums of yesteryear have been transformed into many different things, which include various kinds of schools and research facilities.

And I just realized this column will come out the Friday before Halloween. Bill and I probably were the only kids in this whole state who could host a Halloween party with a real, dead-to-the -bone skeleton as the guest of honor.

Doc would let “Suzie” who had her very special cabinet in his examining room attend. “Suzie” was used to show that patient with a broken bone that he was about to split, where the break was, and what the future held, as in healing.
Thankfully Suzie is at home at our UNM Medical School, and thankfully know that tuberculosis bug can now be kept in check.

There are pockets of TB around the world, including right here, so do not forget aseptic techniques, kids. You don’t want to meet that evil bug in person, believe me.

Editha Bartley lives in Gascon in Mora County. She may be reached at 454-0563.