As suggested by a good friend and cousin of mine, I will try to shine a light on a personal experience regarding Tuberculosis, the “Curse of King Tut”.
The year was 1965 early Autumn. My mother’s estranged husband was taken to Mount Vernon, MO. This was at the time a ‘sanitarium’ for individuals with ‘lung disease’. This was a nice way to refer to the State operated ‘Tuberculosis Lock Up’. He began coming down with something, that’s how Mom referred to it, in 1963. We were soon to discover that he was ill with Lung Cancer and Tuberculosis.
I was newly 17 years old. My life seemed to be going on track, finally! I was in high school, working to catch up on credits I lost in the last two years of back and forth moving as my step-father and mother decided whether they were going to stay together or not. I had teachers I loved and they showed genuine interest in helping me progress. I was in love and felt like the envy of all the girls, when he came to pick me up from school. We were dirt poor, eight kids and Mom. Living in a two story duplex. The floors were bare wood of untold age and furnishings were the bare necessities. Yet, we were finally settled, or so I thought.
I knew more about Polio than I did about Tuberculosis. At the age of four it was thought that I had Polio after waking from a nap unable to move. As children we were all shipped in mass to the local high school to receive our Polio vaccinations. Tuberculosis was something we had to do a patch test for every year and there ends the knowledge and exposes the lack of, as zilch.
As my step-father positively had TB (short name) our whole family had to be tested as well. At the time I had something pulmonary going on. A cold, maybe. I inadvertently scratched my test and when the nurse checked it, I told her about the scratch, she continued and measured the scab and I was declared as having a positive test. No one else, not even Mom, were deemed to have positive reactions. This was real strange to me as they had more close contact with him than I, because I couldn’t stand him.
The world suddenly got a whole lot crazy. The health department was calling in other family members Aunts, Uncles, Cousins and close friends and neighbors. Apparently, TB is so highly contagious that it is easily caught at even the slightest contact. I was told I had to quit school, where, by the way many students, who had contact with me, were required to have tests. I finally broke down and sobbed when delivering the news to my Speech teacher. She was one of a few who seemed to care. The crazy didn’t stop there. Now, they were going to send me to Mount Vernon, MO as well. I can look back and see my Mother’s face as she tried to be a comfort to me and still comply with the law. I threatened to run away, far, far away. The Sheriff came and told me I would go voluntarily or he would be forced to come and escort me personally.
I would challenge anyone who would tell me that as a white person I have no idea about discrimination or segregation. Believe me, TB made many, no matter what race, keep a distance from someone with the ‘Consumption’. I could write several more paragraphs on my stay at the TB Sanitarium, but I won’t. I never had TB, I had pneumonia. The strange thing about the patch tests, once you have a positive, you will always test positive and come to find out a positive doesn’t mean you have the disease, you could simply have been exposed. I had to take a special medication for a year afterwards to prevent me from getting TB as I was very exposed at the hospital. My life was drastically changed, I didn’t return to school, I didn’t have a boyfriend anymore and I was ready to get the heck out of Dodge.
I don’t know how many years this racket went on, but the families that were torn apart were immense. They put new mothers who had the flu in the hospital, leaving their newborns behind. I was rooming with a Japanese lady who had just recently immigrated. Many, Many individuals from ‘poor’ families, but they took from other walks of life as well, old or young, rich or poor, it didn’t matter. It was around 1971 that Mount Vernon was not just a TB Sanitarium, but served as a chest and rehabilitation hospital and currently is The University of Missouri Healthcare.
My life has been tweaked from this experience. I married a young man I met at the hospital. He obviously didn’t care that I had been there. I get nauseous and many times dry heave, when someone coughs up junk and spits it in the trash on the walk or ground. Boys being boys or men being men and spitting, make me crawl. The schools or doctors weren’t doing TB tests any more. So, I took my children to the health department and had them tested for several years before I too, finally, relaxed about it. There was never any mention about TB with potential employers. There was no mention to anyone for that matter who was not already in the know. Not to many years ago I applied to the State for a childcare license. One of the requirements was a TB test on me and my husband. Yep, nerves were on edge for both of us. We were negative and that’s OK with me.
Only the HIV A bomb overcame the stigma that TB left with individuals. Though I really didn’t want anyone with Aids to go through what I did because of TB, I was a little angry that they were so free to spread it around. Now it seems that TB is bouncing back and has now exceeded HIV in the number of cases worldwide. It’s going to be interesting to wait and watch how it all goes.