Twenty-one year old Richard H. Ray came to Saranac Lake in October 1937 to cure his tuberculosis. Ray had been working at Carborundum Corporation in Niagara Falls for two years; the company arranged for his care at Trudeau Sanatorium and continued to pay his salary while he was treated, and assured him that he could return to his job when he was cured. But when his cure took longer than the expected six months, they discontinued his salary, and he moved to the New York State Hospital at Ray Brook, where care was free of charge.
That spring I was on a treadmill. A pain in the side, a doubtful lab report, an appendectomy, pleurisy, a chest cold, a pain in the back, an elevated temperature had me going from Asiel to General Hospital to Kerbs II to Ludington Infirmary to a meal in the dining room, to Phoenix Cottage and more tray meals. It was spring and I probably allowed myself to smell the roses before they had budded properly. And to make matters worse, my one prospective "cousin" had been experiencing much the same sort of spring with one set-back after another so it was a girl-less summer coming along this until duo showed up one day.
Ann Packard, teen-age daughter of Dr. Packard, and her school chum Nancy Connelly [sic: Connely], came strolling along the road from town and dropped in to visit and share their teen-age effervescence with us. What a lift for our uncured selves to have these blithe spirits arrive, spreading cheer like huckle-berry jam. They came to talk, laugh, listen to our music, giggle and for perhaps a half hour let us be not TB patients, but just some young men being happy and carefree. And when I moved along to Ray Brook, they got dressed up in their white gloves and brightened my life there, too.
For more of Richard H. Ray's Saranac Lake reminiscences, see his book, Saranac 1937-1940: A Memoir.
Adirondack Daily Enterprise, August 15, 1987
Just 21, he begins 12 year battle for health
By DICK RAY
I came to Saranac Lake in 1937 knowing almost nothing about the disease I had contracted except that it would take a long time to get well. That meant, to me, six months of watching winter sports, meeting new people, not having to go to the office 5 1/2 days every week.
Just 21, I had been working at the Carborundum Co., for several years and going to Niagara University at night for the past year. I had helped move our family to a new home and developed a pain in my chest from the exertion. When our doctor discovered that it wasn't a pulled muscle causing the pain, but pleurisy, and that a chest x-ray showed fluid and tuberculosis, I was almost relaxed about it. My boss told me my job would be waiting for me when I got well. Just go to bed and recover.
The company would pay me my salary, which was $85 a month and that was enough to pay the bills at Trudeau. How could I lose?
Waiting to be admitted to Trudeau, I stayed at 29 Pine Street for several weeks. Miss Connie Benson, who cared for ten patients, had attended my mother in Massena, N.Y., some 21 years earlier, and had some sage advice as she welcomed me. "If you have enough TB to put on the head of a pin, you should stay in bed, quiet, resting until you are cured."
Sickness and death
Within a week, I was willing to accept her advice. I learned that the 19-year-old who shared the glassed in porch room with me had been there for more than a year, coughed heavily and was hoping to be well enough to have some ribs removed in another year. John, "a writer who won't stop writing long enough to give himself a chance to heal," lived over the garage beyond my window and coughed and coughed and COUGHED. And a lady in one of the front bedrooms died. I accepted her advice.
Upon admission to Trudeau, a small group of new patients met with Dr. John Steidl on a Sunday morning. In the friendly atmosphere of the library, he told us, quietly, what he knew about tuberculosis, what our prospects were, what the statistics on cures and deaths were, how the illness might progress or regress. He answered questions. I think no one, certainly not I, left the session unimpressed with the seriousness of the situation we were in. I know I never again thought I was in the mountains to enjoy the winter sports.
Most of us who learned about our disease while it was in a minimal stage heard that we would "be away for six months." Some of us managed just that. Some stayed much longer. Some came back once — or twice. Some died here. Some never had another bit of illness. And the determinant was not whether you followed the rules or didn't. Some cheated and got better. Some "chased" assiduously and died.
Sick for 12 years
The essentials for recovery sometimes seemed to be patience and luck. Most of us had enough of each to survive the disease in the 30s and 40s. My patience held out for two-and-a-half years at Trudeau and Ray Brook, five years in New Mexico and Arizona, five in Colorado. And I was lucky enough to be admitted to National Jewish Hospital in Denver at a time when Streptomycin and INH and the other antibiotics were being tested.
The hospital years were filled with laughter and horror, joy and pain. I learned to live with people of all persuasions, backgrounds, degrees of education. I learned to enjoy classical music and opera.
Shivering on the porch
At Trudeau, my first cottage mates were an accountant, a Brooklyn cab driver, a chauffeur for the Mafia, a college age baseball pitcher who showed promise of making it in professional ball, and an Episcopal minister. The accountant spent his time lying in bed every moment he was not up for the purpose of eating. Not reading, not talking, arms under the covers — resting. He had the reputation of staying in bed on the porch no matter how cold. One night I tried to stay out with him until I realized I was not sleeping — just shivering. We had newspapers and brown Kraft paper under our mattresses. We wore long underwear and sheepskin boots. We wore parkas and had electric blankets over us, topped by woolen blankets, but our breath froze on the sheets and pillows, and I finally got out of bed and pushed the bed into the room. The trees were exploding along the mountainside as the sap froze. The recording thermometer registered 45 degrees below zero as we tried to sleep. I was later told by the doctor that there was no benefit to be had by shivering through such a night.
"Cousining" with opposite sex
And there was "cousining." Cousining was a term for having a steady relationship, of unspecified intensity, with someone of the opposite sex. I was willing to be a cousin but never made much headway between setbacks. There were moments that seemed promising and several prospective cousins who seemed to have setbacks when I was ready or vice versa. There resulted much visiting, note-writing and day-dreaming, but little action.
I recall my first meals in the dining room at Trudeau. Everyone dressed to go to the dining room.Ties and jackets were mandatory and the menu made it seem as though we were really eating in a hotel dining room.
At Ray Brook
At Ray Brook, dining was more informal. Waiters delivered food from the kitchen to tables for six just before the dining room doors were opened and checked back from time to time to see if you wanted anything else. Cod liver oil was a big favorite diet supplement.
Joe arrived at Ray Brook the day after I, about thirty pounds underweight. One of his tablemates came to me and asked for help after Joe had been going to the dining room for a month. (I was still getting trays in my room, but the tablemate thought I might be able to speak to Joe). Joe was always first in line when the dining room doors opened. He sat at the table which had serving dishes to feed six persons and helped himself to such large amounts of food that by the time the rest of his tablemates arrived, they had to wait until the waiter brought refills from the kitchen. And watching Joe pack the food in while they waited was no help for their appetites. I told the tablemate that Joe had put on twelve or thirteen pounds since arriving and he would probably slack off when he got back to normal — and in any case, I was not such a big buddy of Joe's that I felt like telling him how to eat. But I think the rest of the people simply took their time about getting to the table, and in the course of time, Joe did, indeed, gain about 25 pounds and began to eat like a normal person, solving the crisis satisfactorily. Joe, incidentally, went home in six months or so, and within a year was back at work at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. When Pearl Harbor was devastated, he volunteered to go to Hawaii and spent something more than two years, working overtime and Sundays for half of that period, getting the Navy back in service. He remains a close friend nearly fifty years later, and I plan on visiting him in Florida on the way to the "reunion" in Saranac Lake.
The other person in the room with us at Ray Brook was Phil, a feisty little Russian watchmaker.
My memory of the Saranac Lake/Trudeau/Ray Brook years is spotty these days, but my parents saved my notes and postcards (which cost three cents and one cent then!) and they were returned to me after their deaths in 1962. Thumbing through them has reminded me of some moments of pleasure to treasure:
— After receiving seven letters in one mail, I wrote home the plea "Send me a secretry — a — SHEcretary."
When in the infirmary at Trudeau, a fellow patient. Doctor G., who was frightened sick by his illness, was told that he could go in and take his own bath instead of being bathed in bed by a nurse. He cried on getting the news, then came to my door and asked me to listen while he was bathing. If anything went wrong, he would cry out and I could call for help.
— A physician on the staff at Ray Brook, who had been a patient himself, stopped by my bed one day and after commenting on the cribbage board on my tray table, he hitched himself up on the bed and announced he had paid his way through medical school playing cribbage and how about a game? We played one game while he coughed on the cards, coughed in my face from three feet away, and when I winced he said "No danger to you. You have tuberculosis already." Within three months he was dead.
— Abe was a 25-year-old orphan. He was about six feet, six inches tall and not very literate but he carried my tray in to me at mealtimes. He sometimes watched in the evenings as we played bridge in my room and when a regular player didn't show up, we invited him to sit in.
Choked to death
One evening on this substitute duty he played terribly. Could not seem to concentrate at all and when he was the dummy, he stood up and left the room. Appearing in the doorway a few minutes later he said, "I KNEW something terrible was happening. I KNEW! Someone playing cards out in the solarium just choked to death." It was true, someone from the next building had choked while playing, resuscitation had been fruitless and Abe had somehow known that it was happening.
He told us, later, that he was brought up in an orphan asylum in Western New York and had been placed in farm homes from time to time. On one such placement he had awakened from a nightmare in which he saw the orphanage going up in flames — and the next day learned that the orphanage had burned.
— I wrote home to report that a great event had occurred. I was to be "taken off wash water." At that moment I had been in bed for months, lying as quietly as I could to avoid being put in a cast because of a lesion on my spine. Being taken off wash water was the signal that I could get out of bed to wash myself in the sink. It was the signal that I was getting better and that the bedrest had done its job.
— Smoking cigarettes was frowned on by medical authorities, but the only time you were forbidden, on threat of being kicked out of the institution, was when you were in bed. Doctors told you you would be better off if you didn't smoke, that your throat would not be so irritated, that you might cough less, that your appetite would be better if you kicked the habit. But there was no solid proof that tobacco smoke would kill you and most doctors figured that a smoker would be upset and nervous and might be better off if not forbidden but merely restricted.
I smoked through years of illness and another ten of relative wellness before the Surgeon General scared me in 1958 and gave me the impetus to break the habit for good.
— When my little radio blew its transformer because I plugged it into the direct current used at Ray Brook, I sent it to Saranac Lake to be fixed by Ed Worthington. I was grateful to Ed for getting it back to me in time for me to hear the Mercury Theater that evening. It was a show called "The War Of The Worlds."
His stay at 29 Pine Street
Mid October, 1937 - I spent a night on a Pullman car that took me from Buffalo to a switching point at Utica and arrived at Saranac Lake early in the cool, moist morning.
My only memories of that trip were of the tight quarters of the Pullman berth and of giving the porter a tip for getting me there, then discovering that I was $9 short when I counted my money in Saranac Lake. I had obviously handed him a $10 bill instead of a single, in a time when a hospital room cost half of that. A taxi took me to my pre-arranged, temporary home at 29 Pine Street, run by Miss Cornelia Benson, a nurse who had attended my birth (Mother's second child) in Massena, New York, in August of 1916.
She had accommodations for 10 patients and was staffed by two nurses and a cook in addition to Miss Benson. The large bedroom at second floor rear housed a 19 year old granite miner from Barre, Vermont and me. We were separated by a plywood panel at the heads of our beds so we couldn't see one another but every sound, every movement was heard by both of us. We could look out toward the hill behind the house and could wave at a patient housed in the converted garage. We could also hear sounds from out there. Steve, my roommate, did a certain amount of coughing, but one of the patients on the hill was really coughing his life away. Day and night he coughed until he cleared his lungs. We exchanged notes with John, a witty Irishman who had been a writer. Steve had a radio and we listened to programs when we weren't talking, reading or playing the game of "Salvo".
Miss Benson started all her guests off with the same advice, even before they were seen by a doctor. "If you should have enough disease to fit on the head of a pin, you should be in bed — and rest until the doctor says you are cured". So I went to bed. Meals in bed, baths in bed, out of bed only to go to the toilet, when a urinal wouldn't do. In the two or three weeks before Dr. Packard came to tell me that Trudeau had a bed ready for me, the daily shuffle to the bathroom was my only break in the bed routine. As far as I can remember, I never learned who the other patients were, or anything about them, though I did take a picture of a girl who presumably was a patient who came in to say hello.
And someone at 29 Pine died one night. Don't remember how I learned of it and nobody was willing to talk about it, so my curiosity was unsatisfied. But it was the closest I had ever been to someone who died and it made a strong impression on me.
It undoubtedly drove home Miss Benson's admonitions at a critical time.