Born: April 1, 1916
Died: October 31, 1991
Married: Richard B. Mullen
Children: Patrice Keet, and Kathleen Schneck
The following interview is part of the Ree Rickard's oral history interviews conducted in 1987.
FROM NURSE TO PATIENT
Eleanor Mullen was a nurse at Raybrook Sanitarium for thirty years. A small, feisty woman, she is now a doting grandmother still living in Saranac Lake. As she reminisced in her home, the sounds that could be heard from the police scanner located in the living room were explained by, “I don’t like to miss the action.”
DID YOU EVER WORRY ABOUT CONTRACTING T.B.?
No, because I grew up in Saranac Lake and it was all over the town. Next door the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen had a cure cottage that held 20-25 men. Many organizations had their own cottages. Everybody had sick people in their home. This house was a cure cottage. It was what maintained the town.
The only thing you were forbidden to do was take a book out of the library for fear that a patient had coughed on it. The funny thing was, you would go into a store and try on clothes that someone, loaded with T.B. had tried on before you. You’d go to church and the patient next to you might cough his head off. There was a law in town that you couldn’t shake the dustmop out the window for fear of spearing germs. Of course, there was the famous fifty dollar fine for spitting on the street. Mostly, though, we didn’t give it a thought.
TELL ME ABOUT RAYBROOK
It was a wonderful place to work. It was so pretty with a brook going through the grounds, walking paths and Saddleback Mountain in the background. There was a darling little golf course. It’s a prison now. Everything is barbed wire. It’s depressing. In the old days it was beautiful and everyone enjoyed it. It was a community. There was no pettiness or tension. As soon as the patients were able, they kept up their own rooms. Later they’d be given a part-time job at the hospital. They worked in the labs, in the office, or in any place that could use an extra hand. If they worked for house, they’d get paid. It wasn’t much money but it was a good system. It was rehabilitation to get them ready for the outside world, and it helped to build up their muscles after surgery. Most patients came from the city. There was a long waiting list. The discipline and rules were strict. If you were late coming back from an afternoon pass, you’d better have a good explanation or you were going home or to a hospital in New York. Any monkeyshines and they’d better pack up. T.B. was rampant in the cities. People just didn’t take care of themselves.
The pay was good. When I started in ’41, I got $90 a month and room and board. You had your own room and shared a bath. You really didn’t have to spend any money. It was a pleasant place to live. A lot of young people. A nice social life.
I worked in the thoracoplasty wing. That was the most radical treatment of T.B. involving the removal of a number of ribs. This caused the permanent collapse of part of the chest upon the lung and prevented any further respiratory movement of that lung. The patients had to be built up to determine whether they would be good candidates for surgery. A lot of young people who arrived were too far gone, and nothing could be done. People didn’t spend money on doctoring in those days. There weren’t routine x-rays in most industries so by the time they found out, they might have large cavities in both lungs. If there was a fighting chance, we saved them. Some didn’t need thoracic surgery. Lots of times pneumo treatments, where air was pushed into one lung to push it down temporarily, were enough to cause healing. Many people had pneumo thorax treatments for years.
In later years when we had drugs, we didn’t do surgery. If it was necessary, we sent them to a state facility at Mt. Morris. Some people couldn’t tolerate the drugs. They got violently ill and developed skin rashes.
After the drugs were available, as soon as the patient had a negative sputum and a better-looking x-ray, they were sent home because they were no longer contagious. They could live with their families if they stayed on the drugs.
WHEN DID YOU DISCOVER YOU HAD T.B.?
In 1944, I fell head over heels for Richard. It was war time and we decided to get married.
It was usual for the staff to get x-rays every three months. Usually before you left your job you’d also be x-rayed to protect the hospital from any future claims. I left in June to join Richard in California before he shipped out. We got married out there. They let me leave without getting a final x-ray. I didn’t feel sick. It never dawned on me to have one. I was too excited and fritter. I was going!
When Richard went to the Pacific on Valentine’s Day of ’45, I returned and got my old job back. In early April I was called for an x-ray. I had started to feel awfully tired at that time and I knew I wasn’t pregnant. Two days later they said I had to go off duty. I had a cavity that had already started to calcify, to heal. I threw a positive sputum and they found bugs in it. So, on the 18th of April, I moved from the nurses’ cottage to the main hospital. I know all the dates because I got compensation for picking it up. I had to go to compensation court to prove to Liberty Mutual where I got T.B. You know insurance companies. They tried to prove that I got it in California. Why I had never lived so good as I had out there. The fact that it had already started to calcify proved that it had been there a long time. It took a year and a half before I received back pay.
So there I was, one day a staff nurse, the next, a patient.
WHAT WERE YOUR FEELINGS?
Terrible. Richard was in the South Pacific and I couldn’t tell him. I didn’t see any point in writing to him and saying, “I’ve got a cavity in my lung and I’m going to bed. I hope you have a nice war.” There wasn’t a blessed thing he could do from there but drive himself nuts. He didn’t know until he came back the following year in February. I had sworn everybody to secrecy. I told his mother he should concentrate on keeping his head down.
I was young and had been full of beans. So I went from having an exciting life to being flat on my back. My whole life changed. I lost my freedom. Of course, I couldn’t do much anyway. My cure was just rest, fresh air, and good food. I was terribly depressed. I thought, “Am I going to be saddled with this the rest of my life?” I wouldn’t have gotten married had I had my x-ray. It turned out alright, though.
What made it so rough was I had been one of the nurses. Now, while they were awfully nice to me, I was no longer one of them. One day I was running the show and the next I was in bed. Only one person was skunky. That was the head nurse on my floor. She watched like a hawk, “Set an example, you know you only have three hours leave.” She was an old hairpin, anyway. So now I was on the of the patients. The only thing that bothered me besides loss of my freedom was loss of a paycheck. That was a kick in the rear.
WHAT DID PATIENTS DO ALL DAY?
You did the best you could. You read, wrote a lot of letters, and you cried. Finally, you tried to forget your loneliness and found something to do. There were a lot of crafty people. There was a knitter who was a patient. She said, “You cannot sit and stare out the window.” She made me buy needles and yarn. At first it drove me right up the side of the house. There were movies, and parties. We played pinochle and we’d sit in the sun and talk to people. I enjoyed the patients, they were good people. We were all in the same boat. What the hell were you going to do? A lot of them had left good jobs in the city. It took them a long time to adjust. They were bitter, but I wasn’t because I had lived in Saranac Lake a long time and had seen some remarkable cures. Some people who were carried off the train to die here, became cured and stayed on to build good lives for themselves. There was Charlie Green, the grocer for fifty years, and Mr. Altman, who ran the clothing store.
No, I was lucky. If I had been working some place else, I might have been dragging my tail but explained it away. I was lucky to discover the T.B. so early. No complaints. After a year they said I could go back to work for two hours a day. I thought, “You’re not running the legs off me for no pay.” I went to my mother’s until Richard came home. By then I was cured.
Plattsburgh Press-Republican, November 1, 1991
SARANAC LAKE - Eleanor D. LaVallee Mullen, 75, of 19 Franklin Ave. died Thursday, Oct. 31, 1991, at the Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake.
She was born in Saranac Lake April 1, 1916, the daughter of Alfred Gary and Ellen C. (Riley) LaVallee.
Mrs. Mullen was a lifelong resident of Saranac Lake and a graduate of Saranac Lake High School and Champlain Valley School of Nursing. She had worked as a registered nurse at Ray Brook State Hospital for Tuberculosis until her retirement in 1973.
She married Richard B. Mullen July 18, 1940, in San Pedro, Calif.
Besides her husband, she leaves two daughters, Patrice Keet of Santa Cruz, Calif., and Kathleen Schneck of Bloomingdale; a sister, Rita Stephens of Fishkill; a brother, Ernest LaVallee of West Yarmouth, Mass; four grandchildren, Richard and Amanda Schneck of Bloomingdale and Corrine and Kevin Keet of Santa Cruz, Calif. Two brothers, Edwin and Lyall LaVallee, died earlier.
Memorial donations may be made to the Eleanor LaVallee Mullen Nursing Scholarship in care of the Fortune-Keough Funeral Home, 40 Church St., Saranac Lake, N.Y. 12983.