When tuberculosis was a killer and confinement was the cure

January 14, 2014 | by

Chartered in 1913 by the Jewish Consumptive Relief Association, City of Hope opened its doors in January of the following year. It was known officially as the Los Angeles Sanatorium, a place where tuberculosis patients from across the nation could recuperate from a disease that then had no cure.  

At the time, tuberculosis was one of the nation's leading killers. That changed with the introduction of antibiotics. City of Hope changed too, refocusing on fighting cancer, diabetes, HIV/AIDS and other life-threatening illnesses. One thing has not changed, however: City of Hope's commitment to its patients and to improving improve the health of people everywhere.

As City of Hope marks its 100th anniversary of caring for patients, we share the story of one of those tuberculosis patients, Betty Steinman. Her experiences remind us of how far health care has come, how far it must go and just how much difference one special place can make.

**

In 1954, not long after her son, Jay, turned 4 years old, Betty Steinman became a tuberculosis patient at City of Hope. She could not return home until nearly two years later — when he was 6.

Steinman, 91, vividly remembers the disease’s sudden, terrifying onset when she was only 32.

Living in West Los Angeles, she and her husband, Jules, had celebrated Jay’s fourth birthday by taking him and his friends to a local ranch, replete with a barn and horses where the miniature cowboys enjoyed a hay ride, and hotdogs and marshmallows roasted over a bonfire. “They had a wonderful time, but it turned out to be a nasty day, and unfortunately, I got a terrible, terrible cold.”

Days later, she hemorrhaged. “It was rather frightening to find out it was coming from my lungs.”

“Once they discovered I had tuberculosis, I was out of the house and out of the community in a hurry. Through my parents’ efforts, I was admitted as a patient to City of Hope.”

Ever since she was a child, the native Angeleno had heard about this tuberculosis sanatorium begun in 1913 by the Jewish Consumptive Relief Organization. During the 1920s and 1930s, her parents raised money for the hospital through bazaars, picnics and barbecues. “My mother and dad had a dear friend in New York whose husband had TB, and they encouraged him to come to California. By the time he came to City of Hope,” Steinman recalled, “it was too late.”

Steinman, a paralegal, had heard stories of the hospital’s original two tents for patients and caregivers. “By the time I got there, there were lovely, beautiful grounds and the buildings were very nice.”

The separation was difficult, particularly on her child. “It was explained to him that Mommy had something they didn’t want him to catch. We tried very hard to explain it but it didn’t make a little boy happy.”

City of Hope social workers helped find a preschool for Jay during the daytime, and at night and on weekends, he and his dad stayed with Steinman’s parents in City Terrace, near Boyle Heights.

Steinman endured constant tests, procedures and even lung surgery (followed by five months of confinement in bed), yet recalls that much of her therapy “was just rest and diet.”

To pass the time, “I did lots of knitting, crocheting — all that kind of stuff. They had a little library on wheels they brought around.” Ambulatory patients could go to the workroom to pursue hobbies, or explore the verdant grounds. Sometimes movies were shown after dinner. “It was a nice progression toward going home,” she said.

“You’d walk around, sit in the garden and talk with others. The time went by faster that way,” said Steinman. She even volunteered to do clerical work for one of the doctors. “My life was there for two years. You’ve got to do something or you go out of your mind.”

She lived for the weekends, when through the window, she could see her little boy come bounding up to greet her. "My child could never come into the room, and I couldn’t hold him and kiss him ... Fortunately, being in the Hillquit building, they had these beautiful patios.” Jay would sit outside his mother’s room and catch up with her — through the glass.

“Through the window and screen door he would show me all his drawings, and told me all his stories about his friends and different activities, and of course, how much he missed me.  And I missed him … my Sonny Boy.”

In the airy bedroom of Steinman’s Oceanside condominium hangs a portrait of a curly-haired Jay at about the age she left him for City of Hope. “He was my only child.  He is my only child. It was a very bad time in my life ... But things go on," Steinman said. "I’m 91 and he’s 63 years old now, and he's a successful attorney.”

Released after 22 months, she eventually returned to City of Hope to volunteer in the medical records department near the pediatric leukemia patients’ ward. By this time, cancer was beginning to outpace tuberculosis as the medical scourge of the century, and City of Hope was refocusing its efforts to eradicate another disease.

“Every day the little ones would come out and wander around,” dropping by to chat and see what she was doing. She grew especially fond of one of them, but when she returned the following week, she learned he had died. “After that, I just couldn’t stand it anymore … The other kids would come out and talk to you ... The first thing I thought of: The next time I come here they may not be here.”

Instead, she and her husband and their West Covina neighbors found another way to help – raising money for City of Hope by selling Christmas trees in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Their enterprise lasted for several years until, with the sudden popularity of aluminum artificial trees, “business fell off.”

After Steinman’s husband died in 1994, “I finally sold my home in West Covina. I was a golfer, and had a really nice life there, but once I was a widow there wasn’t much to do.” She moved to Oceanside in 1997, and began supporting the Ocean Hills North County Chapter for City of Hope.

Steinman’s years of golfing may have saved her from more serious injury when she fell last summer. While her longtime companion, 95-year-old Arnie Kovin was waiting in the car, Steinman dashed into her bedroom to retrieve her purse. “I caught my toe on a little rug, and went sailing into a dresser. The corners are so sharp it caught me in the head and tore my scalp off, practically. And, I broke my neck.” Miraculously, she was able to get herself up, staunch the flow of blood, and make her way to Kovin. He drove her to the security guards who summoned help.

“I’m too old for surgery,” she said, but she spent three months in the hospital and had to wear a metal cervical collar. Doctors told her that the muscle mass she had acquired as a golfer prevented the neck injury from being worse.

Until the recent injury, Steinman notes that she enjoyed nearly six decades of good health following her treatment at City of Hope. “The care I received could not have been better. The nursing staff, doctors, social workers and people in all the hospital departments were friends as well as caretakers.

“They were my family," she said, "through all those months."

 

Tags: