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Legends of History: Saranac Lake nurses

Trudeau Sanatorium nurses (Provided photo — Historic Saranac Lake collection)

(This year’s Winter Carnival theme “Myths and Legends” brings to mind many legendary men and women in local history, from wilderness guides to sports legends to heroes in healthcare. Historic Saranac Lake is providing a series of articles celebrating some of the mythical and marvelous figures from Saranac Lake’s past.)

Tens of thousands of people came to Saranac Lake from around the world in search of a cure for tuberculosis (TB). Saranac Lake’s nurses played a legendary role in their lives. Far from home and facing a disease that was often a death sentence, patients relied on nurses for care and companionship through months and even years of strict rest. Nurses served as friends when the stigma of TB had left many patients feeling shunned by those back home.

One patient, Richard Ray, described the central role of nurses in his daily routine: “… at Ray Brook they were daily companions and care givers. I learned to rely on them for everything. … Their faces are as fresh in my memory as if they had been caring for me last week. They wakened me, listened to me complaints, rubbed my back, delivered relief from my pains, brought me mail and mailed my letters, saw that I was fed, laughed at my jokes, soothed my worried brow when I felt low, smiled at me from wake-up until they got me ready for bed. They were family, my parents, my friends. … I loved them all. … These ladies in white are the ones who kept the light shining in my eyes through the worst times.”

The TB industry in Saranac Lake prospered from the 1880s through the early 1950s, a time when medical professionals wielded strict authority over patients’ lives. However, many letters and memoirs left behind by patients in Saranac Lake describe local nurses as caring rather than authoritarian. Why were Saranac Lake nurses so kind?

First, many of Saranac Lake’s nurses had also been patients themselves. It was a requirement for the nurses at the Trudeau Sanatorium to have tested positive for TB. This personal experience made local nurses particularly empathetic toward their patients.

Second, Dr. Trudeau’s holistic approach sought to boost a patient’s immune system from every possible angle. Fresh air, rest, moderate exercise, healthy food and occupational therapy were all a part of “the cure.” A positive attitude and sense of belonging played an important role. Saranac Lake’s nurses understood that part of their job was to boost patients’ spirits by caring for them with sympathy and understanding.

Saranac Lake’s Training School for Nurses

Saranac Lake became a center for nursing education when the D. Ogden Mills Training School for Nurses opened at Trudeau’s Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium in 1912. Caring for tuberculosis sufferers was viewed as a thankless task, and until then, nurses trained for the sole purpose of treating TB were nonexistent.

The purpose of the nursing school was twofold: to provide well-trained and much needed staff for TB sanatoria and to give former patients the opportunity to pursue an independent and meaningful career. In the early 1920s, the first year of training consisted of 248 hours of instruction ranging from the history of nursing to anatomy and physiology. In addition to sciences such as chemistry and bacteriology, other first-year courses included “Nutrition and Cookery” and “Hospital Housekeeping.” The study of tuberculosis began in the second semester and incorporated classes in occupational therapy, psychology, massage and ethics. The second year of study covered advanced topics such as internal medicine, surgery, gynecology and obstetrics, and X-ray.

Admission to the school was limited to those women between the ages of 18 and 35. Students received a monthly stipend of $10. Housing and meals were provided as well as laundry service for the requisite two caps, 12 bibs, eight aprons and three uniforms.

At the end of two years of successfully completed course work and final exams, students received a Trudeau school pin and a diploma. Graduation ceremonies included photographs taken with Dr. and Mrs. Trudeau. Mrs. Trudeau continued the tradition following her husband’s death in 1915. After the installation of a memorial sculpture of Dr. Trudeau in 1918, the newly minted nurses began a tradition of placing flowers in the lap of the reclining statue.

In 1930, the school was expanded to accommodate 23 student nurses. The newly built Reid Nurses Home was equipped with a library, lecture hall, diet and demonstration kitchens as well as a living room and reception room. As of 1935, 157 young women had graduated. The school continued to educate young women for nursing careers until graduating its final class in 1936.

Cure cottage operators

Saranac Lake nurses were legendary not only in the lives of their patients. They also played an important role in the local economy as cure cottage operators. As the town’s increasing fame drew more and more invalids, cure cottages began to spring up throughout town, each with their own porches with sliding glass windows, where patients sat out to breathe the fresh air at least eight hours a day.

It is estimated that some 90% of the cure cottage of Saranac Lake were operated by women, many of whom were also nurses. In an era when many professions were closed to women, the work of caring for others was a woman’s domain. In Saranac Lake, an enterprising woman could do well for herself as a cure cottage operator. The better the care, the accommodations and the food, the higher the price.

Saranac Lake’s long history of nursing lives on today in the thriving nursing program at North County Community College and the wonderful nursing staff at Adirondack Health. It would be hard to find a member of our community who hasn’t appreciated the kindness of one of Saranac Lake’s legendary nurses at some point in our lives.

For more about Saranac Lake’s nurses, visit Historic Saranac Lake’s local history website: https://localwiki.org/hsl/Nurses. And look out for legendary nurses of Saranac Lake on Historic Saranac Lake’s Cure Porch on Wheels in the upcoming Winter Carnival parade!