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An interior life

An exhibit at the Saranac Laboratory Museum interprets the story of Isabel Smith. (Photo provided by Historic Saranac Lake)

One of my favorite stories in our local history is about a meteor shower over Mount Baker and a tuberculosis patient named Isabel Smith.

Ms. Smith spent 20 years of her life sick in bed at the Trudeau Sanatorium. She wrote a book about her experience titled “Wish I Might.” Her book touches upon so many aspects of the cure — the importance of routine, diet, friendships, “cousining,” the natural world, reading and occupational therapy. So many threads of the story are there.

Most intriguing is Isabel’s description of how she changed as a person during her long illness. She endured disfiguring operations and the removal of ribs to deflate her lung. At times, her case seemed hopeless. As the reality of her sickness settled in, Isabel felt anger, sadness, loneliness and fear. But one night, on her porch overlooking Mount Baker, she stayed up with her porch mate to watch the Leonid meteor shower. For hours, the young women watched the sky, feeling transported from their sick beds to connect with the vast universe. Suddenly, life was very much worth living.

It was the beginning of an evolution toward a rich interior life. Isabel described, “although I may have appeared to be merely a still figure in a bed, leading a quiet life in which nothing happened, I did not feel that way, nor did I appear that way to myself … this way of life could hold moments, hours, even days sometimes, of happiness so great.”

The quiet and stillness of Isabel’s daily life enabled her to notice great beauty in the world around her. Out of hardship, she found meaning and purpose.

“Wish I Might” (Historic Saranac Lake collection)

In the late 1940s, the antibiotic treatment was perfected, and it saved Isabel Smith’s life. She made plans to marry her boyfriend, Court Malmstrom, who was also a patient at Trudeau. One July day in 1949, Dr. Francis Trudeau escorted Isabel from Ludington Infirmary down to the Baker Memorial Chapel, where she and Court were married. Sanatorium patients came out of their cottages to cheer for the couple. Following the wedding, Isabel and Court made Saranac Lake their home. They found a small apartment in town, and Isabel took a job at the library.

As Isabel settled into a more active routine, the noise of regular life must have crowded out the stillness she had embraced as a patient. The interior life seems more likely to come alive in people experiencing a long illness or living with old age. It is something we may only see glimpses of during our lifetimes, and something we are lucky to recognize in others.

Soon after Isabel’s departure from Trudeau, the facility closed. Long-term nursing care was no longer necessary with the advent of antibiotic treatment. One by one the cure cottages and other sanatoria closed or were eventually repurposed. Will Rogers Hospital, where TB patients from the vaudeville and entertainment business once cured, is now a retirement community. Ray Brook State Hospital is now a prison, and elderly prisoners have been moved there during the pandemic.

When I drive by these places, I remember past residents, and I think of the people there now. I think about Isabel’s meteor shower and the extraordinary significance in each human life.

Illustration of Baker Memorial Chapel by M.L. Herold for “Wish I Might” by Isabel Smith (Historic Saranac Lake collection)

Amy Catania is the executive director of Historic Saranac Lake.

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