Full circle

This hand-colored photograph shows tuberculosis patients sitting on a porch at the Ray Brook sanatorium circa 1920. (Photos from Historic Saranac Lake collection)

Sing on, sing on you gray-brown bird,

Sing from the swamps, the recesses, pour your chant from the bushes,

Limitless out of the dusk, out of the cedars and pines.

— Walt Whitman, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”

Tuberculosis patients wear fur coats, with Hilda Yeager at left. (Photo from Historic Saranac Lake collection)

A whole year has gone by since we first heard the word “COVID.” We are coming full circle, and soon the hermit thrush will sing again.

Last March, on the brink of the pandemic, I spent a weekend in Potsdam at my son’s basketball tournament. I remember wondering when I would next spend time in a crowd of people. Between games, I worked on the first of what would become a year of essays, drawing parallels between the pandemic and Saranac Lake’s tuberculosis era.

One year later, I returned with a family member to the Potsdam gym, not for a basketball tournament but for a vaccine. The gym, once teeming with players and fans, was now full of busy nurses, National Guard soldiers and grateful community members.

That day at Potsdam a year ago, things felt so uncertain. With no vaccine and no effective treatment for the new coronavirus, we were facing a situation similar to the time of tuberculosis in Saranac Lake. Dr. Trudeau’s treatment model was our best hope: prevention, diagnosis, rest, fresh air and healthy food.

During the pandemic, the world quieted down. Those of us who could, stayed in one place. We found the time to think more about the world and our place in it. We worried about our health and the well-being of our neighbors.

Interviews and written accounts of former TB patients show a range of experiences. Some people were lonely, in pain, sad and anxious. Others fell in love, made friends and discovered new talents and passions. People with better health, wealth, strong support systems or upbeat personalities were more likely to enjoy their time curing. Surviving the fresh air cure, let alone learning from the experience, was a luxury not everyone had. 

Although each experience was different, many people who regained their health in Saranac Lake report learning lessons that they carried throughout their lives. Many patients learned to value and care for their physical and mental health. They found new appreciation for friends and family. They discovered joy in nature, a love of learning and creative talents.

One former patient described in a letter how his time curing shaped his life. Whitney North Seymour Jr. was one of the last patients to cure at Trudeau when the antibiotic therapy was coming into use. He completed his cure at 89 Park Ave., staying there with his wife Catryna. Following his cure, he became a New York state senator and served as United States attorney for the Southern District of New York.

Mr. Seymour wrote, “We walked for an hour every morning and afternoon, including in the deep snow, and learned important lessons about the role of nature in speeding return to good health. … When I was in Saranac Lake, I listened to a lot of classical recordings and developed a strong interest in Brahms and Mendelsohn. … I still listen for the hermit thrush and look for the witch-hobble in the early spring.”

Last March, I thought often of Whitney and Catryna as I watched people following their footsteps down Park Avenue. They walked slowly, in ones and twos, to the sanatorium gates and back again. They were worried about their health and scared about the future, but they were learning some lessons worth keeping.


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