Northern New York Newspapers
NNY Business
NNY Living
Sun., Apr. 19
Serving the communities of Jefferson, St. Lawrence and Lewis counties, New York
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Demolition of the final symbol of Jefferson County’s long history of providing hospital and nursing home beds begins next week when wrecking contractors take down its tuberculosis sanatorium opened in 1917. Built to treat victims of consumption, over the years its mission changed to become a warehouse to quarantine victims of infectious diseases until 1963 when it was converted into Whispering Pines to care for senior citizens.

The San, as it was known to generations of city residents, provided tuberculosis patients with window-filled rooms and porches with southern exposures. Taking in the sun was a prescription for tuberculosis for many years before medical science found ways to diagnose and control the disease of the lungs, which for years was known as consumption. As the demand for tuberculosis treatment waned, the community began to use the beds to quarantine polio victims. When polio hit the community with a vengeance after World War II and until the development of the Salk vaccine, the community would experience epidemics of the disease. Today, polio has nearly been eradicated from the Earth.

Polio hit boys and girls and young men and women. Once diagnosed, patients were sent to the San to segregate them from the community to stop the transmission of the disease. Wards were filled with 6- and 7-years olds — girls separate from boys. The patients lay in their hospital beds around the clock day after day since total bed rest was prescribed.

The high point of the endless weeks were bed changing days when nurses carefully changed the linens while patients lay still. There were no televisions. And since the quarantine was strictly enforced, no visitors came by.

Treatments consisted of warm towels wrapped around affected limbs. But the kids in the wards were lucky because patients whose polio paralyzed their chest muscles were kept alive in iron lungs lining the corridors. The monster machines throbbed and hissed while the young man or woman lying in the machine had a limited view of the hospital world from an angled mirror just above their heads.

Those in the wards ultimately went home with weakened or paralyzed limbs. Those in the iron lungs seldom left the San alive.

A peculiar odor of sickness, starched linen, mechanical machines with lubricating oils comingled permeating the building — an odor that will only leave the San when the last brick is hauled to the landfill. That odor would trigger vivid memories when a visitor who had endured those days of the polio quarantine stopped by Whispering Pines to say hello to a friend.

When the lifesaving work of Dr. Jonas Salk — who discovered a vaccine to prevent polio — was mass produced, youngsters across the nation were herded into school dispensaries and inoculated. And the disease was stopped. Those inoculations continued in a worldwide effort using the even safer Sabin vaccine, which has reduced polio to a disease in only a handful of very poor countries. And that campaign continues today.

However, the San continued to cling to life, becoming the place to quarantine youngsters suffering from infectious diseases such as scarlet fever until they recovered. No teenager ever wanted to be sent to the San where no one could visit you other than a wave from the front yard at the patients cooped up inside the wards. The medical wisdom of the time assumed that if the ill were kept separate from the general population, fewer people would suffer from the sickness. And government enforced that thinking vigorously.

The 107-year-old building has served the community by providing an environment to try to nurse people back to health, slow down rampant infection and provide clean, safe and warm comfort to some senior citizens. But its time has passed.

Tuberculosis is under control and treated with medicine. Polio is nearly eradicated, and there are no cases in North America today. Rotarians across the country have nearly pushed polio off the Earth. And our society no longer quarantines victims of infectious diseases. The last residents of Whispering Pines have moved to Samaritan Village.

Whispering Pines is a symbol of the ravages of disease. And polio survivors who spent their time there rejoice today first that they left the San alive and second that they have lived to see the old building fall to the powerful arms of monster backhoes.

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