Quarantined

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By Leah Y. Latimer
Sunday, December 10, 2006

WHEN I WAS JUST 3 YEARS OLD, I ASKED MY MOTHER WHY SHE DIDN'T LOVE ME. The question came on an ordinary day, and my young mother nearly collapsed when she heard it. But she wasn't surprised. Though she loved me dearly, she knew that she had not expressed physical affection in the ways that bond mother and child. She made sure I was clean and comfortable and well-fed -- she took pride in the care she gave -- but she was distant: When I was a baby, she did not hold or cuddle me much. As I grew, she did not want me to lay my head on her shoulder or lie next to her in bed or take a sip from her cup. She avoided hugging and kissing me.

My mother told me about this recently -- I have no memory of it -- explaining my pitiful query with, "You must have . . . felt something." But on that day nearly 50 years ago, when she realized the damage that had been done, my mother grabbed a kitchen chair to steady herself, sat down and, after a few moments, pulled me close. But she did not try to explain. How do you explain fear of affection to a preschooler? It's only recently that she tried to, in words that are hurtfully simple: "Look like I just didn't want to do a lot with you."

In the past year, I have come to understand the series of events that made this so. It begins around the time of my birth, when my mother, by order of the D.C. Health Department, began to gather her affections and hide them behind her heart. At the time, she was being held at a tuberculosis sanatorium, and facing an uncertain future in an institution set apart for those unfortunates infected with what newspapers still called "the white plague."

The sanatorium, Glenn Dale Hospital, still stands today, a 200-plus-acre sprawl of meadows, grassy knolls, rolling hills and buildings rotting on the inside. It was never an insane asylum, as urban explorers and paranormal researchers suggest on Internet sites where trespassers post photos of the abandoned campus and details of their adventures there. From 1934 to 1960, Glenn Dale was Washington's institution for tuberculosis's sick and dying, a self-contained community of contagion in the Prince George's County countryside. When Glenn Dale was built, spitting in public was prohibited, and the city led the nation in deaths from a centuries-old epidemic.

Despair or hysteria was the typical reaction when a loved one, co-worker or the family cook was diagnosed with TB. Stigma and shame often followed fear. When I told one of my brothers-in-law about this article, he confided that when his father went to Glenn Dale in the 1950s, the family told neighbors he was dead. "You didn't tell nobody that one of your family members had tuberculosis," according to my Aunt Doll, my mother's youngest sister. "You just didn't do that."

Over the years, my mother's stay at Glenn Dale was not a family secret, but she held on to the details. As she tells the story now, at age 79, the deeply personal moments and insights loom larger for her than seemingly more significant details. She can't remember the names of her doctors, for example, or the reasons for the unnecessary medical procedures performed on her. She can't recall which of my father's eight sisters she handed over her three little girls to when she was ordered to report immediately to the sanatorium. But she vividly remembers a story about a woman who lost her mind at Glenn Dale, and moments, both quiet and furtive, when my father visited. Life in "the san" was regimented and emotionally cold, and Mama recalls numbing isolation among strangers in various stages of disease, and death. Mostly, she remembers the desperation -- you can feel it now, as her voice lowers and breaks -- when she did not know if she would ever return to her husband, her three little girls, or me, the baby whisked away at birth.

AS MAMA RECALLS, IT WAS LATE JUNE OF 1954 when she took the stairs of the little duplex on Knox Street in Southeast Washington and struggled to catch her breath as she reached the top. At 27, Etta Frances Young was nine months pregnant with me. She mentioned the shortness of breath during her routine obstetrician's appointment at the Upshur Street Clinic in Northwest. A nurse said it was pressure from the baby, but the doctor sent Mama for a chest X-ray. The next day or so, Mama was back in the office to hear the news: Mrs. Young, you have a shadow on your left lung. Then the medical interrogation began: Do you have night sweats? Fevers? Weight loss? Fatigue? Do you cough up blood? Have you lost your appetite? She answered no to all of it, but the doctor said he was sorry: It looks like tuberculosis.

Mama sobbed in her hands and wailed about her three little girls. Just the letters "TB" stunned her. Not long before, an uncle with TB had been sent to a sanatorium. Two childhood classmates, brothers, got sick with TB after they moved to the city, and died at Glenn Dale. A half brother "broke down" with TB in childhood. A generation before, her father's first wife and his youngest sister had died of TB.

Mama waited at the clinic a few hours while the nurse and doctor made phone calls and filled out papers. The city facilities that accepted TB patients -- Glenn Dale and the TB wards at D.C. General and Freedmen's Hospital -- were filled to capacity, with 245 people on waiting lists. The nurse told Mama she needed to go to a sanatorium but, for now, to return home and wait for a call from the health department. In the meantime, the nurse said, wash your dishes and utensils separate from the rest of the family's, in hot, soapy water and bleach.

When my father came home that afternoon, Mama met him at the door with tear-swollen eyes, and it wasn't long before his eyes were swollen, too. "I can't believe it," Daddy said over and over. Mama hid her devastation from her three little girls: Diane, 4; Janet, almost 3; Tanya, 23 months. She retreated to her bedroom or the bathroom, emerging with dabbed eyes when she heard them fuss or whine. Later that evening, Mama's sister Vi came over, and the two of them sat alone out back in the summer air. Aunt Vi knew that a sanatorium stay was a long-term proposition. She feared a splintered family, children raised without their mother, and prolonged sickness for the little sister who had moved North right after high school to live with her. As they sat, Mama kept spinning the same question in the air: What's gonna happen to my children?

The next day, my three sisters were tested at the clinic. All of their tests, and Daddy's, eventually would be negative. Later that day or the next, a public health nurse called the house on Knox Street with instructions: Report to Glenn Dale in 24 hours.

UNTREATED, ACTIVE TUBERCULOSIS CAN CONSUME ITS HOST FROM THE INSIDE. Mycobacterium tuberculosis spreads through the air in close quarters when a person with active TB of the lungs or throat coughs or sneezes, talks or spits. Inhaled, the bacteria lodge in major organs, including the brain but typically the lungs, and bore holes that turn them into bloody pulps. A slowly developing chronic infection, tuberculosis can cause incessant bloody coughing, painful breathing, relentless fever and fatigue, debilitating joint pain, emaciation and pallor, which earned it the name "white plague." An estimated 2 million people die from TB each year, mostly in developing countries, while 2 billion -- one-third of the world's population -- carry the infection, the World Health Organization says. TB carriers have been exposed to the bacteria but may not even get ill or be infectious. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 1 billion people worldwide died from TB, which was known as "consumption," when it ran rampant through the 19th and early 20th centuries.


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