Agnes Johnson Remembers Three Years At Firland Sanatorium

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 7/06/2007
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8204

Agnes "Aggie" Guttormsen Johnson (b. 1928), is an Everett native.  After graduating from Providence Everett School of Nursing in 1949, she was diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis and admitted to Firland Sanatorium in Seattle.  She remained a patient at Firland for three years.  On June 24, 2007, Aggie Johnson met with HistoryLink.org Deputy Director David Wilma and staff historian Paula Becker at Cedars Bay restaurant at Tulalip Casino, Marysville, Washington (Snohomish County) to recount her experiences at Firland.

Aggie Johnson's Story

Agnes "Aggie" Guttormsen grew up in Everett.  Her father was a police officer.  When Aggie's mother was young, she had been engaged to a man who contracted tuberculosis, and Aggie recalls that her mother lived in great fear that her children might suffer the same fate. 

When Aggie finished high school, she applied to the Everett branch of the Providence School of Nursing, and was accepted.  Providence School of Nursing was run by the Sisters of Providence, a Roman Catholic order.  Aggie's training took place between 1946 and 1949.  At the time student nurses were required to have three months of training in caring for patients with communicable diseases. Aggie remembers that her mother refused to grant permission for her daughter to train at Firland Sanatorium, King County's public facility for the treatment of tuberculosis.  (Everett is in Snohomish County, which did not have a public tuberculosis sanitarium.) Instead her mother struck a bargain with Sister Ruth, the nun in charge of the program, that stipulated a substitute rotation -- Aggie was not to nurse patients with tuberculosis. 

Aggie satisfied some of the requirement to work with patients with communicable diseases in the pediatrics ward at Providence Hospital in Seattle. Toward the end of her training, Sister Ruth informed Aggie that, despite the agreement with her mother, Aggie would have to rotate through Firland or forgo graduation.  Agnes, who was not yet 21 and therefore required a parental signature in order to nurse at Firland, begged her father to sign the permission form.  He did so, but the pair kept the secret from Aggie's mother. 

Aggie received six weeks of training at Firland.  One of her patients was a man who was extremely ill with tuberculosis. His care required Aggie to be in close contact with him and to be exposed to his infectious blood, sputum, and saliva.  Upon completing her rotation Aggie took a Mantoux test.  The Mantoux test (still in use in 2007) is an intracutaneous injection of a small amount of tuberculin into the skin of the forearm.  Aggie's test was positive, indicating exposure to tuberculosis.  She was advised to have annual X-rays.

Bad News

After graduating with a nursing degree, Aggie moved to Denver.  In January 1950, she made a doctor's appointment because she thought she had food poisoning.  By the time the doctor saw her, she was feeling better.  Not wanting to waste the appointment, however, and she asked him to give her a chest X-ray, her first since the positive Mantoux test.  After reading the film, the doctor diagnosed her with primary tuberculosis.

Agnes called her mother, who fainted upon hearing the news.  Aggie was offered a bed at National Jewish Hospital in Denver, a leading tuberculosis treatment facility at the time, but turned it down.  Homesick for her family and worried that Norris Johnson, her boyfriend in Everett, might slip away, she returned to Washington state.  She was admitted to Firland Sanitarium in Seattle in February 1950. She was not discharged until three years later.

Firland, at that time the public tuberculosis treatment facility for King County, was then housed in the former Naval Hospital at 15th Avenue NE and NE 150th Street.  Since Aggie's home was in Everett in Snohomish County, she was charged for her treatment and had to apply for public assistance in order to cover the cost.

Life At Firland

 

Aggie remembers that the treatment regimen at Firland started with total bed rest, no matter how light or severe the tuberculosis case.  A patient was given a bedpan to toilet, but only on schedule. Patients who suffered diarrhea got to keep the bedpan on a chair nearby, covered with paper. Washing was from a pan of water once or twice a week. Her muscles atrophied and the calluses on her feet dissolved. Mostly she read and chatted with other patients.  Patients were frequently given X-rays.

Aggie remembers that patients at Firland were allowed visitors on Thursdays and Sundays.  She doesn't remember the institutional food, but the food her parents brought her on Sundays was something she looked forward to. Her boyfriend, Norris Johnson, visited on Thursdays whenever he could, and Aggie learned to recognize his footsteps in the hallway.  After a year's successful treatment, patients who were deemed to be recovering were allowed to leave the hospital for 24 hours with a signed pass.  If their treatment continued to go well they then were issued a pass every six weeks.

Aggie remembers leaving the hospital against medical advice one day. She had a  headache and her nurse would neither give her aspirin nor call a doctor to okay the analgesic. Her frustration at being held hostage to the tyranny of Firland's regulations became overwhelming.  Although she had been flat on her back in bed for months, she got up and shakily made her way out of the hospital.  She found a payphone and summoned her mother to pick her up, but when the pair reached Everett her father told her she would have to return to the hospital.  Upon her return, Aggie's attending physician spanked her in front of staff and other patients, saying, "If you insist on acting like a two-year-old, I will treat you as one." 

Aggie's memories of her years at Firland also include pleasant memories:  Each "room" in the ward was a partitioned area separated by a panel that did not go to the floor or the ceiling.  This allowed patients to call back and forth to each other, and sometimes to send each other notes.  The ward had a kitchen, and those patients who were allowed to be out of bed baked brownies and other treats for their fellow patients. 

The wards at Firland were strictly separated by sex, and the women on Aggie's ward sometimes gave each other permanent waves or other beauty treatments.  A big treat was the Asian food brought in by Asian patients' families.  One patient owned a small television set and encouraged others to gather in her room to watch Milton Berle and other programs, although the reception was not good. Aggie found most of the doctors at Firland to be talented and kind.

Wedding Bells

 

Aggie's boyfriend Norris visited her at Firland as regularly as he was able.  He lived at home, and his parents, who disapproved of Aggie's Catholicism and of their son dating a tuberculosis patient, would not allow him to borrow their car to visit her.  Aggie, her disease apparently arrested, was scheduled to be discharged at the end of one year.  She had been entirely asymptomatic during her year at Firland -- the only indication that she had tuberculosis was the initial spot on the X-ray taken in Denver.  The couple made plans to marry. 

Before being discharged, however, patients were required to have their sputum or gastric secretions cultured three times, with all three cultures showing no tuberculosis.   (Most patients with tuberculosis produced sputum samples by coughing.  Aggie was not able to cough up a sputum sample -- probably because her case was so light -- and so her gastric secretions were cultured instead.)  Aggie's first two cultures were negative, but just as she was preparing to be discharged and married, the third culture came back positive for tuberculosis and her discharge was cancelled.  For the first time in since being diagnosed, she recalls, Aggie felt despair.  "I fell apart emotionally," she remembers.

Aggie's fiancé was still intent on marrying her, despite strong advice to the contrary from her physicians.  Dr. Carroll J. Martin took pity on the couple and gave Aggie both a day pass out of the institution and a note to the city clerk expressing that, although she had tuberculosis and would usually be forbidden to take out a marriage license, her case was a light one and she should be permitted to do so. 

In November 1951 Aggie left Firland in her wedding dress, married, and returned to the hospital.  Her husband's parents refused to allow him to continue living under their roof.  The next month, while out of the hospital on a day pass over Christmas, Aggie became pregnant.

No Babies On Board

 

The medical staff at Firland, concerned that the X-rays and medicines Aggie had received would have harmed the fetus, pressured Aggie to terminate the pregnancy and never to have any children.  The stress of pregnancy and childcare were felt to be antithetical to the regimen of rest tuberculosis patients were required to embrace.  Aggie refused. 

Dr. John Codling, a sympathetic Seattle obstetrician, came to Firland on his lunch hours to provide her with prenatal care, and she was eventually allowed time out of bed to regain her strength in preparation for delivery.  During her pregnancy she was operated on and doctors removed part of her diseased lung.  When she went into labor Aggie was transported to Providence Hospital in Seattle where she gave birth to a son.  The baby was held up for her to look at, but Aggie was not allowed to touch him. 

Providence medical staff, in the misguided notion that the baby might somehow spread his mother's disease, planned to rush the newborn to isolation.  Dr. Codling told them that this was not necessary, saying, "That baby does not have tuberculosis."  Aggie's sister took the baby home and cared for him along with her own children, and Aggie was returned to Firland.

While in the hospital Aggie learned that her father had died. It was 20 years before her mother told her that he had taken his own life with his service revolver.

The decommissioned Naval Hospital facility that housed Firland had large grounds surrounded by a fence topped with barbed wire.  Aggie recalls that Firland patients who were ambulatory would sometimes climb over this fence and meet friends who'd parked a car near the fence on the other side.

During her last six months, Aggie was allowed to use her nurse's training to work in the hospital to give injections and earn a little money.

When Aggie had been at Firland nearly three years, she again became pregnant while home on a day pass.  This time the doctors decided to discharge her.  She went home with Norris, and began the gradual process of acclimating to life outside the institution.  Her sister began bringing Aggie's son over to visit her, allowing them to finally get to know each other.

By 1959 Aggie and Norris had six children.  Over the years they also cared for a number of foster children. Aggie's tuberculosis never reappeared.  For many years Agnes Johnson worked as a nurse at Valley Medical Center in Renton.


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