A Scourge Remembered
A reporter turns to film to capture the story of tuberculosis.
Her voice reaches out across the decades, from a time when people still wrote letters. “Dear Lorraine,…I just finished writing my darling a long love letter.…I miss him so much. I wonder if he knows that.…I’m so lonesome.”
It was a time when entire hospitals dedicated themselves to the treatment of tuberculosis, and when Americans would disappear to those hospitals for years on end. Everyone knew someone who had TB. The disease had no cure, and even the mode of transmission was not well understood.
But that era is less remote than it might seem. The memory of how strong a grip the disease once had on the United States has faded quickly, considering that an effective remedy for TB (the antibiotic streptomycin) was not developed until 1943. In the new film On the Lake: Life and Love in a Distant Place, G. Wayne Miller ’76 reopens this chapter in history and reminds Americans how recently tuberculosis was not just a disease of the developing world.
Miller, a newspaper reporter at the Providence Journal who moonlighted as a novelist and writer of nonfiction books, wanted to try the medium of film but was casting about for the right topic. Years earlier, he had written a newspaper series and a book on teenagers growing up in Rhode Island; one of his subjects, David Bettencourt, grew up to be a documentary filmmaker, and the two had kept in touch.
In 2006, Miller was working on another newspaper series, about the life of a man who lived at a hospital for psychiatric patients and the severely disabled, in northwest Rhode Island. While reporting that story, Miller was reminded of the hospital’s history as a tuberculosis sanatorium. When he started talking to Bettencourt about a collaboration, his original thought was to narrate the hospital’s history through the years—the different patients and maladies it had housed. But as they explored the photographs and records in the hospital archives, they quickly realized that narrowing their focus to tuberculosis, but broadening it to a national scope, would produce a better story.
The film, focusing on three sanatoriums—in Burrillville, Rhode Island; Saranac Lake, New York; and Denver, Colorado—reminds us that life went on inside the hospital. Wallum Lake, the sanatorium in Rhode Island on which the film’s title is based, had a bowling alley, a barbershop, and its own newspaper. Patients made friends and fell in love. We are introduced to Janet Dudones, the daughter of a TB patient and a nurse who met at the Saranac Lake sanatorium, and Cecelia and Ray Dones, who met when they were both patients in Denver—where they still live: 48 years of marriage, four children, and nine grandchildren later.
Tuberculosis, we learn, is behind much of the early population growth in Colorado—and is the reason the state has a Jewish community of any size. At one time, 60 percent of Colorado’s population comprised TB patients and the friends and relatives who had come to be close to them. We learn about the brutal surgeries that TB patients underwent out of desperation in the absence of a cure—such as collapsing the affected lung or inserting a porcelain ball into the chest to close the cavity eaten by the disease. At Wallum Lake and elsewhere, we learn, patients were forced to sleep on huge porches, open to the elements even in winter, based on the idea that natural light and fresh air were therapeutic. Doris Terranova, a onetime patient at Wallum Lake, recalls: “You’d wake up, and your bed would be covered in snow.”
Miller and Bettencourt found many of the film’s subjects by creating a website where people could write in. The recentness of the American TB epidemic helped: people shared stories of parents’, siblings’, and even their own illness. Interviews with former patients give away some characters’ fates, but Miller weaves narrative tension by waiting until late in the film to reveal whether others—such as Barbara Bowie, the letter writer unsure of her sweetheart’s devotion—left the sanatorium alive.
Miller entered Harvard mulling a choice between writing and medicine. A creative writing course in his first year tipped the scales. During his senior year, he took courses in still photography and filmmaking that kindled an interest in the visual. (He notes that his real first film premiere was senior spring, when his ten-minute documentary on the construction of 60 State Street in Boston was screened at the Carpenter Center.)
He has spent his entire career at newspapers (starting as a freelancer while working as a “baggage smasher” for Delta Airlines, as he puts it) and has written seven books, including one novel as well as nonfiction explorations of worlds including NASCAR (in 2002’s Men and Speed) and Hasbro, the Rhode Island-based toy company that brought us G.I. Joe and Mr. Potato Head (in 1998’s Toy Wars). He still works at the Providence Journal, but has two more film projects in mind: a documentary on old-money Newport and one on Catholic nuns. (The second “is a story about spirituality in the age of celebrity,” he says, confiding that on a visit to a convent, he heard nuns talking about Tom Brady and Jamie Lynn Spears.)
Wallum Lake (later named Zambarano Hospital after Ubaldo Zambarano, onetime head of the TB sanatorium) closed its last TB ward in 1982, but the disease, also known as consumption and the “white plague,” is still the world’s number-two cause of death by infection (the first is AIDS). TB causes an estimated 1.6 million deaths a year and is believed to infect a third of the world’s current population, although most of these cases do not blossom into active disease (see “A Plague Reborn,” July-August 2008, page 38). Miller and Bettencourt tried to emphasize this point as well, in hopes of raising awareness of the need for relief funds and medical research. Their publicity materials include a quotation from Presley professor of social medicine Paul Farmer, founder of the nonprofit Partners in Health, which treats TB patients in Haiti, Rwanda, Peru, Russia, Lesotho, and Malawi: “We can hope greater understanding of how this dreadful illness affected our neighbors in New England might stir greater compassion—and more helpful action—on behalf of the millions who still suffer and die each year from tuberculosis around the world.”