This website is a constant reminder of how things change over time, those reminders frequently coming in the form of a photograph that shows a crumbling structure, a little less stout than when we last photographed it. Sometimes though, the reminders come in the form of a story, an email from a visitor. In this case, we received an email from a former ten-year-old patient at San Haven Sanatorium and we’re reminded that sometimes it’s a change in our culture which leads to abandonment.
Mary found our website, and after perusing the San Haven galleries, sent us an email.
Your pictures brought back a lot of scarier memories. None of them good. I was a patient at San Haven from March 1963 to July 1963. I was there. They thought I had TB because I reacted to the shot.
Her email immediately got my attention and I contacted Mary with the hope that she would share more of her story.
San Haven was a tuberculosis Sanatorium near Dunseith, founded in 1909, which eventually became a home for the developmentally disabled. It has frequently been the subject of controversy, usually a dispute between those who insist no wrongdoing or neglect ever took place at San Haven and those who want to make sure it never happens again. Firsthand accounts from former patients could illuminate this conversation.
I asked Mary to tell us more and she started with…
…the day my Mom and Dad took me there. It was cold and it took three hours to drive there. I met the doctors [and thought] they talked funny. I didn’t know they were going to leave me there even though they packed my dolls and some clothes. My Mom wasn’t sure they were even going to leave me there, so they left and said they would be back to see me the next day.
I asked Mary to explain this point. What kind of shot was it she reacted to? When did she know that her Mom and Dad would be leaving her there?
It was a TB scrape . They have a instrument with several needles. They pierce the forearm and wait three days and if you react with a red spot then you have to have a chest x-ray to see if you have spots in your lungs. I have no idea why my Mom did it to us kids. Maybe she heard it on TV that there was cases of TB and went to the doctor. After us three girls reacted the whole school was tested as well as several other people. No one around here reacted so the doctor said that us three girls may have been walking together and some one spit on the sidewalk that actually had TB and we contracted it. That was one explanation. The doctor contacted the state AMA and they told him that we had to go to San Haven or Grand Forks because they were the only places that was close enough to go to. They knew that it was a possibility that I would have to stay there but we weren’t sure until we actually got there.
The situation as it was: a ten-year-old girl quarantined for tuberculosis in a massive sanatorium three hours from home.
So they took me to a room which held 3 bunk beds and two single hospital beds. I was on the 2nd floor in the women section. I was in a room with 6 other girls ranging from 9 to 17. I was 10. They put me on the top bunk.
The two older girls were watching tv and smoking as were the others even the 9 yr old. They all looked at me rather strangely being as I was the only white girl. So I got up on my bunk and started to talk to my dolls. The older ones told me to shut up but I kind of ignored them. It made them mad and they got up and pulled me off the bed, threw me on the floor, put a chair over me and threatened to burn me with a cigarette. I was very quiet after that.
Mary’s reference to being the only “white girl” is just the tip of a very large iceberg of regional feelings on race and politics, partly because the hospital is located in tribal territory in a very conservative, predominantly white state, and partly because of the impact the hospital had on the local economy in neighboring Dunseith. All that aside, and beyond a government versus private industry argument which remains perpetually unsettled, there is an important legacy to the abandonment of San Haven, which we’ll get to in part two.
There was 1 bathroom for 20 women. In the bathroom there was one tub, no shower, two stools, and two sinks.
It wasn’t long and the older girls escaped, but they came back and brought head lice with them. When they brought the lice they took us upstairs to a bathroom that had a shower, stool and a sink and washed our hair with kerosene. My hair was down to my waist and when my Mom found out about our little bugs she brought her neighbor and she cut my hair real short. That was the first time I had my hair cut short.
I was moved nearly to tears as I read this, imagining a ten year old girl getting her hair cut short for the first time in this terrible place, under such awful circumstances. I’m willing to speculate that the head lice were always blamed on the girls who escaped. Parasites like head lice were a continuing problem at places like San Haven in the 1960s. At any rate, on the subject of the older girls, Mary says:
Then they moved them to a different room or they escaped again but I didn’t see them around anymore. So that left 4 of us girls in the room together and we got our own beds.
That’s only the beginning of the story of a former patient of San Haven Sanatorium — a ten-year-old girl with a questionable TB diagnosis. When I asked Mary about her misdiagnosis, she was forgiving.
They did not have the resources that we have now but I don’t blame my doctor for any of this because he knew it wasn’t TB but the state said we had to go.
In part two, daily life at San Haven, what Mary found on the third floor, and what it took to secure her release from San Haven.
Photos by Troy Larson and Terry Hinnenkamp, copyright Sonic Tremor Media LLC
Troy Larson is an author, photographer, gentleman adventurer (debatable) from Fargo, North Dakota, and co-founder of Ghosts of North Dakota. @NorthDakotaTroy