Wolf, Hazel (1898-2000) on Life at Firland Sanitorium

  • Posted 9/30/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8801

Seattle activist Hazel Wolf, who embraced a wide variety of social, political, and environmental causes during her 101 years, spent nine months as a patient at Firland Sanitorium for the treatment of tuberculosis in 1946. Firland (sometimes misidentified as "Firlands"), located north of what were then the city limits, was Seattle’s municipal tuberculosis hospital. Wolf chafed at the strict rules there, broke several of them, and finally left the institution before being formally discharged. "I tried to introduce a little sanity in the sanatorium," she told writer Susan Starbuck, who conducted hundreds of oral history interviews with Wolf between 1980 and 1998. Starbuck compiled and organized the interviews in her book, Hazel Wolf: Fighting the Establishment (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002). This excerpt is used with her permission.


"It wasn’t too long after going to work [as a legal secretary] for John Caughlan [a Seattle lawyer] that I came down with tuberculosis and went to Firlands [sic] Sanatorium. It was two years before I got back to work. The secretary in the office next to John’s had been released from Firlands. When I came down with TB, she thought I had caught it from her, and she was devastated. I had quite a time reassuring her that I had contracted the disease from Harry Hughes, my stepbrother. I just made that up to quiet her.

"Knowing I had tuberculosis, knowing I was going to the sanatorium -- that really got to me. Nydia [Nydia Levick, Hazel Wolf’s daughter] and her two young children drove me to Firlands and left me. I felt so alone. I went into a room to wait for a nurse to give me a shower and wash my hair and everything. They handed me a card. It was from this same woman who thought she infected me. Feeling really sorry for myself, I opened it. It had a tiny little chain inside, very tiny, like a little necklace, secured at the top and the bottom. At the top there was a head of hair, and at the bottom a neck. You could move the chain around and make funny profiles -- long noses, pug noses, little mouths -- and that fascinated me. I had to wait a long time, and I played with the chain all the while. I forgot all about the fact that I had tuberculosis and was scheduled for this long, terrible ordeal. When the nurse came in, that was it: I lost my great dread.

"I thought it was kind of significant that the card came from this particular young woman. She helped bridge the gap between the real world and the world of sickness. Funny little things like that come up in life and comfort you, and it’s always other people who do it. I’ve had that happen time and time again. I’ll be thinking about myself, and you shouldn’t do that, you should always be thinking about the outside. Of course, there’s nobody closer to you than yourself -- it’s hard to keep away from it. And that’s what this little card did for me. It took me away from myself.

"TB is like an ulcer on the lung. I had what they call a shadow. It covered a fairly large area, but it was shallow. Apparently I had a lot of resistance. I’d been ailing a long time, going from doctor to doctor, before an X ray found me out. They had no effective cure then. They’d put you in bed just to stay there. I was nine months in a bed at Firlands Sanatorium.

"You know, some people are born great and some have it thrust upon them: I stopped smoking. I used to smoke OPS, Other People’s, but I got too sick to eat or smoke. I thought, ‘This is my chance. I know I’ll start eating again, but I don’t have to start smoking again.'

"The theory was that the lung should be kept perfectly quiet. The treatment consisted of immobilizing people, keeping them isolated from their families and even telephones. If they could have stopped you breathing, I think they would have done it. They had no heat in our place. All the windows were constantly open. ‘Fresh air is what you need to cure TB,’ even if you expended all your feeble energy to keep warm. So you lay there under a ton of blankets with several hot water bottles, tying to keep warm while you breathed this freezing air. If any friends came to visit you, they went home with double pneumonia.

"At Firlands, laughing was taboo. It would wreck your lungs. We all had cubicles, two people to a cubicle. They had no doors, but there were panels around them and a passage between the rows about eight or nine feet wide. One evening, the young woman in the cubicle across from mine said she had a bottle, just for something funny to say. Nobody could see her. I couldn’t even see her. But the whole floor was listening, because the partitions only went a little bit above your head. It was after dinner, at the time when the nurses didn’t come busting back and forth very often.

"I said, ‘Oh, how about my coming over and having a party?’

"She said, ‘That would be great.’

"I actually did get out of bed and go over to her place, knowing that I couldn’t be seen when the nurse went by. So that was the beginning of the great party. First we had a drink. We’d talk and we’d laugh and act silly. Then we had another drink. We began to get quarrelsome. Then she downright threw me out.

"‘Get out of here!’ she shouted.

"I said, ‘What? In this rain? I don’t have an umbrella.’

"Of course, the whole floor was in an uproar. She finally got rid of me and I came back to bed. In the morning, when the nurses came clattering in with bedpans and washbasins and made a big hullabaloo to wake everybody up, all of a sudden I heard her groan, ‘Oh, my head.’ She had a hangover! Everybody just howled.

"I read quite a bit about the history of treatments for TB. That’s why I didn’t go for this business of never laughing, and never getting up and walking around. So I did both. I laughed my way out of the sanatorium. One of the most joyous Christmases I ever spent in my life was at Firlands. For one thing, the place was ablaze with decorations and comings and goings. I didn’t often have visitors from my family, because it was too hard for them to get there and they had to stay overnight. My daughter lived in Port Angeles with her family, my sister and her husband lived in Port Angeles, my brother lived in Seattle, and they all had their families. They were the last people I expected to see. But they all got together and gave up their own Christmases to make the trip way out there in the country. They all marched in on me, and I was so surprised, so pleased. I know my lungs went in and out, in and out, in and out -- probably set me back years!

"Nine months of leisure. I never did get caught up on my work, all the time I was there. I learned to make gloves. I wrote letters. I wrote book reviews for left-wing newspapers, and I had to do my fingernails! I read a lot. I got interested in freemasonry. They had a mobile library, and the librarian brought me out a whole bunch of books until I exhausted the subject. Then I started reading about the South Pacific Islands. I read my way through various subjects that way. Oh, and I made the mistake of reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain [published in 1924, inspired by Mann’s impressions of a tuberculosis sanatorium in Switzerland, where his wife was treated]. It was too graphic, a horrible book to read when you are yourself in a TB sanatorium with people dying all around you. Three people preceded me out of the probationary ward and three people came in behind me, and of that group I was the only one who survived. I was caught early, before it got too big a hold on me.

"I wasn’t discharged. I left. I wasn’t going to stay there any longer than I had to, and I had tested negative for a couple of months. They wanted me to stay and finish up my cure. I was one of the few people who was getting better, and they wanted to keep their percentage up. But I disregarded their advice and went to live in an apartment in Seattle. Before drugs, you were never cured of TB, your case was just arrested, and you were wedded to that thermometer. I’d take my temperature, and if it went up I’d just about die with worry. The next morning it would be down. I went through that for about two weeks. Then I took the thermometer and broke it in two. I think at that point I broke the hold that TB had over me psychologically.

"I went back to visit at Firlands for a long, long time, until all those whom I knew had either died or left. There was one patient, David, who loved music. He died there. Once I was up and walking about, I would bring him records, Beethoven’s Fifth, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth, and others. He look at me kind of wistfully and said, ‘Couldn’t you bring a real fifth one of these times?’ Then I had an idea that I would get him a bowl of goldfish. I climbed over a fence on a day that was not a visiting day and showed up like an apparition beside his bed, carrying this bowl of goldfish. He almost fell out of bed. Then I beat it back over the fence again. And, you know, they took it away from him. I tried to introduce a little sanity in the sanatorium."


Susan Starbuck, Hazel Wolf: Fighting the Establishment (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002), 112-116.

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