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 The History & Hauntings of the Waverly Hills Sanatorium

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Registration date : 2007-09-26

PostSubject: The History & Hauntings of the Waverly Hills Sanatorium   Thu Sep 27, 2007 12:43 pm

Imagine yourself choking. Not being able to get air in to your lungs because your throat is closing up inside from something unseen, congesting and constricting the tissues like invisible hands. Your chest feels like it’s ready to explode and your lungs feel like they are on fire. Finally, able to cough, clumps of bright red blood spew from your mouth as the inner walls of your lungs have started to disintegrate. The buzzing and dizziness that you feel in your head is from the constant fever you keep and made worse by the lack of oxygen going to your brain. Capillaries explode in your eyes due to the violent coughing spells and leave your eyes spotted with broken capillaries or a violent crimson red. Your skin has now turned a ghastly pasty white color because your body has stopped producing enough red blood cells to keep the pigment in your skin.

These graphic descriptions can only provide the modern reader with a hint of what millions suffered from in the early history of America -- the dreaded and deadly “white death” known as tuberculosis. The plague swept through the country for centuries, claiming entire families and sometimes entire towns. It was a terrifying and very contagious disease for which there was no cure.

In 1900, Louisville, Kentucky had the highest tuberculosis death rate in the country. This was due to the fact Louisville is such a low valley area and before development, was basically all swampland and perfect breeding ground for the Tuberculosis bacteria. As with many other towns and cities across the country, hospitals were needed to care for the sick. In 1910, a wooden, two-story hospital with 40 beds opened on one of the highest elevated hills in southern Jefferson County to try and contain this ravaging disease.

The Old Waverly Hills Hospital

Officials soon found that this small hospital was simply too small, as they were soon housing more than 130 cases of tuberculosis. Louisville needed a much larger facility and money began to be raised for its construction. Land was donated and $11 million was used to started construction on the new hospital in 1924.

The hospital, known as Waverly Hills, was opened in 1926 and was considered to be the most advanced tuberculosis hospital in the country. If a patient had any chance of surviving the disease, Waverly Hills was the place to come for treatment. Of course, treatment in those days was primitive at best, meaning that many simply came here to die. In those days, it was believed that the best cure for tuberculosis was plenty of nutritional food, plenty of rest and plenty of fresh air. Many patients came to Waverly and were actually cured and became well enough to once again enter society. For those not as fortunate, Waverly was the last place they ever saw. Records have been lost, but it is estimated that tens of thousands died at Waverly. At the height of the tuberculosis epidemic, it is reported that one patient an hour died.

Patients take in the sunlight on the open porches outside of the rooms.
(U of L Archives)
The doctors and nurses volunteered their lives to try and find a cure for this disease. Many of them lived and died there with the patients. A number of different experiments were attempted in search for a cure. Some of these experiments may sound barbaric, or even pointless, by today’s standards, but others are now common practice. The lungs were exposed to ultraviolet light to try and stop the spread of the bacteria. This was done in early versions of “sun rooms”, using artificial light to mimic the effects of sunlight. Patients were also placed on the roof or on the open porches on the upper floor to take in air and sunlight. Keeping in mind that fresh air was thought to be a cure for the disease; the patients would often to be placed in front of the open windows in both summer and winter. Photographs exist that show many of the dying literally covered in snow but still placed outside in hopes that their lungs would expand in the clean, country air.

Many of the treatments were much harsher -- and much bloodier. Balloons were surgically implanted into the lungs and then filled with air to try and expand them more, often with disastrous results. Hydrotherapy often caused pneumonia. But some experiments were useful and these procedures are still used today. Pneumothorax was a procedure that consisted of deflating the infected area of the lung for a period of time and then letting it heal. Thoracoplasty was a very invasive surgical procedure where the chest of the patient was opened and then cords of muscle and up to seven ribs were removed. The opening was then closed up with the idea that the lungs would then be free to expand further and allow more oxygen into the lungs. This bloody procedure was only attempted as a last resort because fewer than 5% of the patients ever survived it.
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The History & Hauntings of the Waverly Hills Sanatorium
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