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WOYM: Staff at former Catawba hospital had a long way to go to get to work

WOYM: Staff at former Catawba hospital had a long way to go to get to work

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Kate Lavinder Catawba Sanatorium

Kate Lavinder, back row, center, worked at the Catawba Sanitorium in the early 20th century treating tuberculosis patients.

The columnist gets to ask the question today.

Q: Who or what was Bob Kinsey’s aunt and her fellow nurse looking at?

A: The temptation is to speculate those two distracted staffers on the back row of a vintage black and white group photograph of the early nursing staff at Catawba Sanatorium were trying to catch sight of an incoming helicopter to take them home.

Alas, given that the circa mid-1910s snapshot of Kate Lavinder and colleagues, shot outside with the hospital in the background, no chopper was en route.

The rotary wonders did not come into production until 1939. Seeing as how the road over the mountain from the Roanoke Valley to the hospital in those days was frightful, helicopter travel would have been infinitely quicker and more comfortable.

Nurse Lavinder, one of Bob Kinsey’s mother Macye’s four sisters (there were also four boys), worked at the hospital only a few years, Kinsey said. What we know about her service at the state’s first hospital to treat the dreaded and at that time incurable disease of tuberculosis sharpens our picture of what the facility was like soon after it opened in 1908.

The hospital and its history have turned up in discussion here from time to time. Kinsey, history buff and friend of the newspaper, called to contribute his aunt’s story to the narrative.

Kinsey never knew his aunt, one of his mother’s older sisters, relying instead on family correspondence and his parents’ stories. Nurse Kate never married.

“Mother and Dad were married on New Year’s Eve 1912. Aunt Kate was working over at the sanatorium during that period of time. My parents were just married with no children yet when they decided on a Sunday to go visit Kate.”

That social call may have turned out to be more of a challenge than the young couple had bargained for. They were living on Elm Avenue in Roanoke, apparently with no transportation of their own.

“My father owned a motorcycle. I don’t know when he got married whether he kept it or not. There was no mention of it after about 1910.”

Public transportation, limited though it may have been, evidently was all that was available.

“They packed a lunch, caught the streetcar and rode up to Lakeside. I don’t know what there was of Kessler Mill Road in those days, but the railroad did run from Salem to Catawba.”

As explained by Raymond Barnes in his history of Roanoke, the Norfolk & Western built the spur from Salem in order to serve a large sand mine on 14,000 acres in the Catawba Valley that furnished material for the Cooper Silica Glass manufacturing operation back in the Roanoke Valley.

The 9-mile spur opened in 1909, according to Barnes. The problem for hospital visitors such as the Kinseys, with no connector from the Catawba Railroad to the hospital, the train bypassed the facility in its haste to arrive at the mine for another load.

“So they followed the railroad and walked to the hospital.”

Some hike that must have been over the mountain, not to mention the return trip. Access to the old Red Sulphur Springs site where the hospital would be developed had been a major hindrance for lawmakers in Richmond when it came time to choose the site.

Citing a 1929 book about the early years of the hospital by Dr. Earnest Stephenson, Grace Hemmingson reported in her study of the early hospital era that despite promises from the N&W, a branch road to the hospital was not completed “until well after the sanatorium opened.”

Renovations at the former Red Sulphur Springs as it was being transformed into a hospital took place with building materials being delivered via a 12-mile road over the mountain “not in good condition for hauling patients and supplies.”

Another reference to the road, presumably describing it in poor weather, was “almost impassable.”

Like a number of the nurses and doctors at Catawba, Nurse Kate had suffered from TB herself, Kinsey said. That suggests she went through a special TB-focused training program for nurses that began at the hospital the year after it opened. Hemmingson described the program as intended for “cured and arrested patients.”

Staffing had been a major issue early on because potential nursing hires were put off by the hospital’s isolated location as well as fears of catching the illness themselves. Hence the focus on recruiting former patients.

In time “dedication of former patients to the current ones was a general feature of the fight against tuberculosis,” Hemmingson pointed out. Many of the top researchers and doctors in the field also fit that profile. Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau, considered the father of the American sanatorium movement, was one such former sufferer.

Ex-patients formed the majority of nurses trained in TB prevention methods. The problem with that system was that relapse was always a danger. This would happen and “nurses would often become bedridden and unable to work.”

Kinsey never met his aunt because she had moved to California for her health. It was believed in those years that the dry climate in parts of the West was helpful in the rehabilitation of TB patients. Did a relapse end her nursing career and send her to California to recuperate? Maybe.

Another question we’ll never really answer is, what was she looking at in that group shot?

In her beautiful cursive, she wrote on the back of the picture with self-deprecating humor, “I look like I am making eyes at the stars.”

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