The Girl In Building C
The True Story of a Teenage Tuberculosis Patient
Editor Mary Krugerud
Letters from a stay in a tuberculosis sanatorium plumb losses of youth, of freedom, of life- but also gains in mobility, in education, in friendships, and in love.
- Format: Paperback, 224 pages, 30 b&w photos, 5.5 x 8.5 inches
- Publisher: Minnesota HIstorical Society Press (Sept. 1, 2018)
In October 1943, sixteen-year-old Marilyn Barnes was told that her recent bout of pneumonia was in fact tuberculosis. She entered Ah-gwah-ching State Sanatorium at Walker, Minnesota, for what she thought would be a short stay. In January, her tuberculosis spread, and she nearly died. Her recovery required many months of bed rest and medical care.
Marilyn loved to write, and the story of her three-year residency at the sanatorium is preserved in hundreds of letters that she mailed back home to her parents, who could visit her only occasionally and whom she missed terribly. The letters functioned as a diary in which Marilyn articulately and candidly recorded her reactions to roommates, medical treatments, Native American nurses, and boredom. She also offers readers the singular perspective of a bed-bound teenager, gossiping about boys, requesting pretty new pajamas, and enjoying Friday evening popcorn parties with other patients.
Selections from this cache of letters are woven into an informative narrative that explores the practices and culture of a midcentury tuberculosis sanatorium and fills in long-forgotten details gleaned from recent conversations with Marilyn, who "graduated" from the sanatorium and went on to lead a full, productive life.
An independent researcher and historian, Mary Krugerud is the author of Interrupted Lives: The History of Tuberculosis in Minnesota and Glen Lake Sanatorium. She discovered Marilyn's letters during a project funded by an MNHS Legacy Research Fellowship. Mary lives in Hutchinson.
“Nothing brings medical history alive like a patient’s narrative, and Mary Krugerud has uncovered an extraordinary story in Marilyn Barnes’s letters to her family from the Ah-gwah-ching tuberculosis sanatorium. To read these missives is a lesson in humbleness. For three years Marilyn was brave, good humored, and kind as she worked her way through her arduous TB ‘cure.’ This was in the 1940s, before the routine use of antibiotics, and many of Marilyn’s friends at the ‘san’ died. She needed love and support but always tried to reassure her anxious parents that she was ‘feeling just swell.’ Today, though TB is mostly curable, patients still need help beyond the long course of drugs; The Girl in Building C explains why. It is the human face of a terrible disease.”
Dr. Helen Bynum, author of Spitting Blood: The History of Tuberculosis