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Breathing New Life : Olive View: Opened as a TB sanitarium in 1920, the hospital, now a modern facility, turned 75 this week.

October 28, 1995|JILL LEOVY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SYLMAR — In the early days, it was called a sanitarium.

"But a better term might have been a prisob," said Irwin Ziment, medical director of Olive View UCLA Medical Center, which has been celebrating its 75th year this week.

There were speeches and cake Friday to honor the hospital that has been transformed into a modern facility from a collection of wood-frame buildings where the sick and dying tuberculosis patients were forced by law to stay.

Since its days as a home for those patients, it's been rebuilt, leveled by an earthquake, and moved and rebuilt once again.

And only a few weeks ago, the hospital endured its latest tribulation--massive layoffs to help deal with Los Angeles County's fiscal crisis. The cuts--which meant the loss of nearly 500 Olive View workers through layoffs and transfers--were still fresh in people's minds.

But although the layoffs were mentioned frequently in formal speeches, the present difficulties were as unfamiliar to the dozens of former workers and patients in attendance as the glass high-rise that has replaced the old wards they knew.

"I don't know about [the cutbacks] and I think I'm just as happy not to know," said Dr. J.P. Myles Black, who was medical director of the hospital from 1951 to 1962.

Instead, Black, 76, recalled a different era of medicine, when the hospital's medical director spent his time not begging for money before county officials, but having people arrested at the stroke of a pen.

The public-health policy then consisted of an all-out war against tuberculosis, a war in which the state legislators, local police, doctors and the public all lined up to do their bit.

Many of the former patients who visited Friday had been ordered from their homes, denied access to their families, locked up and subjected to horrifying and probably ineffective treatments--such as having their ribs removed to induce collapse of a lung.

Those who refused to comply soon found sheriff's deputies knocking at their doors. They were imprisoned in special quarters in Lancaster, Black said. "They had to be controlled. Not because they had a disease, but because they were spreading it," he said. "They were salad makers, waiters, dishwashers."

Olive View owes its start to the fact that Los Angeles County led the nation in its aggressive stance toward tuberculosis, Black said. The county was probably among the first jurisdictions to start locking up patients, adhering to a policy Ziment called "dogma, discipline and determination." Money was set aside in 1920 to buy 300 acres for the sanitarium, which opened with 90 patients.

By the 1940s, there were more than 1,000 patients at Olive View, plus another 1,200 sent to rest homes in the area, Black said.

There was a home for Jewish people that served only Kosher food, one for men, one for women, and one for Catholic girls. A place called Hillcrest was set aside for Japanese patients--"in the early '40s, they weren't welcome anywhere else," Black explained.

The former tuberculosis patients who came to Olive View Friday included retired aerospace workers, painters, homemakers and technicians. Some left children in foster homes while they were isolated. Others mentioned they had to fight to retain custody.

All said they had never questioned the orders of the L.A. County Health Department.

Rose Robideaux, now 84, was 29 years old and had five children and a husband at home when she was ordered away to the sanitarium.

"I had no choice," she said. Her daughter Rosemary Matea, who came with her to the anniversary, recalled being brought to the sanitarium to glimpse her mother through a window--she was not permitted to see her in person.

"I had a son almost 1 year old. It was heartbreaking," said 68-year-old Esperanza (Patty) G. Holguin, who spent 1953 and 1954 at Olive View. "When I got home, my son called me by my first name." He had to be taught to call her mom.

Once in Olive View, patients were subjected to a regimen that medical director Ziment called "the Castorp treatments," after a character in "The Magic Mountain" the Thomas Mann novel of a tuberculosis sanitarium.

The mildest of these included sleeping outside on the porch all year round. Then there was "laying flat on your back for months with a sandbag on your chest," as former patient Barbara Collins, 62, described her treatment. The idea was to constrict the patient's breathing. But Collins, who eventually lost a lung to the disease, said "it was like being in jail."

What Ziment called the more "disfiguring and horrific treatments" included pumping air into the peritoneal cavity to temporarily collapse lungs, crushing nerves that control the diaphragm, and removal of part or all of the lung.

"The worst thing about the treatment was what they called 'the coughing,' " said Holguin. "A nurse would grab you around the waist and squeeze you to make you cough. You could barely breathe and they made you cough."

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