Louise Nichols, 68, has opened a window to a time in her mother’s life that Nichols would like to share.
As a child, Nichols visited her mother, Odell Young Nelams, at the Greenwell Springs Tuberculosis Hospital where Nelams was a patient from 1948 to 1951.
Nichols was 5 years old when her mother was diagnosed with TB. Her mother, Odell, was 28. She’d had two children with Bill Nelams from whom she was divorced.
Nichols saw her mother just a few times at the hospital, making the long trip from her mother’s parents’ farm near Richard, southeast of Eunice, to Greenwell Springs near Central in East Baton Rouge Parish.
“That first year, she was too ill for me to see her,” Nichols said.
When Nichols was allowed to visit, mother and daughter talked through a porch screen.
“She wasn’t permitted to touch me,” Nichols said.
Nichols has her late mother’s photo album and scrapbook from those years at Greenwell Springs Tuberculosis Hospital. When Nichols was diagnosed with cancer, she was afraid the books would get tossed out if she died.
Nichols’ prognosis is good now, but she wants to get photos of people in her mother’s album to their relatives.
The album and scrapbook reveal a little community of patients and hospital staff. There were drugs for the treatment of tuberculosis in the late 1940s and 1950s, but isolation was part of the cure.
Patients published a newsletter of inside jokes and comments on life at the hospital:
“All our vegetables, and even gherkins, are prepared by Alice Perkins.”
“Would I be called a liar in saying you use Rinso, Della McIntyre?”
“If some nite the icebox you raid, you’ll find nourishment prepared by Inez Wade.”
Photographs show patients in bathrobes and evening gowns. Some show pictures of couples who met at the hospital.
“They’d read about a club in Baton Rouge called ‘Mad Hatters,’” Nichols said. “They couldn’t get out so they formed their own ‘Mad Hatters.’”
Odell Nelams was quite ill her first year at the hospital.
“After that, she seemed to have a good time,” Nichols said. “She made friends, though I don’t recall her continuing friendships with any of the patients.”
Odell Young and Bill Nelams grew up in small communities on the prairie outside Eunice. They married but divorced when Nichols was a toddler.
“I don’t remember living with my parents,” Nichols said.
Nichols’ parents stayed in touch after their divorce. It was Bill Nelams who drove his ex-wife to the tuberculosis hospital.
“She was so thin and sick,” Nichols said. Bill Nelams was shocked by Odell’s appearance. “He scooped her up,” Nichols said, “put her on a bed pillow so he wouldn’t hurt her and drove her to Greenwell Springs Hospital.”
The Greenwell Springs Tuberculosis Hospital grew out of property and buildings, including a hotel, that had begun as a popular resort before the Civil War. A first hotel burned. A second one was built in the early 1900s when an attempt was made to revive the resort.
In “A Historical Sketch of Greenwell Springs, La., 1850-1950,” Jesse L. Fairchild Jr. suggests that Indians had a tribal meeting ground near where people from all over Louisiana later came to bathe in the mineral waters, walk the grounds, dine and dance.
The tuberculosis hospital operated at Greenwell Springs from the 1920s until the late 1980s when the state turned the hospital into a place for the treatment of patients with mental illness or substance abuse problems.
“I don’t recall much about my mother until she came home,” Nichols said. “She started talking to me about the hospital when I was 8 or 9 years old. She said some families left patients at the hospital and never came back. They opened a little cemetery down the road.”
Tuberculosis patients became outcasts, some even to their families. Some patients continued to live apart from society after they were no longer infectious.
“Even after she came home, she stayed in this little bedroom and wouldn’t come out very much,” Nichols said. “My grandmother took care of me.
“I remember vividly this one plate, just a white porcelain plate,” Nichols said. “Same with her cup, a jelly glass, a spoon, a fork and knife. They couldn’t be washed in the same dishwater. And she had a bowl.”
Odell Nelams’ quarantine foreshadowed her daughter’s isolation after Nichols was diagnosed with polio not long after Nelams moved back to her parents’ house.
“We didn’t have a telephone or car. My grandparents’ farm wasn’t close to anything. We lived in quarantine,” Nichols said.
At school in Richard, she felt excluded as much because her parents were divorced as she did because her mother had tuberculosis, Nichols said.
“In that little town, there was a stigma to having divorced parents. Even as a child, I said, ‘I’m not going to let them get me down.’ I was in school plays, everything. I was princess in a parade.”
Nichols and her mother moved to Eunice after they left the home of Odell Nelams’ parents, Roscoe and Edna Young. Nichols took care of her mother until Odell’s death in 1994 at the age of 74. Cause of death was pulmonary failure.
Doctors had collapsed one of Nelams’ lungs as part of her treatment.
Nichols reared four children with her husband, Jim, in Dutchtown and Baton Rouge. The Nichols moved to Central in 1985.
After she found out she had cancer, Nichols felt she needed to “close out things.”
“I would take momma’s scrapbook of newsletters out and read the sayings patients wrote.”
Looking at the photographs and reading the newsletters made Nichols feel closer to her mother.
“I think it would be just as precious to other people to see something their grandmother wrote,” she said.