Taking the Cure

A Lifetime at the Nova Scotia Sanatorium

In September of 1940, Anne-Marie Belliveau, a young woman from Belliveau's Cove, Digby County, was attending the convent school in Meteghan. One night on her way to bed, she began to cough up blood. "I went and told the nun right away," she recalled. "I knew it was a sign of TB [tuberculosis]. The next day I had an x-ray and it showed TB."

In 1904, in response to the rising number of tuberculosis patients, the provincial government built the first provincially owned and operated sanatorium in Canada to treat tuberculosis. In the beginning, the Nova Scotia Sanatorium had no resident physician, however, Dr. W. S. Woodworth of Kentville, Nova Scotia, acted in this capacity. The superintendent was Bertha Elliot, a nurse. In 1910, Dr. A. F. Miller became the Medical Superintendent and resident physician of the Sanatorium. When Dr. Miller arrived at the "San" - as the Sanatorium was commonly known - it consisted of 18 beds. By 1932, at peak capacity, the Sanatorium consisted of 24 buildings and enough beds to house 350 patients.

On December 20, 1940, Anne-Marie Belliveau was admitted to the Nova Scotia Sanatorium. She, like many others, waited at home for three months before a bed became available. Anne-Marie recalls that on her first day at the San, there was lots of talk about Christmas. "There was lots of excitement," she said, which helped her from feeling too anxious. Christmas was one of the best days of the year at the San, since it was the only day that patients didn’t have a rest period. The halls of the pavilions were decorated and patients were able to visit their friends, as the strict visiting rules were loosened. Most importantly, preparations would begin weeks in advance to make romantic matches for the Christmas Dinner.

Romance was alive and well at the San. Anne-Marie joked that there were two bugs at the Sanatorium: the TB bug and the love bug. Romances would be written in "Health Rays," a monthly patient magazine, and songs would be dedicated to a special someone on the San radio station, S.A.N. One would know when the romance had changed because the songs would change or be dedicated to someone new. Numerous marriages resulted from these matches at the San. Patients married one another, doctors married other doctors, and doctors even married patients.

Anne-Marie recalls other holidays celebrated at the San. Halloween meant patients and staff dressed up in costumes and paraded through the buildings, ending at the Recreation Centre. The summer would not be complete for San patients without the annual picnic, which was held in Kingsport in the 1920s and then at Delhaven. 

Even though she was suffering from a horrible illness, the worst part of the Sanatorium for Anne-Marie was the mosquitoes. The treatment for TB – called "taking the cure" – involved bed rest, a healthy diet, and lots of fresh air, which meant keeping windows open. But the windows at the San had no screens, so, during the summer months, the mosquitoes could freely fly into the San and bite the patients while they lay in their beds.

In May of 1942, Anne-Marie was discharged from the Sanatorium, but was readmitted on June 13, 1947. On January 11, 1949, Anne-Marie had an upper left lobectomy – the upper lobe of her left lung was removed. Before drug therapy became available in the 1950s, surgery was used to treat if not cure many cases. 

The day after Anne-Marie was discharged in 1951, she became a secretary at the San. She recalled that this was the best part of her experience there. "I went straight from the patient list to the staff list. I felt like I was walking on air." She worked there for thirty-one years until her retirement on December 31, 1982. It was not unusual for ex-patients to work at the San, but she says many went back to their old jobs, especially after the expanded use of drugs, so that they could be treated at home. 

Anne-Marie's story could have been a very different one if it wasn't for the high spirits of the patients and the talented staff at the Nova Scotia Sanatorium. With drug treatments and a vaccine for TB widely accessible, the hospital closed in 1977.