STARKVILLE – In writing a book about the beloved broadcaster Jack Cristil five years ago, I learned more about tuberculosis than I ever thought I would and in the process, I learned that the although the disease has been in steady decline for a number of years, health care professionals still worry about TB making a comeback around the world and in Mississippi.
Cristil, a heavy smoker from the days of his youth in Memphis until his death in 2014 in Tupelo, was never afflicted with TB. But the disease still scarred his life and deeply impacted the life of his father, Benjamin Cristil.
Jack Cristil’s relationship with his father was complex. Benjamin Cristil contracted tuberculosis soon after his marriage and was sent to a sanatorium in Denver, Colorado, for treatment. The elder Cristil would make a few trips home to visit his wife and children, but he spent the majority of Jack’s life battling tuberculosis before his death in 1939 when Jack was but 13 years old.
The Mayo Clinic defines tuberculosis as “a potentially serious infectious disease that primarily affects your lungs. The bacteria that cause tuberculosis are spread from person to person through tiny droplets released into the air through coughs and sneezes.”
In the late 1800s and into the first half of the next century, tuberculosis was a widely misunderstood and feared disease that was commonly called “consumption” because of the nature in which the disease “consumed” its victims through weight loss, fever, night sweats and “frequent blood-tinged sputum.” Victims of tuberculosis were feared as carriers and referred to through the term of derision “lungers.” Tuberculosis was the leading cause of death in the 19th century.
While family records are unclear as to the exact date that Benjamin Cristil began his treatment in the Denver sanatorium, there is little doubt where Cristil received his treatment. By virtue of his Jewish faith, his humble economic circumstances and his growing family, it’s almost certain that Benjamin Cristil first received his sanatorium treatment at National Jewish Hospital in Denver – a project that was funded by the national Jewish organization B’nai B’rith.
A September 2004 study by the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment documents the opening of the National Jewish Hospital in Denver in 1899 as the “first sanatorium in the state (of Colorado) and perhaps in the country that was dedicated to treatment of indigent TB patients. Its motto was “None May Enter Who Can Pay – None Can Pay Who Enter.” National Jewish primarily accepted “incipient” TB cases or those who were likely to recover, according to the 2004 Colorado DPHE study.
Yet both of Jack’s sisters, Zelda and Miriam, remembered that letters from their father in Colorado and the return mail to him from their home in Memphis bore the address “Spivak, Colorado” – a locale now identified as a former western suburb of Denver on West Colfax Avenue in Denver proper – that was the location of the Sanatorium of the Jewish Consumptive Relief Society that was founded in 1904 by Dr. Charles David Spivak, a Russian Jew, to accommodate the many Jewish consumptives who did not seem likely to recover but had nowhere else to go.
Jack Cristil was a small boy during these years, and his memories were scant of the specifics of his father’s illness. “All I know is that he spent five or six years in a sanatorium in Denver, Colorado, and that he died there,” said Jack. “They shipped his body home on the train.” The elder Cristil died July 18, 1939, at the age of 51 and was interred in the historic Baron Hirsch Jewish Cemetery in Memphis.
Hasn’t TB been cured? While the disease had declined, it still threatens us in Mississippi. In 2014, the TB case rate declined from 3.02 to 2.96 per 100,000 persons, representing a 2.2 percent decrease from 2013. In Mississippi, the rate declined to 2.47 per 100,000 persons.
In the long run, TB has declined among blacks and whites in the state, but there has been a spike in the incidence of TB among African Americans since 2013. But the incidence of TB among Asians and American Indians has been somewhat flat in recent history. In 2015, Mississippi had 74 cases of TB – and 19 or 24 percent of patients were white, 51 or 69 percent were black, and five or seven percent were Asian.
Is immigration a factor in the spread of TB? There’s no simple answer. But the fact is, the CDC reports that “foreign-born persons have accounted for the majority of TB cases in the U.S. every year since 2001. Moreover, the case rate among foreign-born persons in 2014 was approximately 13 times higher than among U.S.-born persons.
In Mississippi, the highest TB case rates in 2014 were in Pontotoc, LeFlore, Yalobusha, Yazoo, Hinds, Adams, Jefferson, Walthall, Lawrence and Greene counties. Over half the state’s counties had no reported TB cases.
(Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org.)