The Death of a Young Mother – Part 1
I’ve often written that the founding industry of the Crescenta Valley was the treatment of lung diseases, starting with Dr. Briggs in 1881. Soon after, those afflicted with lung problems, particularly tuberculosis, flocked to our valley for the clean dry air, at that time the only cure for TB. Sanitariums sprung up, along with a literal “cottage industry” of homes converted to accept TB sufferers in spare rooms, flimsy add-ons, or even tents in their yards. TB was deadly in those days, with death rates as high as 80% I’ve heard. People came to our valley with the hope of beating the odds. Others came simply to die. And die they did, probably by the hundreds. They died horribly, having months or even years to ponder their mortality, isolated from friends and family, followed by an agonizing death.
I think we forget that particular aspect of our “founding industry of sanitariums,” the term we throw out so easily. There was a very real and very tragic underlying story to that founding industry – that TB quite often afflicted the young, in the prime of their lives, and that it brutally tore families apart. This is one of those sad stories.
Last year, a woman by the name of Diana Walstad contacted me. She was writing a family history, and was chasing down the story of her grandmother Rose Vandenberg, who had died in her 20s from TB. She contacted me because I had written about sanitariums in our area, and she knew CV was near where Rose had died. She finished Rose’s biography and, with Diana’s permission, here’s a condensed version of a very touching story.
The Johnson family had immigrated after the turn of the century to Los Angeles from Iowa because of the father’s TB, which he died of not too long after their move. The three Johnson daughters were all beautiful, each with their own attractive features, but Rose was the sweetest. She suited her name, pretty and pleasing, like a rose. In 1919, 20-year-old Rose went to a Halloween dance dressed as a Dutch girl. Also at the dance was Lambert Vandenberg, whose family had come from the Netherlands. Lambert was a man big in size and personality. He was full of good-natured self-confidence and optimism. Lambert was entranced with this pretty young woman and the two soon fell deeply in love. They seemed the perfect couple, untroubled with vices and grounded in middle-class virtues. They married in 1921, surrounded by loving and supportive family on both sides, and entered their lives together in the booming economy of Los Angeles in the 1920s. Life seemed perfect.
In 1922, they had their first child, a girl they named Margie. The couple took enthusiastically to parenting, carrying little Margie with them in all their adventures – trips to the beach, up to the snow and hiking in the mountains. Two years later Lambert and Rose Vandenberg welcomed their second beautiful daughter Beverly.
It was either during a pre-birth exam or during the birth itself that the doctor noticed something about Rose. Perhaps it was a persistent cough, or maybe he noticed a rattle in her lungs – we don’t know. But he took a sample of her saliva, sent it to a lab, and the tests came back positive. At the very moment life was introduced into the Vandenberg family, Rose received a probable death sentence: she had tuberculosis.
Suddenly the perfect existence the Vandenbergs had enjoyed became a heart-wrenching nightmare. Rose, at this point in the disease’s progression, was highly contagious, and could easily infect her children. She was separated from her newborn baby and quarantined. The entire house was disinfected and purged of anything that might carry the deadly bacteria. Three-year-old Margie remembered into adulthood that her dolls were burned. Rose’s mother, who had watched her own husband die of TB, stepped in to care for the children and Rose was moved into a tent in the backyard. She could see and hear her children crying for her, but she couldn’t be near them.
Next week will take us to Rose’s death in the Tujunga Sanitarium.