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Programme Two: Surviving Tuberculosis

Ireland of the 1940s was one of the poorest countries in Europe. Four thousand people were dying from tuberculosis every year. A diagnosis of TB was like being handed a death sentence. Many young men and women in Ireland spent long years in the artificial world of the TB sanatorium, and most expected to die there. There was a terrible stigma attached to the disease, which was rarely spoken of directly. The sanatorium was often on the edge of a town, and had an uncomfortable relationship with the townspeople. Hope dawned in the 1950s with the discovery of antibiotics and effective government action, and many were saved.

Donal Kelly, originally from Creeslough, County Donegal and now living in Galway, spent three years in Castlerea Sanatorium in Roscommon. Two of his sisters had already died of TB, and Donal's mother and a third sister had contracted the disease. Donal was sure he was going to die. But Donal was treated with the new antibiotic streptomyacin, and survived a dangerous operation - a pneumoplasty.

He left the artificial world of the sanatorium at the age of twenty three. Donal married a nurse from the sanatorium, Mary Leonard. And his career of Occupational Therapist developed out of his time in the hospital.

Máire Downey from Castlecomer, Co. Kilkenny, was only fourteen when she got TB. Having got first place in the whole county for an education scholarship, she was looking forward to secondary school education. But instead, she received hard lessons about life and death in the Auxiliary Sanatorium in Kilkenny, and later in Peamount Hospital Dublin. She came out of the Sanatorium a few days before her peers sat for the Leaving Certificate exams. It was only when she was a grandmother that she went back to education. Máire has a PhD in History from Maynooth, and is Chair of the Kilkenny Historical Society.

Donal and Máire are happy and proud to have survived such a terrible disease. Both underwent major surgery, but ultimately benefited from the new antibiotic drugs that arrived in the early 1950s. Both feel a debt of gratitude to Dr. Noel Browne.

Donal Kelly with his sisters two of whom died of TB
Donal Kelly with his sisters two of whom died of TB