Everett exhibition brings tuberculosis out of the shadows

Doris Kelly knows the stigma of living with tuberculosis.

When she was diagnosed at age 22 in 1948, “people were kind of nervous when you said you had TB,” she said.

For 15 months, Kelly was a patient at Firland in Seattle, an old Navy hospital. The course of treatment was simply bed rest.

“You have to laugh when you have nothing to do but lie in bed all day,” Kelly said. “We used to say if you wanted a seat on the bus, all you had to do is cough a little and say you were from Firland. You had the whole bus to yourself.”

A portrait of Kelly, of Snohomish and now 88, holding a small black-and-white photo of herself in her hospital bed, is part of an exhibition that will be on display beginning this week at the Snohomish Health District in Everett.

The project, called “TB Voices,” includes photos and a video with stories of 28 people from Snohomish and King counties who have experienced tuberculosis.

TB is a bacterial infection spread through the air when a person with the disease coughs, sneezes, speaks or sings, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

If the bacterial infection spreads, it can damage the lungs. Some people are sickened within weeks of becoming infected and others may become ill years later when their immune system is weakened.

The Snohomish Health district treated 44 cases of active TB in 2013, checked 88 people who were suspected of having it and screened 123 others who were contacts of people with the active disease.

Tuberculosis is a disease that no one really thinks about anymore, said Annie Ashley, an Everett graphic designer who worked on the art project. The concept of the exhibition is to bring knowledge of the disease into the community, she said.

“We’re trying to get the word out on what TB is and how they can be treated for it,” she said. ”We’re trying to bring it home and make it personal.”

A banner will be draped across the building’s atrium bearing comments from people who have either had the disease themselves or have a family member who has had TB. “When you look up, you’ll see layers and layers of quotes,” Ashley said.

Photos of people in the video will be displayed along with a summary of their story to provide more information about their experience.

The project highlights the need to support people who have TB and to fight the stigma and social isolation they deal with every day, said Teresa Rugg, who organized the project.

The “TB Voices” project is funded by the Firland Foundation, based in Shoreline.

Kelly said she hopes her involvement with the project will help increase public understanding of the disease. Treatments now are far easier than what she experienced, she said. “It’s controlled with drug therapy and life is a lot easier.”

The project also shows “that we are survivors,” she said. It isn’t the end of the line for anyone if they do what the doctors say.”

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or salyer@heraldnet.com.

See the exhibition

“TB Voices” will be on display March 17-28 at the Snohomish Health District, 3020 Rucker Ave. in Everett. A public reception with participants is scheduled for 1 p.m. March 21.

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