SHARED STORIES: A Mother's Unexpected Journey

After surviving World War II and the evacuation from Manchuria, Nobuyo Avery faced the biggest challenge of her life when she was pregnant with her third child and found out she had tuberculosis. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center.  Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns

By Nobuyo Avery

Carl and I were married in Tokyo on Dec. 5, 1959. Carl had orders to leave Japan before the end of the month, and we arrived in Hawaii before Christmas. I was leaving my family behind for a new life in the United States. By January we were in California.

When we got married, Carl and I agreed that I would be a stay-at-home mom. It sounded reasonable since a wife and mother’s job seemed enough to keep me occupied. Observing my own mother, I knew that keeping up with the housework and raising children would be enough for me to handle.

Nine months after we were married our first son Cecil was born. I puzzled and wondered about his needs. No matter how much I fed him, he seemed to be hungry and cried a lot. He did not sleep well at night and my own rest was taken away.

I did not realize that having a baby was such time-consuming work. At age thirty, I was learning things that many mothers experienced in their early twenties.  Looking back on my life up to then, I realized that I had never taken care of a newborn. A short baby-sitting job for a two-year-old did not teach much.

My mother and sisters were miles away in Japan, so I did not have anyone to share my doubts with or ask questions of. Telephone calls overseas were over $20 a minute in 1960, so I never called them.

At Cecil’s first check-up I was told that his growth was substandard, that he had been underfed with inadequate mother’s milk. The doctor told me to stop nursing and give bottles immediately. I felt so sorry for Cecil being hungry all the time and trying to tell me. I failed to understand him. Switching to the formula and bottles allowed me to rest more and he grew normally.

When my second child, Cliff, came eighteen months later, I could not imagine how I could handle two babies! Luckily Cecil was almost potty-trained. I notice that the new mothers in my daughter’s generation use diapers until age three. All of my children were not using diapers after two years of age! But I still had to feed both babies and they needed constant attention.
I had lost a lot of blood when I gave birth to Cliff and I noticed that I tired easily. But I worked hard with household chores and caring for the two young ones. Dr. Siegel was different from the Navy physician. He did not tell me to stop nursing Cliff even though he was not gaining weight as was indicated on the standard chart. I nursed Cliff for almost a year and a half.

I was pregnant with my third child when doctors discovered that I had tuberculosis. They told me I would have to be isolated immediately, away from my family and society. I had to leave Carl and my two little boys, and my isolation turned out to be for eleven months.
 TB is a dreadful, communicable disease and all patients have to be isolated from the unaffected world until they recover. I understood this well enough, but I spent many nights weeping over this.

I wondered how my little boys would react to the sudden disappearance of their mother. One Sunday, shortly after I was admitted, Carl brought them to visit and I saw them outside the window of my G Ward at Harbor General Hospital. They looked puzzled, sad, and their expressions said to me, “Why are you away from us?”

Carl’s brother, who just got out of the US Navy, helped with taking care of the children. He worked graveyard shift, and it was not easy taking care of the two boys when he needed to sleep more during the day. Carl’s aunt and uncle helped, and so did his mother and father. His parents were living in Arkansas, and they came to California when summer vacation started in May.

The eleven months were such a long time, but the hospital and nurses kept us busy with many tests, medications, meals, and treatments. TB patients were not allowed to exercise, and we rested and were well-fed in order to overcome the disease. We made our own beds, but were not allowed to participate in cleaning the place or doing any labor. On Sunday we had worship services – one for Catholic worshipers, and the other for all other denominations together.

I weighed about 98 pounds when I was admitted and three months pregnant with my third baby. I recorded my weight on the calendar and noted that I weighed 138 pounds just before Michael’s birth. 

Not being allowed to exercise was unpleasant, but my goal was to get well and leave the isolation ward. G Ward gave me lots of rest to allow my body to concentrate to healing from TB. I had good food without having to cook or wash dishes, and no diaper washing and no housework.  I cannot remember how we washed our laundry. I am sure that I did my own laundry but have no recollection of washing clothes. Except for worrying about my family, my life was dedicated to allowing my body to heal.

There were four of us in the room. I and a woman from Poland were expecting mothers, and the two other ladies were Mexican women. Mrs. Garcia had two lung surgeries that had not yet healed completely. Mrs. Contreras looked very healthy and young. She became bacteria-free in a short time and left.

My third child, Michael, was born in September, six months after I entered the TB hospital. For his own health, I was not allowed to hold him. The nurses showed him to me from a distance. The other patients gave me and the other expecting mother a baby shower. It was fun and I was grateful for their concern, but it would be five more months before I could hold my new son.

There were many buildings in G Ward. Two buildings were for women, one of those buildings for the really sick like me. The other building was for women who had no TB germs detected in their gastric juice, but were still waiting for their bodies to heal completely.  Men were in the other two wards. 

Every Monday we had gastric juice testing. This test proves if we were a threat to society or not. It required them to insert tubes deep into the stomach through the nose and throat. The sample was tested in a lab to see if any bacteria were present. If the sample tested negative, the patient was sent to the G Ward B for a month or so.

After I gave birth to my son in the hospital, the doctors treated me with pneumo-therapy, inserting air into the cavity below the diaphragm to lift the chest to maintain its position as the pregnancy did. In July I had the lung surgery to remove the most infected part from my upper left lung. I was dismissed from the hospital a month later. I quickly reconnected with my children.

My greatest fear in those days was the recurrence of the disease. I never overdid housework, and I paid more attention to what I ate. I did not want to be separated from my family again. 
We tried to plan our family, but I became pregnant again. Needless to say, I feared a recurrence of tuberculosis. With God’s blessing, our fourth child, Elizabeth, was born in 1966, two years after Michael. I was able to stay healthy and had no more signs of tuberculosis. In my early years as a mother, I faced a challenge that I never expected. Not only did my family survive this experience, Carl and I now have nine wonderful grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.