The noteworthy history of Durán Sanatorium

Costa Rica's spookiest building has a memorable story.

As Costa Rica suffers through the Covid-19 pandemic, let’s use this Tuesday morning to explore a much brighter and more enjoyable topic: Tuberculosis.

While it’s currently overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic, tuberculosis remains one of the top-10 causes of death worldwide each year. The infectious disease can be fatal if left untreated, though it is now curable and not an imminent concern in many countries.

The prognosis was different in the early 1900s, however. Before the discovery of antibiotics, medical experts thought rest and fresh air helped to cure tuberculosis, which primarily affects the lungs. As a result, many countries opened sanatoriums to isolate and house patients with TB, and Costa Rica was no different.

Costa Rica’s sanatorium was authorized in 1915 under the direction of Carlos Durán Cartín, a doctor who had briefly been the country’s acting president from 1889 to 1890. For Durán, the sanatorium project was personal: Not only was TB killing scores of people across Costa Rica, but his own daughter was suffering from the disease.

Durán had traveled as far as New York to seek treatment for his daughter, since the proper facilities didn’t exist in Costa Rica or anywhere else in the region.

Under his eye, Costa Rica’s sanatorium was designed with “the best construction techniques and materials of the time,” including modern plumbing, electricity and communication services.

To maximize the healing effects of clean air, the sanatorium was built on the slopes of Irazú Volcano, well out of the bustling and growing San José metropolitan area.

“It was a health center ahead of its time,” notes the University of Costa Rica,
“where a model was developed of a unique, self-sustaining community.”

Over the following decades, the Durán Sanatorium offered high-quality medical care for countless patients with tuberculosis. It was the only facility of its kind in Central America, La Nacion says.

At its peak, the sanatorium had 300 beds. Most of the thousands of people who resided at the facility have been lost to history, but it’s humbling to ponder their lives, even if just for a moment. Perhaps their experiences are more relatable as we endure a different pandemic today.

By the 1960s, advances in antibiotics had reduced the need for sanitoriums. Instead of rest and fresh air, patients could be cured with a four-drug cocktail administered at their homes or any suitable clinic.

No longer needed for TB, the Durán Sanatorium served as an orphanage and a prison before volcano-related damage caused it to shut down for good in 1973.

Today, the Durán Sanatorium has become a tourist attraction — it’s said to be haunted. While there’s nothing wrong with a good ghost story, the sanatorium’s founders, the patients who lived there and the nurses who cared for them deserve a moment of respect, too.


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