By first grade, Kristina Friman was using a nebulizer twice a day to keep her asthma in check. Her medication regimen included theophylline, Entex, mucomyst, and, for acute attacks, adrenaline injections. Still, her asthma only got worse: By fourth grade, she had been hospitalized multiple times and suffered a collapsed lung. At a loss for what to try next, her doctors recommended a radical form of treatment. When her parents presented it to Friman, however, the idea wasn’t so much a recommendation as a final hope.
“I was ‘asked’ if I wanted to go to this place to get better,” Friman says. “I must have said yes, because I remember trying to back out. My mother made it clear that it was too late.”
In October 1974, 10-year-old Friman left her hometown of Houston for Denver and a revolutionary asthma hospital for children. Friman would remain in Colorado for the next 18 months.
In the early 20th century, Denver became a destination for people seeking a cure from tuberculosis (TB), a highly infectious bacterial disease that usually attacked the lungs. The city’s high altitude, low humidity, and plentiful sunshine proved beneficial, even lifesaving, for TB sufferers.
But many TB patients who came to Denver were unable to look after their children, either temporarily or permanently. So in 1907, a group of women founded the Denver Sheltering Home for Jewish Children to care for children who had been left orphaned by the disease.
Eventually, the development of an effective vaccine and increased prevention education meant TB was no longer the automatic death sentence it had been. With fewer adults moving to Denver for “the cure,” the founders of the Denver Sheltering Home needed a new mission—and a New York City allergist named Murray Peshkin helped them find it.
While working as a pediatrician at Mount Sinai Hospital during the 1920s, Peshkin noticed that when children with severe asthma were admitted to the hospital, their health often improved quickly, faster than medical attention would warrant. Peshkin came to believe pediatric asthma was psychosomatic and caused by overparenting, usually by the mother. The child, Peshkin’s theory went, “weaponized” asthma to gain and retain their mother’s attention. If children were removed from the source of stress they might well recover—and possibly even be cured. The term he came up with to describe the separation of a child from their family? Parentectomy.
To prove his theory, Peshkin wanted to conduct a living experiment by establishing a residential facility for severely asthmatic children, complete with peers, structured routines, a hygienic environment, and around-the-clock care from medical professionals. In 1940, the Denver Sheltering Home gave him the opportunity to make his experiment a reality.
The institute—which would come to be known as the Children’s Asthma Research Institute and Hospital or, as everyone called it, CARIH (pronounced “Carrie”)—accepted, free of charge, children ages five to 16 who had been diagnosed with intractable asthma and whose parents and family physicians had exhausted every available avenue. The typical stay was 18 to 24 months; up to 150 children lived on the 17-acre campus at the foot of the Rocky Mountains at any one time.
“Peshkin was considered cutting edge,” says Dr. Jeanne Abrams, director of the Rocky Mountain Jewish Historical Society at the University of Denver. “Now we would think of it as … somewhat radical in many ways, removing [the children from their homes.]” But, as Abrams also points out, Peshkin wasn’t an outlier: “You’re talking about [a time] where there are all kinds of psychological connections” being made as explanations for medical conditions.
In many respects, the children at CARIH weren’t treated as patients. They had chores—laundry, cleaning the kitchenette and dining room—and were expected to keep their rooms tidy. Those who were school age attended local public schools—Cheltenham Elementary, Lake Junior High, or Denver North High School—within walking distance of campus. They roller-skated and swam, played miniature golf and attended dances, and went to the movies and concerts. Part of their daily routines included medication, inhalers, and allergy tests, but those had been part of their lives for years.
For most of the children, life was more normal than it had ever been. At home, several had undergone frequent hospitalizations and surgeries; some had had near-death experiences. Many were homeschooled, confined to the house by concerned parents and unable to participate in extracurricular activities. “Just walking to school with the other kids [at CARIH] was an experience for me,” says Randy Fong, who, along with his identical twin brother, Johnny, arrived at CARIH in 1968, at age 10, and lived there for 21 months.
But they lived at CARIH, first and foremost, as research subjects. They were separated from their families for up to two years, sometimes longer. To prevent any emotional or environmental “contamination” that might skew research results, parental visits were limited to twice a year (doctors rarely allowed trips home). When parents did visit, the children weren’t permitted to travel farther than 25 to 30 miles from the campus, to avoid the possibility of a severe asthma attack and treatment by outside medical professionals, which could also affect research. Phone calls were permitted once a month, for a maximum of 20 minutes. Lou Morissette, who arrived in 1969 at age 12 and stayed for two years, received a cassette tape of his family once a month. Listening to the tapes was “very cathartic,” Morissette says, “yet at the same time emotionally draining.”
The children were part of groundbreaking studies. One, conducted by Drs. Kimishige Ishizaka and Teruko Ishizaka, led to the discovery of immunoglobulin E (IgE), an antibody produced by the immune system when someone has allergies. IgE proved that asthma had a physical, not psychological, basis.
They also underwent frequent tests and received experimental medications. “We were the human test trials for many drugs, such as Marax, which eventually went commercial and was subsequently banned,” says Fong. Marax contained ephedrine, a stimulant that helps widen the lungs’ airways. It can also cause an extreme adrenaline rush. “Most asthma drugs at the time did make you high,” Fong says. “It was a bad kind of high, too. It was not a good high. It was a bouncing-off-the-wall kind of high.” (In 2004, the Food and Drug Administration banned ephedrine in diet and sports supplements; Marax was discontinued because it contained a combination of three drugs that the FDA determined lacked evidence of effectively treating asthma).
Dennis Dell, who arrived in 1960 at age 11 and stayed for two years, says he was given high levels of prednisone, a corticosteroid, which resulted in his developing Cushing’s syndrome, a hormonal disorder often caused by extended use of oral steroids. When he returned home, “my doctor was furious and reduced the dosage until I was off it,” Dell says.
Once when Fong’s twin brother suffered an asthma attack, two technicians put him on a treadmill and instructed him to run. “Finally, one of the technicians said to the other, ‘You better stop. I think he’s had enough,’” Fong says. “I think they wanted to know, If you’re having an asthma attack, how debilitated are you?”
“Everything at CARIH was a test,” Fong says. But, he adds, “I honestly don’t think any of the tests had malicious intent, even though they might have been malicious.… They cared about us a lot. But as test subjects, we were kind of just test subjects.”
Not all former CARIH patients agree that they were there for research purposes. Fred Oltarsh, who arrived in February 1974, at age 12, and remained for five months, objects to the suggestion that he was a test subject. “Dr. Ian Kavin [a pediatrician who was at CARIH on a fellowship when Oltarsh was there] was not doing research on me. He was doing whatever was necessary to improve my asthma,” Oltarsh says. “To say that they were doing research on children really makes it sound bad.… The National Asthma Center [CARIH was renamed in 1973] certainly didn’t give anybody in my family the impression that I was going there to have my asthma improved and be a guinea pig.”
Peshkin left CARIH in 1959 in large part due to his ideological clashes with a colleague, Dr. Samuel Bukantz, who advocated for a more balanced approach between psychology and medicine. The hospital’s board sided with Bukantz. “I think Peshkin became too radical … trying to read into every situation some psychological problems,” says Abrams.
But the practice of parentectomy at CARIH didn’t end with Peshkin’s departure, in part because some of the children’s asthma did stabilize or even disappear after they became inpatients. That wasn’t necessarily proof, though, that asthma was caused by an emotionally toxic home life. Greg Watson arrived at CARIH from Dallas and during the year he was there—“12 months, two weeks, and four days,” he says, laughing—he eventually stopped taking all medications. “If you looked at my medical history at CARIH, you would think I supported Peshkin’s idea,” says Watson. “But my allergies and my triggers for asthma are ragweed, mold, [and] house dust.” Watson didn’t encounter as many of those triggers in Denver or in the scrupulously clean CARIH buildings.
Most of the former patients I interviewed didn’t hear the term “parentectomy” until they were adults. Doctors, however, explained the process to the parents of some. “My father was told to knock my mother off her pedestal by the doctors and psychologists at CARIH,” says Dennis Dell. In other words: to embarrass her in front of her children in an attempt to diminish her in their eyes.
Being separated from their families was something most of the children had to adapt to. They didn’t have a choice if they were to remain at CARIH, a place that could mean the difference between life and death.
In 1973, CARIH became the National Asthma Center, which, in 1978, merged with National Jewish Health. Although the term “parentectomy” was no longer used, children continued to live on-site with minimal family interaction until the early 1980s.
After leaving CARIH, Peshkin remained committed to proving the psychosomatic origins of severe pediatric asthma. In 1972, he founded the Asthmatic Children’s Foundation of New York, a residential facility in Ossining. Children ages six to 12 lived on the 33-acre campus for one to two years and were able to see their parents once a month and call them once a week. Peshkin died in 1980; the Asthmatic Children’s Foundation continued to operate until 1989.
Former patients of CARIH, most of whom are now in their early 60s and older, are linked by an experience few others can understand. The reactions they receive from most people to the months- or years-long separation from their parents range from discomfort to disbelief to anger. Several of those I spoke with rarely talk about their time at CARIH except to other former patients. The experience is “difficult to explain easily,” says Bill Moyer, who arrived in 1972 at 14 years old and stayed for 15 months. Even after an explanation, Moyer found that people still didn’t understand. “I told my girlfriend in college,” he says, “and she thought it was barbaric. She couldn’t understand why I had to be separated from my family for so long.”
Robyn Henderson has grown accustomed to such reactions. “I never spoke of CARIH until I was in my 30s,” she says. “My wife—she’s in medicine—did not even believe me. She said, ‘This must be something you made up.’ You get used to that sort of scenario.” When Scotty Reiss, who went to CARIH in 1972 at nine years old and stayed for 20 months, returned home, she frequently encountered misconceptions about where she had been, and why. “People said really harsh, uninformed things about being a patient at CARIH.… They asked me what it was like to be in an institution—because it was an institute,” she says.
The former patients keep in touch through an alumni group on Facebook. Greg Watson and two other alumni have compiled multiple narratives in a manuscript titled The Asthmanauts, which they hope to find a publisher for. And in 2012 and 2019, several of the alumni reunited in Denver to visit the institute’s former site and talk about their time there.
As adults, the former CARIH patients all credit the hospital and its doctors with saving their lives. Inevitably, it also shaped their lives. CARIH was where Reiss learned how to advocate for herself. “As kids, it was really empowering to know that when you feel this tightness in your chest that you need to say something, you need to tell your parents, you need to get your inhaler, you need to go to the school nurse,” she says. “Whatever it is, to not hide it, not be embarrassed but get help.”
Dell developed resiliency there. “I learned early that life is not easy—even breathing is not easy,” he says.
Friman remembers seeing snow for the first time and “stepping outside and delighting in the beauty of it all.” But in retrospect, she says, “I feel a little like a lab rat.”
Henderson, too, expresses mixed emotions about her time at CARIH. She got to interact with other children and make friends, but it also permanently changed her relationship with her parents. “After I was taken to CARIH, there was no real parent–child interaction ever again,” she says, adding, “We were successful victims.”
Heather L. Hughes is a freelancer writer based in Tucson, Arizona.