Friday, August 9, 2013

Measles’ Cost for Carol

 Carol and her eldest daughter, provided by Carol with permission to use.  

Carol was born in 1961, before there was a vaccine available against measles. She contracted measles the first time at the age of two, but that was probably a mild illness, she says, because she has no memory of it and there are no family stories.  She was three and a half when she contracted measles again, and this time it was serious. She was covered in a rash from top to bottom, she hurt, she itched; and she vomited constantly. She thinks the vomiting was why she had to be hospitalized. In spite of her young age, her memories of the hospitalization are very clear: “I still remember the smell of ether that was the typical hospital smell”, and since then, “any time a male nurse or a male doctor came near me as a child I used to scream because they were going to do something that hurt me.”
She tells of her experiences:
“I was not in a big bed, I was in a cot, I felt imprisoned. I was isolated somewhat, I was kept in the corner of the ward; there must have been about ten cots in this particular children’s ward, and there were three empty cots between me and the next one that had a child in it. In order to have a bath they actually had to carry me out because I couldn’t walk, I was in so much pain and covered head to toe in this measles rash.  It’s probably my earliest memory, being carried to the bath in the hospital and crying because I hurt so much, I was itchy, and my eyes were sore.

“I vomited constantly for these three weeks. I was vomiting so much – it was very, very brutal. I couldn’t even keep water down. [When she arrived at the hospital] they tried to put an IV into me. It didn’t happen. And so they managed to get me to suck ice chips. I think I managed to keep whatever water I could get from the ice chips down. So they just kept an eye on me,” and did not try again to insert the IV. “I still remember the smell of lunch time and dinnertime coming, and it made me feel sick. Mom used to come up at mealtimes to try to get me to eat something. I don’t know how many times mom went home wearing my vomit.”
Traumatic as it was, it was not the vomiting that affected the rest of Carol’s life: it was the sore eyes.  Upon leaving the hospital, Carol’s eyesight was very bad, especially in her left eye. She does not remember much, but she does remember double vision. She also remembers one occasion when a teacher, at the young age of four and a half, attacked her: “I was sitting in a desk in the front row, and we had to copy this sentence that said ‘We went to…’ I can’t remember where we went to, and I couldn’t see past the ‘We’ and then the ‘w’ ‘e’ from ‘Went’ – and I got that written down and then everybody else had finished. And I was looking at the blackboard and seeing this ‘we we’ and that’s what I’ve written, and the teacher, she belittled me in front of the whole class. ‘We we, this is all you can think of. Well, when are you going to the toilet?’ It was really quite frightening. And I remember it quite clearly, I was four and a half, nearly five.” Two weeks after that Carol had eye surgery: she was finally diagnosed with a “visual impairment that required surgery”, an impairment directly resulting from the measles.  It was performed by a visiting specialist, because they lived far from the city and the hospital was a small country hospital about three hours from Sydney.  After the surgery her vision improved somewhat, though she was still legally blind in her left eye.
“I had to wear a black patch over my eye for years and glasses, we’d get those horrible cats-eye glasses for kids and they came in pink or blue… childhood wasn’t real easy, shall we say. And nobody understood, and nobody wanted to understand.”
She was never good in sports, because of that disability. She felt keenly for other children harmed by diseases: “I went to school with a boy who contracted polio pretty much through the birthing process, his mom had contracted polio a week before he was born, he was virtually born with polio, and this was truly the tail end of the polio epidemics that we had. He wore calipers, I lost contact with him when I left primary school, I was 11, and he was two years younger. I don’t know what happened to him.  I still see this kid sitting on the sideline on sports days, not being able to do anything because he had these iron calipers on his legs and those special boots. These are vivid memories, probably because I had such a horrid time with my vision.”
In her 30s, a specialist told her she should have gone to a special school for the visually impaired, but she says – “the closest visually impaired school was a long way, so to catch public transport, which wasn’t very accessible, I would have had to have left home at 6 o’clock in the morning to get to school, and catch three buses.”
Her vision problems caused her difficulty through adulthood, although she learned to cope with most things.  She describes a car accident: “I can drive a car, but I can’t drive a car on mainland Europe or in the United States because I can’t really see the traffic coming whereas it’s fine over here (Australia) because the traffic comes out from the right. I did try driving once when I visited Holland and I ended up losing the hubcaps from the passenger side wheels in the gutter.  I stopped to retrieve the destroyed hubcaps and refused to drive after this experience. I was so frightened…”
Carol always has bad sensitivity in her left eye, her “bad eye”, and has to almost close it in direct sunlight, unless she has very dark glasses on. In the picture above you may note that Carol’s left eye is almost closed.

Having suffered all her life from the after effects of measles, she cannot understand why anyone would choose not to protect their children against it. “Thank God I didn’t end up with SSPE (see also here, here and here). I carry with me for the rest of my life what measles did. The side effects of it. These diseases, there is no excuse for them to be around. Absolutely none. There is no cure for these diseases per se. And they are preventable.”

Acknowledgments: I'm grateful to Carol for sharing her story and correcting my typos, and to Alice Warning Wasney for comments on the draft. 

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