Saturday, September 7, 2013

A March of Diseases


Peter was  born in 1945. He has one older sister and one younger. He remembers his miserable experience with both chicken pox and measles. He was lucky, he knows, not to have any complications from either disease, but young as he was, he remembers his experience with both as quite unpleasant.

Peter was not yet six when he had the chicken pox.  His older sister got it, and he got it a few days after. His parents feared that the youngest, his two-year-old sister, would also get it. Luckily, she did not. Peter says: “I think we were both had the running sores at the same time. That was pretty miserable.”
Peter remembers being  “slathered with calamine lotion several times a day and having these big pink splotches everywhere. Although it was standard treatment at the time, it didn’t seem to help much.” He doesn’t remember how long he was sick for, but “the temptation to scratch was so intense that for a few days I know I was wearing my kiddie-size boxing gloves that I had gotten for Christmas the year before.”  It was his parents’ idea, and “they definitely kept me from scratching.”

His measles experience, at around ten years of age, was also memorable, though he seemed to have had a mild case, since he does not remember feeling particularly ill. He does vividly remember having to stay in a darkened room and not being allowed to do anything at all. Any mental stimulation or excitement was thought to be bad for a child with measles at that time. It was summer, and he missed the Fourth of July fireworks, and playing with sparklers, and was upset that he could hear his sisters enjoying themselves outside. An avid reader, he was not allowed to read, and felt that deprivation keenly.

Two summers in a row, a little past his tenth birthday, there were polio epidemics. They were not allowed to go to crowded public places, including beaches, amusement parks, municipal swimming pools, even to the movies. “It was basically stay-close-to-home time. We were worried to death. At one point we were in a doctor’s waiting room and a kid came through who had been exposed to someone who had active polio, and I had a few days of worrying about that, though I now realize the risk was very small. That’s how strong and pervasive the fear was before the Salk vaccine.”

He remembers seeing and reading about iron lungs, the iconic symbol of polio. They were tubular metal tanks in which one lay, with only one’s head sticking out. A tight seal around the neck isolated the tank from room air pressure, and a piston decreased the air pressure inside, drawing air into the paralyzed person’s lungs.



Later, as an adult, he got a close-up experience: “…I started working for a med school, and … we had a few old iron lungs tucked in the back of one hallway.  Before they were disposed of we actually got a chance to see what it was like to be in one. It was quite strange having the air go in and out with no effort on your part. They even had a cough setting which would actually force you to cough by a rapid motion of the piston.”

Asked how it felt, he said: “I’ve never been particularly claustrophobic (until the first time I had an MRI of my head) so I didn’t have that feeling, but the seal around the neck was not terribly pleasant—then again, if you were in one of those things you probably wouldn’t be able to scratch it anyway. But the knowledge that this machine is breathing for you, even when you could breathe on your own, that was a little strange. I don’t know if I can get my head around what it would be like to have to breathe with that machine.” 

In 2008, he mentions, the last person dependent on an ironlung in the United States died – not of her disease per se, but from a power failure.

There were almost always children in every school Peter attended that had legs in calipers (Americans call them braces). He vividly remembers a boy who sat next to him in a class whose right arm was nothing but skin and bone from polio. “I had a strange fascination with it; I’m sure he thought I was extremely rude.”

A memory from a later age also remains with him: “When I was in college, I went to a  mixer, …  and I saw this stunningly beautiful girl sitting at a table. I went over and made a little chit-chat, asked her if she wanted to dance and she said “No, I can’t.” I stupidly asked why, and she just kind of turned away and waved me off, making a “go away” gesture with her hand.  Later in the evening I saw her leaving the area where we had the mixer and she was walking with a pronounced limp. One of her legs was just skin and bone. ”

While Peter did not have other vaccine preventable diseases, they were in the background – whooping cough, mumps. He remembers mumps “was going around when I was in my teens and my mother I recall being concerned that I would get it because I’m the last male in my particular patriarchal line and I had ‘a responsibility to carry on the family name.’ ”

In high school, there was a classmate who died of meningitis. “It was early in the week, Monday or Tuesday, and in Latin class Miss Gardner started talking about a girl who was absent, whom I didn't know very well, and the way she was talking—"it was meningitis, and it was very quick"—and I was thinking "Wait, what? Someone died?" Yes, someone in our Latin class died of meningitis over a weekend. I'm told that because of the vaccine, most doctors these days have never seen a case of it.”

Peter also remembers having the flu as an adult. He says: “it’s not a bad cold. It feels like you’ve been hit by a truck. If the air is circulating in the room and your hair moves it hurts. Just incredible hypersensitivity to any sort of touch to the skin. Any effort at all would cause me to start sweating, and I could feel the droplets flowing across my scalp. They hurt."

More recently, in 2009, Peter lost a Facebook friend to H1N1 flu. He describes her as a “very colorful woman; absolutely unforgettable.” To protect her privacy, he asked not to disclose her name, but he said: “When she was first taken sick, she kept going on — posting on Facebook — about how bad she felt. Really, really bad. She was hospitalized and it was reported that they were still trying to figure out what she had, and a few days later some family was there and all of a sudden she sat bolt upright, stopped breathing, fell back and she was gone; they couldn’t being her back. And it turns out that it was H1N1 flu, verified by PCR testing.”

Peter says: “When the H1N1 flu vaccine first came out, one of my Facebook friends asked our circle if we thought she should get the vaccine. Despite the fact that that particular group leans strongly toward “alternative medicine,” the discussion was fairly polite. Some of the usual misinformation was shared, like “I got the flu from the vaccine; never again,”  and she said that she'd decided to take her chances because the "natural" immunity was "better,” and I thought, “To get the natural immunity you have to get sick as hell for two weeks; what is wrong with you.” I don’t remember whether I posted that or not; sometimes it’s best to just accept that people won’t make the best choice despite your efforts.”


“Pro-vaccination?” Peter concludes.  “I'm as pro-vaccination as it gets.” Knowing what he knows, seeing what he has seen, he does not understand how anyone could be otherwise.

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