Wednesday, April 12, 2017


We were sick so much when we were kids. Immunizations protected us from smallpox, and supposedly from diphtheria and whooping cough, but childhood diseases were just that, a normal part of childhood.

I remember measles as the first serious sickness I had. Mummy knew to look in your mouth and see measle spots on the inside of your mouth first, which meant that you were coming down with it. I remember red splotches on my skin and fever. Nanny walked over to our house to sit with me and keep me company. There were little orange St. Joseph's aspirins, and cool damp clothes on my forehead. Eddie had a tendency to high fevers and sometimes became delirious. One time he screamed that there were worms on him, and another time he was screaming that he was covered with "wee-wee" (shit.) I don't think I ever became delirious, but I remember that things would get smaller or larger.

Dr. O'Brien was an old-school doctor who prescribed things that younger doctors didn't truck with. Mustard plasters. Sweating out a fever. I remember putting my feet in a basin of hot water while wrapped in blankets, to bring on a sweat and break a fever. Mustard plasters were made using a clean baby's cloth diaper. A paste of mustard powder and water was smeared on the cloth, which was put on your chest or back, covered by a cotton undershirt. It drew a great amount of heat to that spot, but if left on too long, could actually blister and burn your skin. I remember being given paregoric, which was supposed to stop vomiting and diarrhea, but I threw it right back up. It tastes like whiskey but also contains opium or cocaine. (Now I see ads on tv for treating opioid-induced constipation. Seems that it works to slow the intestinal tract down!) People sometimes rubbed it on babies' gums when they were teething. You had to sign your name in a notebook at the drug store when you bought it.

One time I had what we called "the grippe," which was what we called vomiting and diarrhea, and I couldn't keep even a sip of water down. The doctor came to the house and it seemed that he threatened my mother: If she gets dehydrated, we'll have to put her in the hospital! This was not only frightening but also meant expenses we couldn't afford. The doctor told my mother to boil Coca-cola on the stove to remove the bubbles and concentrate it, and then spoon it into my mouth. When you were sick, a bed was made on the couch, and a bucket was placed beside it. Mummy had work to do (keep up with the cleaning schedule!) and you weren't supposed to bother her. Sympathy would only prolong the sickness, so she was brusque.

When I was five and my little brother Richie was only a year old, we were both sent to the hospital to have our tonsils taken out. I remember Mummy told me to take care of him, and this worried me, because I didn't even know where he was! He was not in the same room with me. I remember the ether--they put a mask over my mouth and told me to count to 10, and then it felt like I woke up immediately. I woke up in a ward with other children, and a baby who cried and cried. They told me that the baby had no tear ducts and that's why he cried. Where was my brother? I was supposed to take care of him! I wore a pretty yellow dress with black buttons to go home in.

I actually have more memories of my brother Eddie's tonsillectomy than I do of my own. Was his before or after mine? I'm not sure. He was sick a lot with earaches and infections. He had a Mickey Mouse toy that was his special thing to hold when he sucked his thumb. He took Mickey Mouse with him to the hospital and it got lost and he was inconsolable, so someone bought him a new one, which bore little resemblance to the tattered and worn one, but they told him that the doctors had fixed it all up. I knew this was a lie. When Eddie saw the new Mickey, he said "Mickey!" in a really high voice, and my mother thought maybe the operation had permanently made his voice like that. He ate popsicles to soothe his throat.

One summer I had German measles while I was at a cabin in New Hampshire with my grandmother. German measles was not like real measles--you might not even know you had it, and you could still go out and play. But watch out, it is dangerous for pregnant women! My mother suspected that her baby Liz might have had mental retardation because of a mild, unrecognized case of German measles. That's probably not true, because she had Down Syndrome, but my mother had a recollection of having been mildly sick early in her pregnancy, and maybe that's what caused a 21- year -old woman to have a Down Syndrome baby? Maybe.

Another summer, we all got chicken pox. My two younger brothers and baby Kevin had mild cases and were still able to play, but I got a high fever and lots of spots and had to stay in bed. I now know that the more exposure you have, the worse the disease, and those who get it from a family member tend to have a worse case than those who pick it up in passing. Don't scratch the scabs or it will leave scars! I did scratch, and I can still see the scars at age 65! But I think the scars might happen in any case. (Karen was not born yet when we had chicken pox, and she got a horrible case as an adult when her son had it.) (Kevin had shingles in his 40s, so apparently the chicken pox virus was in there!)

We also all got the mumps. Mummy feels your neck and finds swollen glands and it hurts to swallow. As a girl it was mild for me, but my brothers were sicker, and Mummy worried because mumps can make boys sterile. (Did I know that then? I knew she was worried and it was worse for boys. I doubt if I knew why.)

Measles, mumps, rubella (MMR), chicken pox. Everyone had those. Polio was the great fear, and thanks to my mother's worrying, I avoided that. Her sister had had a relatively mild case of polio in 1949 and was unable to attend my parents' wedding. Whenever we had a fever, she would test us by bending our knees back towards our chest--if you couldn't do that or if you screamed in pain, it meant polio. We couldn't swim in ponds, like other children, because ponds are dirty and could carry polio. There was a wading pool in Barry Park with a fountain in the middle, but that was also a polio risk, to be avoided. When there was news of polio, we couldn't go to things like carnivals or circuses. Polio shots came out when I was fairly young, and later, in 5th grade, there was a new oral drink for polio which we all received in school. There was a boy in my class at St. Patrick's who wore braces from polio, and my college roommate was badly crippled from polio.

I was very unhappy as a 12- and 13-year old, attending a new school where I had no friends, and more sickness seemed to assail me. I got scarlet fever when I was in the 7th grade. I had a high fever and a thirst that could not be assuaged by drinking water. I read the home medical guide that we had and figured it out for myself--I had strawberry tongue! My tongue was coated and bright red and moisture couldn't penetrate it. Then a rash started on my knees and elbows. I think that was one of the last times the doctor came to our house, on Willis Court. There were public health restrictions--my father wasn't allowed to work for a week because there was some law about food handling and scarlet fever, and my brothers had to stay home from school even though they weren't sick! I was quarantined and had to have a note from the doctor too allow me to go back to school.

Maybe it was the next year that I had pneumonia. My grandmother would rub my back, and I drank hot Horlicks. My mother and father re-arranged our bedrooms, because my room was the coldest room in the house and maybe that's why I got sick. So they moved into what had been my room and I moved into what had been theirs. This must have only been temporary, though, because I remember mostly having the back bedroom, which was very cold. When Karen was 2, 3, 4 years old, she used to get into my bed and we'd snuggle up to keep warm.

The most dramatic illness I remember was whooping cough. Karen was a toddler, still in the crib, and she got it first. I think she was too young to have had the shot to prevent it. It was terrifying in a little child--she would cough for so long that she would start to turn blue, and then finally, when you thought it would never stop and she would die, she'd be able to inhale, with a horrible whooping sound. Then I also got it. I think I was 13. It was summer, and I had to stay in the house or yard all summer. I remember coughing so long and hard I would throw up, and my ribs hurt so bad. I had had the immunization, but it didn't work. My mother blamed the doctor, a different doctor who had an office in his house on Wyman Street (?) that the material must have been old and ineffective. Now I know that whooping cough (pertussis) vaccine is not always very effective.

I think it was the fall of 7th grade when I spent a week in the hospital, for a phantom disease that was probably just anxiety and the misery of being 12 and being unhappy in school. I was throwing up every morning and had stomach pains. Mummy took me to the doctor (again, I think the "bad" doctor with an office in an odd neighborhood. I don't remember his name.) He did a rectal exam on me,  which upset my mother, but he claimed he was checking for appendicitis. Then he decided that maybe it was rheumatic fever and that I should be hospitalized and kept on complete bedrest, because otherwise, it could damage my heart. (Looking back, it seems he didn't have a single clue.) Being in the hospital was kind of gratifying. My mother hugged me before I went, which alarmed me because I thought it meant she expected me to die! They did chest x-rays and made me use a bedpan so that I could stay completely in bed, and the water there tested like plants. My Aunt Bobbie sent me a flower arrangement that looked like an ice cream soda. There was a girl down the hall who screamed and cursed all day and much of the night--I learned that she had been in a car accident and that she was a bad girl! I wasn't supposed to even hear the words that she used. (Nurse! Help me! It hurts so fucking bad!) I got sore elbows from the roughness of the sheets. The nurses made me roll to one side of the bed to make that side and then roll to the other side to make the other side--so that I could have complete bedrest! Then they decided that there was nothing in particular wrong and when I went home, I was so weak I could barely walk and had to stay home from school for several more days.

I think it was after that that I started to have asthma. I wheezed loudly and my back hurt and I had to sit up at night to breathe. There was no decent medicine, but I got some sort of inhaler that had to be filled with a liquid and stored in the refrigerator. Walking to school on the cold weather left me gasping. One time we tried to drive to Nova Scotia for a vacation and I had a cold and got so sick that we had to turn around and come back. That night, I was struggling to breathe and Mummy called Dr. O'Keefe, who was both pediatrician and immunologist, and he told her to put a fan in the window and sit me in front of a fan, to force more air into my lungs. Another time, probably in 9th grade, I had an asthma attack so bad that they rushed me to another specialist and he gave me a shot of probably epinephrine. I remember being in the car on the way there and thinking I was dying. He also had me do a lung capacity test and telling me I had emphysema. My grandfather had emphysema and let me use some of his medicine. (50 years later, I had similar tests, and they told me the same thing. Chronic, I guess.)

The asthma diagnosis was so rare in those days that it got me special privileges. A note from the doctor exempted me from PE classes all 3 years of high school. And since it was on my record, when a guy showed up at my high school from Mass. Rehab. looking for students with handicaps who needed a scholarship to enable them to become productive members of society, they called me down to the office. I was sent to a psychologist for an in-person IQ test, to determine if I had the capacity for higher education. I remember the psychologist seeming to be surprised (I think he may have said that I was scoring higher than he had), and I seem to think they told me my IQ was 139, though that seems suspiciously precise. In any case, they decided that I was definitely "college material." Then they asked me about ways in which my handicap limited my career choices. I wasn't having much trouble with asthma at that time (it seems to come and go with my emotional state), and I said I wanted to be a teacher and it had no effect, but this was the wrong answer. Could you play professional sports, if you chose to? no, of course not. See? Then it limits your choices!

And they gave me a full scholarship, including books, for college. 

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