Brain Fever

[Note: This is a true story, as I remember it. Things I was told by my mother or my doctors are added parenthetically for clarity.]

It was Fall of 1956 and I had started second grade in the old, crumbling brick building that was our school. We lived in an upstairs apartment—lots of stairs for our Slinky!–on Berwin Street in an area called North Hill in Akron, Ohio. My older brother and I walked to school every day, something he dreaded but I loved. Well, mostly. I loved reading and learning and everyone loved recess, the roughly 15 minutes twice a day when we were released from imposed silence and proper posture to the highly dangerous concrete playing ground, complete with swings, a student-propelled merry-go-round, and a jungle gym. There were balls, too, of various sorts and sizes, which the older boys usually hoarded for their own games. The rest of us rushed to get our turn on the heavy metal equipment. I would have loved recess, except that our school gave classes for the intellectually challenged (of all ages) and some of them were adults, physically, who bullied the little kids like me. Being denied the jungle gym or swings was not fair, but being pushed and dragged on our knees on the merry-go-round was downright cruel.

Teachers appointed to playground duty were too busy with cigarettes and gossip to notice this daily abuse, or they were more afraid of the bullies than even we were. So, many of us stayed away from the gangs of bullies and tried to stand in the shade or sun, depending upon the weather, playing hopscotch and other simple pastimes. When it rained, I seem to remember we stayed in and colored in our coloring books, but I’m not sure of that. We had wooden desks in wood-floored classrooms and each room had a separate sort of foyer called a cloak room where we hung hats and coats, and where we changed out of boots into shoes or vice versa. We had no lockers and no protection from thieves, so the kids soon learned not to bring to school money or toys or anything someone else might want.

We did bring our 3 cents each day for milk and almost all of us carried bag lunches from home. Mom usually packed us a sandwich like peanut butter and jelly or, more likely, cheese or bologna, fruit such as a banana or an apple, and when we were lucky, she packed home-made pudding or home-made cookies for dessert. We were all well fed but few were overweight in those days because we walked or ran everywhere. We played outside when we could and most of us had chores that required some effort on our part. We were rewarded with an allowance: my brother, because he was older, got 10 cents a week and I got a nickle; by high school, he was getting 50 cents a week to my 25 cents.

Walking home was sometimes as dangerous as the playground, for bullies seemed to have radar. Stupid people let their dogs run loose, too, and a happy encounter could turn dangerous quickly. The worst time I remember was when a man in a car slowed beside us and offered us candy to get into his car. Mom had spent many waking hours warning us about men like him and in particular this ploy, so Rick and I took off running. Being older and a boy, he escaped easily, but I had difficulty keeping up with him. My fear—of the strange, creepy man, and even more, of my mother if I didn’t get away—spurred me on to keep running, ignoring the twinge in my side and the sharp pain from my flat feet. We made it home safely, yet Mom was fuming when we told her what had happened. For awhile after that, she would walk to school to meet us and walk us home every day. I don’t know if they ever caught the guy. I hope they did.

Another odd thing began to happen that year as we walked to and from school. I kept falling down. A lot. Skinning my knees almost always and sometimes tearing my skirt or getting it dirty. My mother thought I was just clumsy like my father, and she was probably concerned about my bloody knees, too, but I only remember her anger for getting my clothes dirty or torn. Even now, I never go out in public unless I’m squeaky clean and so are my clothes. I doubt that I’m actually OCD, but I was very much conditioned by my mother to keep a spotless home and to wash, wash, wash. My Dad’s mother used to scold her about her cleanliness fetish, saying, “let ’em get dirty! You’re gonna wash the skin right off of them! It’s not healthy to be that clean!” Mom never let us eat or drink after anybody, either, and that must have been a good idea, since I have never had a cold sore, for example.

Despite my grandmother’s invective, my immune system is pretty strong, but I’m not sure whether it’s because I caught every childhood disease that came home with my brother, or in spite of that fact. Kids today get shots for almost everything, but in the 50s and 60s we didn’t have those vaccines. We got the shots available at the time, such as for small pox and something else—was it diphtheria? In any case, we got virtually every communicable disease, and then some. The good thing, though, is that kids developed immunity to certain diseases naturally, by early exposure. The bad thing is that some illnesses were devastating, even deadly.

Aside from the usual colds and influenza, we had measles, mumps, German measles, chicken pox, whooping cough, croup, in other words, everything that came along. Thanks to measles, my brother and I developed problems with our eyesight, so both had to wear glasses from about age ten. I was so near-sighted that they used to say I wore Coke bottles for glasses. All that changed in my forties when I mysteriously developed cataracts (physicians had given me large doses of cortisone for severe back problems and cataracts were the result). It was dreadful not being able to read as I have done since I was four years old, and that made lecturing and teaching nearly impossible. Then my eye surgeon operated and gave me perfect vision (except that I need reading glasses because at that time, they had no cure for farsightedness among those over 40). Miraculous!

Annual bouts of tonsillitis led to my brother’s surgery to remove his tonsils and adenoids, but my pediatrician recommended against surgery for me (perhaps because of my other medical issues) and so one afternoon in junior high, I broke out in a rash that turned out to be Scarlet Fever, a direct result of a severe case of strep throat misdiagnosed as sinusitis. I had something like three different strains at the same time, and that’s when we discovered that I was/am allergic to sulfa and penicillin, and it is nigh on to impossible, even now, to find an antibiotic that does not have one of those two drugs in their make up. (As my chronic pain issues increased, we all discovered that many/most drugs used to treat chronic pain also have sulfa in them. Arggh!)

Back to my falling down. For a long while, it was a mystery solved, in fact, quite by accident. One day, I got sick. Very sick. Throwing up your kidneys kind of sick. Mom thought I just had the flu, like every other kid on earth. Everybody had some sort of stomach flu that fall, some worse than others. Mom kept me home from school because I was feverish and couldn’t keep anything down. I was too sick to even watch TV—that’s how Mom knew I wasn’t faking. I remember sweating, horrific headaches, the skin drying up on my lips, the thirst. Then, almost nothing. I recall lying in my bed, sort of sleeping but not really (I was actually in and out of consciousness due to the high fever). As I lay there, I saw an enormous black bird swooping down to devour me. I screamed. Then everything went black…

(Mom explained later that my vision of the black bird probably saved my life. I was having hallucinations and that scared my mother to death. She called the pediatrician and insisted that he pay a house call. Earlier, he had guessed that I was ill with the flu—aspirin and lots of rest and fluids, etc.–but he was wrong. We had no way of getting to the hospital, so the doctor loaded us into his car and drove several miles to the hospital. My mother cradled me in her arms in the back seat while the doctor drove with all the windows open and his head hanging out of his side window the whole way. He knew what he dared not admit to my mother. I had a terrible disease and he was afraid he’d get it!)

I would be in and out of consciousness for days (weeks?) as the medical professionals experimented on me, trying to bring my fever down. They didn’t have an Intensive Care Unit in those days, so I was put in Isolation. It was a room with a sink for nurses and doctors to wash up, cabinets for medical supplies, bedding, towels, washrags, and two beds separated by a partition with a small window. No one was allowed in or out of the room, but visitors could see me through the large window in the wall opposite my bed. The other bed soon had a boy about my age with the same symptoms. For much of the time, they had me strapped down, feeding me intravenously.

Then things got weird. Several times a day, a nurse would greet me, take vital signs, and then begin to peel the burnt, dry skin from my lips. (She must have also applied Vaseline but this I do not remember). If my mother was around for this exercise, she had to leave the window as it made her ill to watch it. The thing that bothered me, though, came next. The nurse or nurses would bring in a tub of hot, steaming water in which they would soak washrags and towels and they would place these steaming hot cloths to my bare skin. It was scalding hot but it felt like they were placing sheets of ice on me. (They were trying to get my fever down. The boy in the other bed got a different “experiment.” Instead of steaming hot compresses, they placed him in an icy bath, thinking to cool him down. He, too, screamed, but for him, it felt like a hot fire into which they dipped him over and over.)

At some point, my fever did come down, though I doubt it had anything to do with their medieval torture instruments. As my fever came down, slowly, over lengthy weeks, I felt better and began eating real food and began the healing process, one that involved learning all over again how to walk because my muscles had atrophied a bit during my hospital stay. I remember that pain as well. And I remember the pain of going outside for the first time and not being able to stand the brightness of the sun. From that time on, I had to wear sunglasses outside because of the sun’s glare, but also in classrooms, when I was able to return to school, because the fluorescent glare was as torturous to me as that of daylight.

Bouncing back to the hospital for a minute, I still remember the fear. I was 7 years old, alone, in a large, noisy hospital with nurses and doctors coming in and out all day and all night, being poked and prodded and ‘messed with’ by people who had no idea what to do. I wanted my Mom and Dad, even my brother, but they could not even enter my room (the physicians knew I was contagious and they were afraid of an epidemic, but no one bothered to explain this to me). I was alone, surrounded by strangers. I was sick and wanted my Mommy. Instead, I was in a white room, in a white-sheeted bed with no pillow, in hospital gowns when they allowed me to wear anything. Imagine how frightening to be so ill and no one to comfort me. I must have cried when I was lucid, but I don’t remember that.

I do, however, remember the fear. It was as if I were being punished for something I didn’t do. (No wonder the works of Franz Kafka have always held my fascination; my childhood was Kafkaesque!). To this day, I hate hospitals. I especially hate white walls, white uniforms, white, white, white! The old carbolic smell used to give me panic attacks (before we knew they were panic attacks), and even as an adult, visiting anyone in a hospital, especially after the lengthy illnesses of my parents, is worse than wrestling a bear. My anxiety level increases exponentially and no amount of Yoga breathing can calm me down. I used to hyperventilate just being inside the walls of a hospital.

And yet, you perhaps say, it was for only a few weeks and you did survive, after all. But wait. There’s more. When I was still very ill but conscious and fairly lucid, I recall endless days and nights lying in that hard bed looking out the window into the partially darkened corridor. They didn’t have TVs in the rooms then, and nothing to assuage the boredom, so I eagerly waited for the nice nurses to return. They were kind and talked with me and tried to make me comfortable. But sometimes the mean nurse came instead. She performed the same duties as the other nurses, except that she would point to the iron lung stationed a short distance from my window and tell me that they were going to put me in there, that huge, metal coffin if I didn’t get better soon. That iron lung became the biggest bogeyman of my childhood…

(In those days, lots of kids ended up in iron lungs when their breathing muscles became useless after contracting infantile paralysis, aka polio, which breathed for them, not treating the illness but slowing down the dying process. They didn’t have a vaccine for polio then. I wasn’t taken to the hospital for polio, though, but for encephalitis, an acute inflammation of the brain caused by the polio infection. All those times I had fallen down on the way to school were due to a mild case of polio, not clumsiness. The doctor had missed the initial symptoms. I was lucky in that I had no permanent disability from the polio at a time when many became paralyzed and most died. I was not so lucky in developing encephalitis because the high fever destroyed one of my kidneys. I survived by accident, chance, or miracle, but the other kids who contracted encephalitis that decade were not saved. The boy in the room with me went home before I did, but, I learned as an adult, he started convulsing and died on the way back to the hospital. Most kids met a similar fate, and many suffered mental retardation due to the brain inflammation. Here, too, I was very lucky; in high school testing, I placed in the 98th percentile, meaning that of all the high school and college students tested, only 2% in the world tested higher than I did! Not bragging, just grateful.)

So, that’s how I missed the first half of the second grade. More true stories when I get to them.

©2015 Linda L Labin, PhD

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