Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Why Childhood Memories Matter

Sunnydale housing project, 1941

A child ran from the playground at Sunnydale Projects in the early summer of 1955, beating on doors, breathlessly telling grownups that I’d fallen from the monkey bars and couldn’t get up. When she finally found my mother behind one of the uniformly plain front doors, she explained and my mother came running. Trying to learn how to circle the bar and come upright like the older kids, I misplaced my hands on the bar and crashed to the ground, dislocating my kneecap.

I hobbled most of that summer from my bedroom to the couch. The doctor said my leg had to be immobilized and my mother made sure his orders were followed. There was no TV in most San Francisco homes. Commercial TV broadcasts didn’t extend to the West Coast until 1951. Instead, I colored, played with paper dolls, listened to the radio with my mother, and meditated on the swirls and flourishes in the burgundy oriental carpet. I went from cast to elastic bandages, my mother wrapping my knee tightly several times a day. Eventually I was allowed to walk without crutches, then permitted to go outside.

That’s how I met her. After walking dutifully for days around the projects, I went to a building beyond the view of our unit’s windows, and ran as fast as I could up and down the narrow sidewalks, testing my knee. A woman came out and asked my name and where I lived. I was only about six and answered truthfully. I went on running. When I got home, my mother said a nice lady had stopped by. My knee stiffened and I sat down, waiting for the wrath because I'd been running. The lady asked, my mother said, if I could come and play with her daughter, who couldn't go outside because she had polio and couldn't walk. I knew very well how that felt and agreed to visit.

This fuzzy, black and white, memory comes back to be because of a recent conversation with my niece. She lives in Orange County and just had a baby. She’s leaning toward not vaccinating her infant daughter. She asked me what I thought about that decision. Trying to remain supportive of her parental prerogatives, I said it was her decision, but the memory of the day I met my playmate kept coming up.

My mother dressed me in nice school clothes and walked me down the hill. We were welcomed, I went inside. In the living room was a large metal cylinder, horizontal sunlight through Venetian blinds striped the gray tube. Only my friend’s head extended beyond the enclosure, a mirror positioned above her so she could watch the room. Shocked, the girl’s mother sat me down at a children’s table. She brought me crayons and a stack of coloring books, children’s playing cards, board games. She explained her daughter, Eunice, couldn't walk or sit up, that she had to stay in her iron lung, but she could watch and she wanted to see me play. I caught her eye in the mirror, sensed Eunice’s wariness as it slipped into indifference.

Eunice’s mother fluttered about, brought me red Kool-Aid as I colored. She adjusted me in the child’s chair so I could be seen through the mirror. I don't recall her speaking. She just made animal sounds that signaled her mother when she needed attention. The polio vaccine had not yet been invented.

Members of Rotary International volunteered their time and personal resources to help immunize more than 2 billion children in 122 countries during national immunization campaigns.
It became available when I was about 10. We all got it, everyone, including my parents and grandmother. About 1962, people lined up around the block to receive the vaccine on sugar cubes in the Alvarado Elementary School auditorium in San Francisco. There were long tables of nurses passing out the doses to grateful families, every member chewing the sweet protection.

“I respect your decisions about what's best for Adriana and support you in whatever you decide,” I told my niece, knowing she will make decisions based on solid information and complete love. I told her I had my sons immunized because I'm old enough to remember when immunizations were not available, perhaps with the exception of small pox vaccine, which my mother received in the 1930s as a girl.

Today, the U.S. Centers of Disease Control says about 30 percent of measles cases develop one or more complications, including pneumonia, which is the complication that is most often the cause of death in young children. Ear infections occur in about 1 in 10 measles cases and permanent loss of hearing can result. Diarrhea is reported in about eight percent of cases. These complications are more common among children under five  years of age and adults over 20 years old. As a child, I knew children who were deaf from the effects of measles, the twisted beige wires of their hearing aids draped across their chests. There was no licensed measles vaccine in the U.S. until 1963.

“Your father had the most horrendous case of mumps I've ever seen in my entire life,” I told my niece, hauling up another memory. “His head was literally the size of a basketball. He was very, very sick for weeks, literally. Joyce, Steve (my siblings) and I also got mumps. There was no vaccine at the time. Joyce and Steve were very sick. My case was mild and only put me in bed for a few of days.”

Chicken Pox: Because there was no vaccine, we all had it, I said. My own sons had it.

Whooping Cough: There was no vaccine available and fortunately none of us kids got it
“If you've ever heard the sound of whooping cough, you'll know it. It's a horrifying sound,” I told my niece.

The CDC says: “Whooping cough is very contagious and most severe for babies. People with whooping cough usually spread the disease by coughing or sneezing while in close contact with others, who then breathe in the bacteria that cause the disease. Many babies who get whooping cough are infected by parents, older siblings, or other caregivers who might not even know they have the disease. Half the babies who get end up in the hospital, some die.”

In the fall of 1955, I attended first grade at Sunnydale School. My mother was president of the PTA. Eunice and I would have been classmates. She died that winter and her family moved away. My parents bought a house thanks to the money they saved living in the projects and we moved away too. But the memory of Eunice, her translucent face and wispy hair spread out on a pillow, her inquiring eyes reflected from the mirror above her head stay with me and flood back whenever someone talks about the dangers of vaccinating children.

I tell you about this conversation with my niece because I survived a time when common vaccines were not available and hundreds of thousands of children were damaged or died. I got my children immunized because in my view the risk to their health and very lives is too great to ignore. I tell you this in memory of Eunice.

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