Nowhere Near Fun

I remember the Big Three of Childhood Diseases because I had all of them. I am of that vintage where I was young enough to be vaccinated against smallpox and polio (for which I am abundantly grateful, let me tell you). But I had mumps (on at least one side), and rubella, (and chicken pox, the also-ran of childhood diseases), and measles.

My memories of chicken pox involve feeling ill on the day I was supposed to go to the Zoo with my best friend, and lying on the hall floor in our apartment swaddled in my quilt, desperately trying to get the energy to leap up and proclaim myself ready to go. I wasn’t and I didn’t. Beyond that, my memory extends to oatmeal baths (intended to soothe the itch, which they really didn’t) and a coloring book about brides, which perpexed me.

My only recollection of mumps–aside from the fact that it hurt like hell–is that I only had the disease on one side. So I looked like half a deranged chipmunk, which is not much of an improvement over full deranged chipmunk. I dimly remember a sigh of parental relief that my brother had the mumps at the same time, “getting it over young”  they said, as mumps has nasty effects on grown men.

I know I had rubella, but I think it was relatively mild (so mild that it left me, I found out years later, with no residual immunity; this matters to me because I have a relative who lost both the baby she was carrying and her subsequent ability to have children, to rubella contracted while she was pregnant. I went out immediately and got vaccinated. Some things you do not mess with).

And then there’s measles. At the time I developed measles I wanted desperately to have freckles. I was at my classmate Judy’s house for a play date–we didn’t call it that then, but that’s what it was–and her mother noted that I had spots, and I recall valiantly insisting they were freckles, which convinced no one, not even me. By the time my mother showed up I was feverish and spotty, and on my way to several weeks of misery. I remember the itchiness–not as bad as chicken pox, but bad enough–and that swimmy, vaguely hallucinatory feeling a high fever can give you. But what I mostly remember is that I was kept in my bed with the shutters drawn against the light, because there was some concern that I could lose my eyesight. I couldn’t read, couldn’t watch TV. My brother and I shared a room, and the dimness..

I remember, when I got really tired of being in bed and was feeling slightly better, getting up to prise the shutters open and peer out on the sunlit street, only to have my mother sweep in, slamming the shutters closed and ordering me back into bed, afraid the light would damage my weakened eyes. That kind of fear, in an adult, is upsetting to a kid. It convinced me, as no number of homilies would have done, that I could be blinded–not in an interesting “our TV hero is briefly struck blind and must have adventures in spite of it” way, but permanently deprived of sight. I went back to bed, and kept my eyes squeezed tightly closed for an hour afterward.

So when I hear someone say “hey, kids used to get these diseases all the time, what’s the big deal?” I think of me, in bed, with my eyes squeezed tight, hoping that when I opened them the world would still be there.

We are not used to being really sick, or rather, we have a tendency, as a society, to define sick as cancer or some other Big! Dramatic! disease. Deborah Ross noted, a few weeks ago, that vaccination is not a tomayto/tomahto disagreement. I second that emotion. And for those parents who are too young to remember what the fever and misery and itches and–yes–the threat of encephalitis or deafness or blindness that was a routine accompaniment to those childhood diseases that “everybody had” in the good old days–let me say, on behalf of your children: this is not a rite of passage. It’s a life-threatening experience that can be avoided. Avoid it.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Nowhere Near Fun — 10 Comments

  1. Hoo yeah. I got chicken pox the first day of Christmas vacation–from my sister, who’d gotten to have two weeks out of school. she was healed and ready to play when I had to go to bed, and listen to all the kids having fun out in the sunshine and summery heat. I had them everywhere–in my eyelids, my throat, my scalp. I remember counting 73 just on my stomach. The scabs fell off JUST in time to go back to school.

    I had measles three times, always in spring.

    The attitude back then was, those were the easy diseases. Kids didn’t die of them. Many parents sent kids over to a sick kid’s house, in order to get them over it faster.

    We had not been inoculated as my dad was Christian Scientist. We all had rubella, and I think my brother had whooping cough.

    Our first shots were the typhoid series, after my sister was in the hospital for months from typhoid–which, it turned out, my dad had brought back from Japan when he was there for the occupation, and it had lain dormant in him. Those typhoid shots froze up our arms and made us sick and feverish for about a week. The typhoid permanently scarred her internal organs.

    • I still have a chicken pox scar on my stomach. These days, with all the accumulated wear and tear of an adult life, I have to go looking for it, but it’s still a reminder. Both my kids had chicken pox (older right before the vaccine became available, the younger while she was too young to be vaccinated) and it was no picnic for them, either.

      If getting hit in the head with a two-by-four was an avoidable but expected event in life, would we say it was better to get it over with early, or would we take steps to avoid it? Oh, right: that’s bullying, and it’s a different conversation.

      • Heh! Well, there wasn’t a vaccine for chicken pox, nor (I think?) measles when we were young. But we wouldn’t have had it even if there was.

        Yeah, I am covered with chicken pox scars. But it’s difficult to see them unless really up close.

        My chief memory of measles was being forbidden to read. I was bored stiff until I figured out that no one was coming near me anyway, so I snuck my (few) books and reread them in the dim light.

  2. My mum got polio in one of the early fifties epidemics when she was in her thirties with three under fives. Destroyed the nerves to her balance muscles among other things, so she had to learn to walk with out the use of them. She made damn sure we got every vaccination possible, though I was too early for MMR so I got measles as well as chicken pox (yes I’ve the odd scar still too)and scarlet fever, possibly others I don’t recall, but I do still remember the hallucinations from too high a fever and really don’t recommend them. I got the rubella shot when I was thinking about having kids, because you would be insane not to.

    One thing I think a lot of people realise now is that it wasn’t that unusual for kids to have hearing loss because of measles, I went to school with some who hadn’t had a total loss of hearing. Easily recognisable by the very obvious hearing aids, especially the boys who weren’t allowed to have hair long enough to hide them.

    • My younger daughter had scarlet fever last year: basically, it’s strep gone systemic, but it can wreak a lot of havoc (especially in the very young. I believe that’s what took Helen Keller’s eyesight and hearing).

  3. I had measles multiple times. I usually got them within a week of my sister’s birthday. Seems like it was every spring for about five years, but maybe it wasn’t every year. I remember lying there in the dark, forbidden to read or watch TV. My sister never got them, so I assume she was immune. I seem to have come through with no side effects, but if I had kids I’d get them the vaccine in a heartbeat.

    Also chicken pox (and later it’s horrific cousin shingles — if you had chicken pox, get the shingles vacccine!). Never mumps, though.

    The polio vaccines didn’t come along until I was about six. I had a friend who’d had polio and went through numerous surgeries to slow down the growth of her good leg so that her legs wouldn’t be uneven. I cannot tell you how grateful I was for that vaccine. My mother wasn’t scared of much, but her fear of polio kept us from learning to swim (and my mother loved swimming) until after the vaccine.

  4. I’m going to take the con side, and it isn’t because I don’t believe in getting vaccinated, because I do. That being said, I don’t think the medical profession has anyone to blame except themselves when it comes to emphasizing the NEED for vaccination. They tend to jump on the bandwagon and cheer for each new thing that comes down the pike, and some of these things were not so great–think about radium or thalidomide, for instance, and then tell me people have no reason to be scared of being part of some bright-eyed scientist’s learning curve. In 1961, a teacher couldn’t believe it when nine-year-old me said I was allergic to tunafish, because it was just too preposterous. She stood over me and made me eat half the sandwich, because kids were starving in China and I had to be taught a lesson. In the event, I was not the one who learned, because by the time they tracked down my mother and the medicine I needed, I could just barely breathe. Nowadays, the matter is seen quite differently, but how many kids got sick or died before anyone could believe that something like peanut butter could be dangerous to some people? So I can see where a lot of these nay-sayers simply don’t know who to trust, and whose fault is that? I can’t help feeling there must be a better way, like sharing stories like this instead of FORCING them into obedience.

    • The cure for syphilis (I’m up to my ears in syphilis for the book I”m working on) was, for decades, mercury. A little blue pill that probably didn’t cure the disease you were taking it for, but suppressed the symptoms (or timed out nicely with the disease going dormant) that provided side-effects that often killed you faster than the disease itself.

      It’s not like medicine hasn’t had some really, really spectacular failures. But I think that there is more caution (not to mention more structures in place for testing) now than there were in the early 60s, precisely because of events like the Thalidomide disaster.

      I think your teacher in 1961 might have been my husband’s best friend’s mother, who gave him a cookie with walnuts in it because it was all in his head. PS: no, it wasn’t.

  5. I had one sided mumps -the first one had just gone away and my mum had sighed with relief that I was over it. Then the other side came up. I remember standing there and that side of my jaw suddenly starting to hurt …