Monday, 9 February 2015

My brush with mortality ... and measles

The spring that I was 11 years old, I came home from school one day with a slight fever, runny nose and a cough. Nothing to worry about, my mother decided, children get viruses all the time.

I was put to bed to rest, like the dozens of times before when I'd had something similar.

But this time felt different. I was old enough to know that something was more deeply wrong with me, this time. My entire body was cold, weak, numb. I was itchy, I was sore, I had a weird headache. I wanted to close my eyes, but my eyelids hurt. My throat was burning from thirst but I didn't want to drink. Or eat. Or talk.

My mother put me to bed and thought nothing more of it, until 5:00 a.m. the next morning.

I woke up, gasping for air, croaking for water, calling for help, but too sick to bellow loud enough for anyone to hear me. I staggered out of bed and fell on the floor, which woke my mother. Lights switched on down the hall, feet hurried to me.

I was sick. Very sick. And covered with red spots.

I had the measles. I had a fever of 105 F. My chest was on fire, breath was hard to draw. I was hustled back into bed where, for the next 48-hours I fell into a kind of quasi-consciousness, darkness and light blending together, time irrelevant. I remember odd disconnected moments: the very worried look on my mother's face as she took my temperature, then disappeared from the room. Then I saw my neighbour's equally worried face below a halo of hair-curlers (when did she get there?), as she looked at the thermometer drawn from my fevered and blistered mouth.

Next I heard someone shouting, someone very far away, someone who sounded a lot like me. Whoever she was, she demanded that the curtains be closed. The sun must have come up.

At some point later a doctor appeared at the end of my bed, quietly conferring with my mother. Even as an 11-year-old in the mid-1970s, I knew that doctors only made house calls for people who were dying.

Was I dying? I was too ill to care. Maybe. So this was dying, was it? Hmm. Just leave me then ...

I was too ill to move except to go to the bathroom, and to do that my mother had to help me down the hall, as though I was an old woman. I will never forget the Herculean effort it took to stagger down the hall, clutching my mother with every step. My joints screamed, my feet were hot and swollen, my heart hammered, sweat poured down me, and I was weak, so weak. I remember thinking this must have been what old age was like. Or death.

This went on for days, weeks maybe. No one was allowed to visit except my mother and the doctor, who came every day. I lay in darkness, quiet, solitude, my  head throbbing and my body on fire, struggling to draw each raspy breath. An oxygen tent was set up over my bed for a few days, I think, but my mother has no memory of that.

Where was my brother? My stepfather? My stepsisters? Later I learned that the household had been quarantined, and all the other residents of the house had  gone to live elsewhere. When did they leave? When did that happen?

Then ... I went blind.

I will always remember the kind look on the doctor's face as he apologized to me, saying he had no choice but to bind my head for several days. He was a pleasant young man, and I know now that I had identified him as my saviour, much like captives who empathize with their captors after a while, a symptom of Stockholm syndrome. As he wrapped the gauze around my eyes, and I wondered if his smile might be the last thing I would ever see, he gently said it wouldn't be forever, but we had to save my sight because I was so light-sensitive due to the measles. Total darkness was the only way.

I lay with my head wrapped in gauze for four days. No reading. No sound. No looking at anything. I was totally isolated from everyone, from the world, the sun, the birds, the trees. I must have lived in a kind of semi-wakeful state, too sick to really care, because other than the binding and unbinding I remember little of those four days.

I was 11 years old, and I contemplated the possibility that I could die. I was fully aware that I was mortal, that dying was a real thing. But I wasn't afraid, not really. I was still too young for that.

There's a Twilight Zone about a woman who has her head bandaged, who has had surgery to make her beautiful. The actress spends the entire episode with her head bandaged in gauze. I still can't watch that episode without a low-grade terror. Whenever I see war movies with gauze-eyed soldiers, I shudder.

Eventually, the doctor returned and removed the bandages. I can't really tell you how sweet it was to see his face again. I was slowly feeling better, although I had lost one quarter of my body weight due to lack of appetite. I was skin and bones. He gave my mother the okay to begin to very slowly take me outside into the fresh air, for small periods each day.Within a week without the bandages, we put a large dressing gown and slippers on me, and my mother and I went out into the garden.

It was spring! When did THAT happen? Sunshine on my face! Blossoms on the peach tree! Birds in the trees. It took all my strength to clutch my mother's arm and walk one slow, halting turn around the garden, then go back to bed.

I did get better, although I had lost over one month of school and spring had somehow arrived. It took another full month for me to attend school regularly. In my memory it was still winter when I fell ill, which all added to the immense disorientation of extreme illness. According to the World Health Organization, of all children, 11-year-olds are statistically the most likely to survive severe illness, starvation or trauma. That may be so, but personally I've always thought I survived because I live in a wealthy Western country.

Why am I sharing this story with you? I'm sharing it because of all the media attention on measles and the anti-vaxxer movement right now. Measles is making a comeback in the West, including Britain, the US and now Canada, and measles still kills tens of thousands of children in developing countries every year. Due to vaccination, most adults my age and younger have never had the measles so don't realize that it's not a benign childhood illness, and if they did have measles likely they were very young, too young to remember. At 11, I wasn't too young to remember: it was the closest to death I've ever come.

It was a traumatic and terrifying experience, one I wish no other child had to endure. We never found out how I contracted the measles, there was no clear vector, no cluster of similar cases nearby, it was a complete mystery although we did realize that I had never been vaccinated due to the fact that I was born in England before vaccinations were available there (they were available in Canada long before England), and once we moved to Canada my mother had somehow never been told to vaccinate me. So my classmates were all vaccinated and I, due to an oversight, never was.

And I caught measles when no one else did.

Read what Roald Dahl has to say about measles vaccine here. He lost his 7-year-old daughter to measles encephalitis, apparently dozens of children still die each year in Britain from measles, and let's not forget the terrible damage maternal measles causes an unborn child. And it's all easily preventable.

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