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A Child’s Case of Measles

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Child’s Case of Measles

(Submitted by Louise Eads DeHart)

As some knew in 1938 as well as today, measles is a dangerous disease. It was not an illness that would cause a family living in our rural community to seek the care of a doctor, however. Several realities caused this omission, and the lack of money to pay the doctor was the primary reason. I don’t know whether our local doctor would have considered making a visit to the home of a child suffering from the measles. Anyone had to be very ill before a doctor was called. I never forgot the one and only time that a doctor came to our house. The doctor’s name was Dr. Donley Gates, now long deceased.

The year was about 1940 and it was summer. I was very hot and I probably had a temperature. Mostly, I remember a terrible pain in my back. My parents decided that the doctor must come to see me. They did not have $2.00 to pay him, but my mother didn’t forget that she owed this bill. Years later, she did pay him as she paid everyone that was owed from the 1930’s. She paid St. Mary’s Hospital for surgery performed perhaps ten years earlier and she paid the local grocer as well. That bill was so old that Mr. Redel, the grocer, had trouble locating it, for it was filed away in a box. He told her that finding that small bill was more trouble than her payment. But she insisted that he locate it.

I remember that Dr. Gates said that I had a kidney infection, but I don’t remember taking any medicine. Antibiotics were not yet available and patients had to fight an infection on their own. Most cases of appendicitis were treated by surgery and the outcome was successful. This surgery was a blessing, for just a few years earlier appendicitis usually was fatal. A doctor did not treat an earlier infection that I suffered–a bad case of the measles–in fact it was treated with oyster soup. As I recall I was very ill when I suffered from the measles. I cannot describe the severity of my illness, other than to say that I still remember feeling pain and discomfort throughout the day and night. It took three days for me to realize that I was unable to go to school. It was the spring of 1938 and I was walking at least two miles to meet the school bus at Venus, the location of a small general store, and also the location of a discontinued post office.

In addition to walking a long way and crossing a small river, the terrain was rough and steep. In fact, it was up hill the entire way from this river to our home. When I got ready for high school early in the morning, I felt fairly well. By the time that I got home, I could barely endure the pain in my joints. All this time I was contagious, but no one on the bus or at school caught measles from me. I was not going to miss school, of course, but finally I decided that I had better tell my mother that I thought I had the measles. She looked at my face and could see a few red spots. The next morning, I was aching, nauseous and hot. My parents had me lie in their bed and they moved out to sleep on the porch. I heard my dad say that I had to have a poached egg. He cooked one for me and served it in a bowl. I did eat it, although my appetite was gone. My condition worsened and I began to worry about the way that I felt.

My parents were very attentive; in fact, they must have been really worried. They agreed that they had endured the measles, but not such a serious case. Knowing that our nearest neighbor had suffered impaired speech and was deaf because of complications from measles did not help the spirits of any of us. They reasoned that would not happen to me, and assured me that I would recover. This must have been a terrible time for my parents.

It was early spring and the rooms in our house were cold. A stove was located in each room and fire was kept going in them. I first asked them to cover the windows with quilts for one tiny speck of light caused pain in my eyes. Next, I asked my dad not to build a fire in the stove, because I was too hot. He kept worrying that I was cold and kept asking, “Aren’t you cold?” He sat in that cold room with me, in the dark, for several days. A measure, though, of the seriousness of my illness regarded my dad’s decision to go to town to get cans of oysters. He declared that I needed oyster soup and the town located seven miles away could provide that necessity. He either hitched up the wagon and team or rode a horse to town. He made the soup with milk and butter and brought a steaming bowl of this delicacy to my bed. I was too sick to sit in a chair, causing them to prop me up in bed. I was able to eat dad’s delicious soup, my first meal in several days. His treatment was exactly proper, for I started to recover somewhat. My appearance was frightful, visible to me, for I had received a dresser set for Christmas. This set contained a mirror, a brush and a comb. I kept looking in the mirror and remember worrying that I would always look dreadful. My entire face was swollen, red and covered with small sores. The swellings of my mouth and nose were especially noticeable. Mother kept telling me that the puffiness would go down and there would be no scars. She was right but I could not believe her encouragement at the time.

As I recall I was absent from school about three weeks, causing us to be concerned about missed schoolwork. My mother rode a horse to town and visited my teachers. She collected information about assignments that I had missed and also those that were due in the future. My teachers said that she shouldn’t worry and were helpful. This illness occurred the second semester of my first year of high school. The event about which I worried most was the musical, “Under Spanish Skies,” an operetta in three acts presented by our music department and under the direction of Mr. Griffith Gordon. He was our beloved high school music teacher, a man with only one arm. He often stood with his remaining hand clasping the indentation that was once his shoulder joint. I wished that he wouldn’t do that, but certainly never voiced an opinion. None of us knew what had happened to his arm, but he needed only one arm to direct us.

This teacher’s wife was a theatrical-appearing woman who might have been a dancer, perhaps Hispanic in ethnic origin. She taught us the dance steps for our chorus line. We had costumes and mother and I made one for me, using the sketchy directions provided by Mrs. Gordon. Mother dyed a number of feed sacks with green Rit. My skirt featured at least sixteen gores. We trimmed it with orange binding, including six rows spaced and stitched all the way around the hem of the calf-length skirt. It was full enough that it stood out even with the waistband if I twirled around. This little operetta was the most pleasurable event of the four years that I spent in high school. Had I missed it because of a case of the measles, I would have grieved seriously. I was lucky and recovered in time to rejoin the practicing and to perform for the community. Our performance of this little operetta was well attended and discussed favorably for years. – Louise Eads DeHart

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