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Home Remedies and Home Deliveries

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Home Remedies and Home Deliveries

By Louise Eads DeHart

Home remedies were the only treatment available for any number of illnesses or injuries in our rural Missouri community in the 1930’s. The care of a doctor was sometimes unavailable or the family decided that a doctor was not to be consulted. This decision is difficult to explain because the first thing that comes to mind today with regard to sickness or injury is the care of a doctor or even visiting an emergency room. It is more difficult to explain how we were able to survive accidents and illness if we were unfortunate enough to suffer such problems. Many didn’t survive, it’s true, and trips to the hospital in the middle of the night often ended in tragedy. Illness, in some way, seemed less severe or was treated casually. I can’t remember, for example, hearing anyone discuss asthma or autism, and knew no adult or child who suffered from these diseases. Although it was not a good thing, we contracted measles, whooping cough, mumps and chicken pox. Immunization for diphtheria was given and we were vaccinated against smallpox. We heard that just a few years prior to the 1930’s many children died from diphtheria. I often ponder the tragedy of asthma and wonder what is the cause.

An even greater mystery is the seemingly frequent occurrence of cancer today as compared to the 1930’s. If someone suffered from cancer in the decade, it was discussed in hushed tones, as though the unfortunate patient had somehow caused this to happen. Maybe it was not diagnosed or perhaps our community was blessed. Few men in our community smoked cigarettes and I knew only one woman who smoked cigarettes. I knew several women who smoked a pipe. Smoking could account for lung cancer but we rarely heard of cancers of any type. In contrast to few deaths from cancer in our community, the incidence of death from stroke and heart disease was high. I don’t believe that medicines to treat high blood pressure were available and people often did not know that they suffered from high blood pressure or heart disease.

It was common for neighbors to die suddenly after they had reached the age of sixty-five. If they suffered a stroke, family members and the neighbors helped with their care. Recovery was rare and most stroke victims died. Tragically, they often lingered for weeks or months and caring for them was burdensome for the family. Neighbors who helped included my dad, Louis Eads, for he spent many nights “sittin’ up.” He was welcomed for his care of the very ill was considered to be first rate. A friend to the end, he often helped the local undertaker with embalming. This procedure was sometimes performed at the home of the deceased, after which my dad would shave, bathe and dress the man, perhaps cut his hair, generally making him presentable for his wake. Wakes (or vigils) were held in the family’s house, attended by neighbors and the family. Food was brought to the home of the deceased, a wonderful custom still practiced today.

Blood pressure medications and prescription drugs of all kinds were not found in medicine chests or cabinets. Most families stocked about the same remedies as our family tried to keep available. For example, the medicine cabinet in our house contained camphorated oil, Vicks Vapor Rub, iodine, Mercurochrome, black salve, Epsom salts, castor oil, aspirin and flaxseed meal. My grandmother’s medicine cabinet was more old-fashioned, for it contained these items as well as Black Draught, goose grease and skunk oil. Everyone had coal oil (kerosene) in a can in the smoke house and turpentine stored with the paint. These distillates were used to treat puncture wounds or snake bite. Baking soda was stored in the kitchen cabinet, to be used in biscuits or to treat heartburn. Goose grease and skunk oil were rubbed on the chest and throat to treat congestion or croup, then a warmed flannel cloth was laid on the skin. Grandma rendered goose or skunk fat to get these necessary treatment items. She would also have her patient swallow a part of a teaspoonful of one of these oils, to help clear a soreness of the throat. Strange as it seems, the skunk oil did not smell like the odor of a skunk.

Perhaps the most puzzling is the fact that many children were born without a doctor in attendance. A neighbor woman would help deliver the child, because parents were much too poor to pay a doctor. The poverty of one family about 1933 was dire, for six children and their parents were virtually without food. This family had a small bag of field corn, not yet ground into meal. I watched as the mother, very pregnant, cracked each grain of corn, using a hammer and a “smoothing iron.” A few days later, this mother, her husband away on a job, sent one of her children to a neighbor to seek assistance, for she was about to give birth. Before we go further into the events of that night, we need a word or so about the available doctors. One, Dr. Gates from Brinktown, would usually come to help a woman in labor if she really needed a doctor, in spite of no payment, but he was somewhat inexperienced in difficult cases. The other, Dr. Crider from Dixon, was more experienced, but he wanted to be paid. It was rumored that he would ask if money was available before he left his home.

Therefore, Dr. Crider was rarely called. I heard years later, after his death, that he did make visits if a life depended upon him, even if he knew that he would not be paid. Many years ago, I visited our dear neighbor, Mrs. Nellie Heimann, who helped during childbirth in the 1930’s. Perhaps it was forty years earlier that she had tried to help the needy mother of six. She remembered the incident very well, and kindly told me the story. She related the details of a desperate situation when this mother was about to die, along with her unborn. Our neighbor had helped the best that she could, but the baby was stuck. Someone reached Dr. Crider, explained the extreme emergency and he agreed to come to the home to assist. My neighbor said, “People can talk all they want about him, but not to me.”

The doctor came from Dixon, delivered the first baby, and then the second, for there were twins. She said, “That first baby was folded up, but he reached up in there, turned that baby around and made it come head first.” Her description appears to relate the details of a breech birth, a major complication today and very serious seventy-three years ago. The patient was in her sparsely furnished home and at least fifty miles away from the nearest hospital. It was three o’clock in the morning and the best light was a kerosene lamp.

Remember that there were two infants to be saved and the poor mother must have been in great pain and exhausted. She was lucky to have lived in a community that could boast the skill of an exceptionally gifted obstetrician, one who was compassionate and must in retrospect be judged a good man. – Louise Eads DeHart

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