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August 28, 2014, 3:10 am

Some not-so-fond medical memories

Today it is virtually impossible not to know someone who has a family member, loved one or friend who has not faced some type of medical issue.

I cannot imagine anyone who does not know of someone that has had high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis, heart maladies or kidney issues. Some of you have had to struggle with that dreadful Alzheimer’s disease that causes one who knew you well to have no memory of who you are. Others have watched cancer take a devastating toll on a loved one; then there are health problems so rare that they have descriptions but no names.

The medical issues we hear about today are not limited to an age or racial group; they are blind when it comes to one’s sex or income level. Recently, I have been thinking much more about these challenges because of medical issues of family members and close friends. Particularly, I have questioned why some cure has eluded us after years and significant dollars have been involved in research. It is disheartening to think of so many lives being affected.

Often I ask myself, “Did these medical problems exist in the past?” After all, I do not recall hearing of people suffering from some of these diseases back in the day. For example, do you recall so many people with cancer when many of us were teenagers back in the ’50s? As I reflect on the medical issues that affect many lives today, I cannot help but wonder what happened to those health issues, primarily childhood issues, that affected the lives of many of us when we were children.

As a child, do you recall how concerned and protective your parents became when you were ill? While parents are concerned today, they showed considerably more concern in the past because of the absence of known cures for these illnesses. These so-called “childhood diseases” created considerable anxiety for parents. I say “so-called” childhood diseases because these can also be contracted by adults. You know from your sick days as a child, however, that there were diseases you caught but seldom, if ever, heard associated with adults.

I know many of you that recall dealing with symptoms such as a fever, deep cough, sore throat, red eyes, gray spots on your gums and a rash that covered your body. You might immediately recall this experience when I remind you of your parents placing you in a cool, dark room. This was as a result of one of the most dangerous and contagious childhood diseases. That disease, measles, is still around today and can be caught by adults. The advantage of catching it as a child, however, is that it can never be caught again; the disease provides lifelong immunity.

Do you recall having mumps as a child? If not, consider yourself lucky, because it can be painful. Did you experience whooping cough? It was a contagious respiratory infection that caused a severe, hacking cough accompanied by a breathing sound that resembled a “whoop?” Perhaps you had chickenpox. If so, the memories of the blistery rash all over your body can never be forgotten. You surely recall those itchy spots that when scratched left small marks on your body. For me, the most memorable of childhood diseases was the fungus known as ringworm, found on the scalp. I cannot forget boys being required to shave their heads when they contracted ringworm. The look of those crusty and scaly patches that appeared on the scalp was disgusting. As a remedy, mothers rubbed sulphur and molasses on the affected areas. Often the sight was so offensive that some type of head covering was used until the scalp healed. This was another of those diseases that caused affected children to stay home from school and not to go out to public back in the day.

In recent years, I have learned that some of the songs we sang as children were related to childhood diseases. Take “Ring around the Rosie” for example. Though this connection has been rejected by many scholars, it does seem plausible in relation to the “Black Plague.” A portion of it and its relationship to the plague follows:

  • Ring around the Rosie – refers to a red mark, supposedly the first sign of the plague.
  • A pocket full of posies – refers to sachets of herbs carried to ward off infection.
  • Ashes, ashes – either a reference to the cremation of plague victims or to the words said in the funeral Mass.
  • We all fall down – The plague was not selective in its victims; rich and poor, young and old succumbed.

People still get tonsillitis today, but the infection of children’s tonsils was a major problem when I was in elementary school. I suspect many of you still remember being hospitalized to have your tonsils removed. One of the bright spots of having this procedure, however, was the diet you had to adhere to following surgery. It may have included clear liquids, iced tea, ice pops, apple juice and other non-citrus fruit juices, and progressed to milkshakes, smooth yogurt, ice cream, pudding and custards. Back then, a tonsillectomy was not a simple overnight hospital stay.

Like many of you, I had a number of the childhood diseases. Three that frightened me most but I never had were rheumatic fever, scarlet fever and smallpox. While rheumatic fever and scarlet fever were strep throat-related, smallpox was caused by a virus that resulted in a fever and a blistering skin rash. I just knew, because of their names, that they were diseases with deadly consequences; in fact, they were deadly. Were you ever told you had rubella? Probably not, but like most children, you did have this disease. However, you were simply told you had German measles, which is the more common term for rubella.

Is the term “infantile paralysis” familiar to you? If you are from my age bracket, you might have heard the term rather frequently. Because this disease resulted in paralysis, you might recall the sight of little children attempting to walk with metal braces on their legs. The sight of children struggling to walk with the aid of these metal braces was horrifying to me. Hundreds of thousands of children are better off today because of polio vaccine.

Then there were those youngsters who were afflicted with tuberculosis. This was a disease that attacked the lungs. A friend of mine has pictures of youngsters wrapped in blankets in a fenced-in classroom on the roof of a school. Children were quarantined in the school environment, if they were diagnosed with TB back in the day.

As parents, we do not like to see our children sick. As a result of vaccines that have been developed over the years to combat most childhood diseases, we do have some relief. Today, however, many people are struggling to deal with many debilitating and life-threatening diseases for which there are no known cures. As we look to the future, hopefully we will be able to engage in discussions about these diseases and combine our efforts with those of the medical community to combat these diseases. We can then look to a future when our medical issues will have cures and will be buried in what will then be, back in the day.


Alonzo Kittrels can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or The Philadelphia Tribune, Back In The Day, 520 S. 16th St., Philadelphia, PA 19146.