Monday, November 22, 2021

The Epidemic of my Youth

I'm not referring to Smallpox or Polio. I'm writing about an influenza breakout in 1968, popularly called the Hong Kong Flu.

I got that variation - none of the rest of my family did, in great part to my mother's efforts to isolate me in one room, follow my every deviation from that isolation with sprayed disinfectant (Lysol), and scrub down every I touched.

I'd been stricken while at school. I went to the nurse's office, and she put me on a bed and called my parents - although, despite complaining about being cold, she never did take my temperature. Well, it was a full house, some of them spewing, so I imagine she had better things to do. My dad left work to pick me up and take me home, where I stayed for the next 2 weeks.

If I remember correctly, she even washed all my clothes and bedding separately, in hot water and bleach.

Plus, I remember the convalescent foods she delivered to my bed:

  • Soup and crackers
  • 7-up and ginger ale
  • My favorite - grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup
  • Buttered toast
By the time I was up and around, and eating regular solid foods, I was just congested and very tired. As I recall, I was down for about 2 weeks, and easily tired for several weeks after that.

But, I recovered, as did most generally healthy people. About 100,000 in the USA did not, that year, mostly - you guessed it - the old and infirm. Not the young and previously healthy.

Worldwide, the toll was higher in some countries, although not as high as Covid. However, we have MANY more fragile elderly. That was rare in my day - either you were a healthy senior, often working and maintaining your own house well into old age, or you died off fairly quickly.

We also have many more younger people in poor health, whether cancer survivors (in my day, most people with cancer - no matter what their age - died fairly quickly), immunosuppressed, cardiac problems, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other diseases.

So, the high numbers of deaths in the early months of the Covid epidemic hasn't truly surprised me; those that died were generally not as healthy as the average person of 1968. The numbers of dead has also shrunk since hospitals stopped putting patients on their backs (easier to handle the use of a ventilator). When they switched to laying them on their stomachs, percentage of deaths dropped.

Such a simple thing to make such a difference. But, that is often the case in medicine - as, for example, the earlier change to frequent hand-washing in those caring for the sick.

I got sick in late November; I can date my illness so precisely, as, in the middle of my bed stay, the Elvis TV special was on, and my father thoughtfully brought up the black & white portable set to the bedroom. My mother also delivered fresh books to my bedside when I ran out (I read omnivorously). Really, the family all took very good care of me, although not venturing into the room of "The Unclean" unless absolutely necessary.

I returned to school for just a few weeks before Christmas. I really wasn't up to speed until the New Year.

No antivirals. No decongestant (most of which didn't exist then). Just good old-fashioned home nursing.

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