Survivors

I don’t just sit around and think about horrible or depressing topics all the time, but it seems that way sometimes. I’ve been battling a persistent version of the common cold (gosh — I hope that’s all it is) and my thoughts have turned to health matters. We seem to be going from one health scare to another. It was Ebola just a while back and we get occasional bulletins that another case has turned up here or there, usually in one of the coastal nations of West Africa. The AIDs and HIV virus epidemic was (is still) scary and I was an administrator planner in a prison system when the first news spread like wildfire. We knew we were in for it once AIDs made it into prisons. As it turned out, almost nothing happened. Now we have the Zika virus being spread quite rapidly by tropical mosquitos. It apparently spreads in other ways as well. The original affliction noted from the virus was a micro cephalic birth defect but the list of complications in otherwise healthy people is growing. There are already thousands of micro cephalic infants born in Brazil and other places and there will be many more before this virus gets under control…as we assume it will. Vaccines are being developed. How do we…the world at large…care for thousands of these afflicted children? It is more than just a local isolated problem. The moms and dads will be overwhelmed. The task of defeating the virus will be long and costly but we will eventually find a way.

iron lung wardI remember the pictures of the hospital wards full of iron lungs back in the 1950s. Each one had a little kid’s head sticking out; kids my age. During that period we went through all sorts of scary stuff including Atom bomb drills but the thought of being put into one of those iron lung contraptions was – for me – the most horrific thing that could happen. Polio was everywhere. When you are seven or eight you have sort of a concept of “just desserts” — the idea that bad things happen to bad people but you knew that those kids were innocent of any major wrongdoing. How could this have happened…how was it allowed to happen? In later years – after the vaccine doses were given out in the school cafeteria — we had a few new classmates with an arm or leg that was shorter or smaller than the other. Being kids we would ask about it and the answer was almost always “Polio”. We knew what that meant and there was no teasing or ill treatment. These kids were viewed as survivors.

Polio hit close to home in our family. My uncle, married to my dad’s youngest sister, caught it. I actually remember the day he got sick because we were all at a family outing and he was playing softball. By that evening he knew there was something wrong. It was life threatening for a while but he eventually plateaued and in the end he lost the use of his legs and was permanently confined to a wheelchair. He had the energy and youthful attitude and a strong family network to put up a good fight and he won, after a fashion. He worked at Emerson Electric and the company built him a special work station so he could continue to work. He made a good living. He was a very good bowler and would travel around the country to participate in wheelchair bowling tournaments…the house was full of trophies. He coached my brother’s little league team. Of course he could drive with the use of hand controls. We thought of him as pretty much a normal guy. He was already a dad when he got sick but I recall him driving up in front of our house on July 4th and leaning on the horn shouting “I got a little firecracker!!” when his son was born a couple years after getting sick. My uncle is the one who taught me how to drive…as odd as that might seem. He had more patience than my dad. The only thing he couldn’t manage was going up or down steps but there always seemed to be willing hands and strong backs to get him lifted – chair and all – up or down. We went to the same church and there would be a few men hanging around the door waiting for my uncle to arrive so they could carry him up the few steps to the church door. He was more than a survivor. He served as an example and inspiration to some and certainly to me.

There are still a handful of “kids” in iron lungs…now in their sixties. Technological advances and medical procedures got most of the survivors out of the iron lung wards. We seldom hear of any new polio cases but they happen in just a few third world countries. Of course we also have the families that refuse to take any vaccines so they are likely at risk. So far this year there have been only nine cases of polio worldwide. The disease was stopped in Nigeria last year and the last two remaining polio countries are Pakistan and Afghanistan. A new vaccine is being administered in Africa and Asia this month along with a major new inoculation effort that might totally eradicate the disease by the end of this year. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other funding groups are actively pushing this eradication effort.  I’m optimistic and guessing that a similar effort will eventually tackle the Zika virus…and the next new wild disease that comes along.

I just read Dan Brown’s book Inferno (2013) that offers a break-neck tour of Italy and Istanbul while the hero, good ol’ Professor Robert Langdon, struggles to decipher a string of clues related to an intentional viral pandemic. This evil plot is a form of population control…with a twist. Langdon seems to be the “Johnny-on-the Spot” whenever these diabolical world threatening plots surface. He’s practically Superman. The concept behind the book is that human population growth is now, or soon will be, beyond the Earth’s capacity to support it. Climate change will probably move populations even closer together and someday there might be rapidly spreading plague event, like in the middle ages, but we seem to be holding our own so far.

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