Meningitis Scare Strikes a Bit Too Close to Home
The recent outbreak of meningitis due to tainted medicine has brought back memories from the early 1950s — of a victim of the virus when it, like polio and tuberculosis, was a largely uncontrolled, dreaded and often fatal disease.
Meningitis is a severe inflammation of the lining around the brain, often associated with contact with tuberculosis. Its effects can be devastating to the body.
The victim was my sister, Susan. She was a few years younger than I was, and she fell to the raging fever that accompanies meningitis as an 11-month-old baby. My father, unknowingly, had picked up the TB germ in Japan as a member of the occupation forces after World War II.
It lay dormant for years, before blossoming about the time my sister was born. They were both in McCain Hospital, right down the road from here, at the same time, both interned for about a year.
Susan wasn’t supposed to live through it, since only a handful of children ever had. But once she passed through that, there was little hope she would ever be functional. We were told we could expect a lifetime of total care for her.
But she beat that, too. And while it took her years to learn to walk, she finally did at about age 7. It took her a few more years to learn to talk so that people other than family could understand her, but she finally did. She learned to run and cope with her shortcomings, and hers was a joyful soul. I believed her story would be in the vein of Helen Keller.
She earned her GED after public high school, and a stint in a private school proved too hard to cope with. It wasn’t just the work itself, although something about the effects on her brain made it very hard for her to learn math. But high school can be a cruel place for people who are different.
It was about that time when she started to have emotional problems. It was then that, despite her desire to be so, she began to understand that she was different, and she would never be “normal.” She began to separate from most of the world.
Her 20s went along with ups and downs, growth and regression. She got a job at a cafeteria, but because her hands were not strong and only her thumb and two fingers had any degree of coordination, she was doomed to wiping down tables, and there didn’t seem to be much future there. In many ways, her intelligence was normal, and it wasn’t hard to notice people staring at and avoiding her. So she continued her retreat.
She lived in Chapel Hill with my mother then, and began to see a therapist to help her cope. He encouraged her to let her anger out, to get to the bottom of it. And she did, but it made her worse.
This was a time when new privacy laws kept the family out of the conversation, so we were effectively blocked from any contact with the person trying to help her.
It was a failed exercise. Susan got worse and suffered a great deal of mental anguish. The worst day was when a policeman wanted to arrest her on Franklin Street, in the middle of the day, for public drunkenness. She was humiliated and was never quite the same after that.
After my mother died in 1980, Susan moved Ashe County to live with my father. His wife did not like the fact that she was there, and I don’t think she made Susan feel loved or welcome. She was isolated, lonely and devastated by the loss of our mom. My mother had been the pillar that kept her propped up. But Susan had a breakdown after a few weeks in the mountains and spent a week in a mental facility.
A few days after she got out — in a cry for help, I think — she overdosed on medicines and died. It had only been five weeks since she lost her mother.
I’ve always wondered how things might have changed if the family had been involved in her therapy. Susan fell through the cracks, and part of the reason was the therapist didn’t know anything about her, other than what he was told. New privacy issues trumped common sense in treatment.
The world can be a cruel place. I’ve always wondered how things could have been different if strangers had been kinder, or opportunities more abundant. Susan didn’t become the Helen Keller story I had hoped she’d be.
Hers is a sad story — but a lesson, too. Remember to be kind. You never know what burden someone carries behind that smile.
Pat Taylor is advertising director for The Pilot. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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