School children wait in line for immunization shots in the 1940s at a child health station in New York City. (Courtesy of Library of Congress)
If we were not still in the grip of a deadly pandemic, with the seven-day average U.S. death toll from the coronavirus hovering just over 1,100 a day, I probably would not have thought of giving thanks this year for the medical researchers who have given this country protection against many life-threatening illnesses.
Back in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when I became aware of vaccinations, my thoughts were anything but thankful. When a doctor or nurse brought out a needle, they had to pry me out from behind the furniture to administer a shot. I refused Novocain in the dentist’s office.
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Then came the 1952 polio epidemic, which was the worst outbreak in the nation’s history. We saw pictures of kids in iron lungs — huge mechanical devices to help kids breathe.
We did not know what caused polio, but we were told not to gather together or drink from public fountains or swim in public pools. My uncle, Uli, got polio and his legs withered, bringing the disease close to home. When the Salk polio vaccine became available in about 1955, everyone in our community and across the country could not get shots fast enough.
That softened my fear of needles. It further softened over the years when the effectiveness of various vaccines was proven time and again — measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, tetanus, and so on. When I developed hay fever, it was a mixed blessing. I did not have to work in the hay, which was the worst work on the farm, but I did have to get regular injections, which my mom did very slowly so as not to hurt. Yikes!
When the Salk polio vaccine became available in about 1955, everyone in our community and across the country could not get shots fast enough.
Then, in 1968, I volunteered to fight in Vietnam and had to get a long list of vaccinations. Everyone had to take the vaccinations for the protection of the entire unit — the old thing about the chain breaking at the weakest link, obviously the unvaccinated one. They included plague, yellow fever, typhus, typhoid fever, cholera and, the very worst, gamma globulin in the posterior for hepatitis. It left a big bump in the rear that slowly dissipated over a week or so.
As one continues through life, it is easy to take for granted the fact that you don’t have to worry about the dread diseases that our ancestors had to face on practically a daily basis. Plague and smallpox wiped out entire populations before the scientific community developed means of prevention that could be administered in a painless injection.
We don’t know how very fortunate we are and how thankful we should be.
When I was a kid and we learned that someone in the community had been diagnosed with cancer of practically any variety, we all thought it was a death sentence. When Dr. Gupta called on Jan. 13, 2017, to say that I had pancreatic cancer, that was my very question: “Is this a death sentence?” His response was, “Not necessarily.” I was told later that chemotherapy would increase my chances of survival to 30%.
In order to get chemo, you had to get a whole range of shots, which I gladly accepted and would have taken many more. It was not a question as to whether the Food and Drug Administration or anyone else had given its blessing to any of them. My trusted physicians had said they were necessary, and that was enough. They put a port in your chest so they could mainline it, and you were happy to put up with all of it for a chance of survival.
You see many other dear souls in the injection lounge taking in stuff that some would call poison, just for the chance of more life with their loved ones — not a lot of bellyachers and dissidents in that venue. I’m now four years cancer free.
So, let me raise a toast this Thanksgiving weekend to the doctors, nurses, medical researchers and other medical personnel who have strived so hard over the many years to find ways of saving the public from illness and death at the hands of deadly diseases such as COVID-19 and all of the other scourges I’ve previously mentioned.
We owe you, we salute you, and we thank you from the bottom of our hearts, which are still beating because of you.
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