A March of Diseases

Peter was  born in
1945. He has one older sister and one younger. He remembers his miserable
experience with both chicken pox and measles. He was lucky, he knows, not to
have any complications from either disease, but young as he was, he remembers
his experience with both as quite unpleasant.

Peter was not yet six when he had the chicken pox.  His older sister got it, and he got it a few
days after. His parents feared that the youngest, his two-year-old sister,
would also get it. Luckily, she did not. Peter says: “I think we were both had
the running sores at the same time. That was pretty miserable.”
Peter remembers being
“slathered with calamine lotion several times a day and having these big
pink splotches everywhere. Although it was standard treatment at the time, it
didn’t seem to help much.” He doesn’t remember how long he was sick for, but
“the temptation to scratch was so intense that for a few days I know I was
wearing my kiddie-size boxing gloves that I had gotten for Christmas the year
before.”  It was his parents’ idea, and
“they definitely kept me from scratching.”
His measles experience, at around ten years of age, was also
memorable, though he seemed to have had a mild case, since he does not remember
feeling particularly ill. He does vividly remember having to stay in a darkened
room and not being allowed to do anything at all. Any mental stimulation or
excitement was thought to be bad for a child with measles at that time. It was
summer, and he missed the Fourth of July fireworks, and playing with sparklers,
and was upset that he could hear his sisters enjoying themselves outside. An
avid reader, he was not allowed to read, and felt that deprivation keenly.
Two summers in a row, a little past his tenth birthday,
there were polio epidemics. They were not allowed to go to crowded public
places, including beaches, amusement parks, municipal swimming pools, even to
the movies. “It was basically stay-close-to-home time. We were worried to
death. At one point we were in a doctor’s waiting room and a kid came through
who had been exposed to someone who had active polio, and I had a few days of
worrying about that, though I now realize the risk was very small. That’s how
strong and pervasive the fear was before the Salk vaccine.”
He remembers seeing and reading about iron lungs, the iconic
symbol of polio. They were tubular metal tanks in which one lay, with only
one’s head sticking out. A tight seal around the neck isolated the tank from
room air pressure, and a piston decreased the air pressure inside, drawing air
into the paralyzed person’s lungs.
Later, as an adult, he got a close-up experience: “…I started
working for a med school, and … we had a few old iron lungs tucked in the back
of one hallway.  Before they were
disposed of we actually got a chance to see what it was like to be in one. It
was quite strange having the air go in and out with no effort on your part.
They even had a cough setting which would actually force you to cough by a rapid motion of the piston.”
Asked how it felt, he said: “I’ve never been particularly claustrophobic
(until the first time I had an MRI of my head) so I didn’t have that feeling,
but the seal around the neck was not terribly pleasant—then again, if you were
in one of those things you probably wouldn’t be able to scratch it anyway. But
the knowledge that this machine is breathing for you, even when you could
breathe on your own, that was a little strange. I don’t know if I can get my
head around what it would be like to have
breathe with that machine.”
In 2008, he mentions, the last person dependent on an iron lung in the United States died – not of her disease per se, but from a power
There were almost always children in every school Peter attended
that had legs in calipers (Americans call them braces). He vividly remembers a boy
who sat next to him in a class whose right arm was nothing but skin and bone
from polio. “I had a strange fascination with it; I’m sure he thought I was
extremely rude.”
A memory from a later age also remains with him: “When I was
in college, I went to a  mixer, …  and I saw this stunningly beautiful girl sitting
at a table. I went over and made a little chit-chat, asked her if she wanted to
dance and she said “No, I can’t.” I stupidly asked why, and she just kind of turned
away and waved me off, making a “go away” gesture with her hand.  Later in the evening I saw her leaving the
area where we had the mixer and she was walking with a pronounced limp. One of
her legs was just skin and bone. ”
While Peter did not have other vaccine preventable diseases, they were in the
background – whooping cough, mumps. He remembers mumps “was going around when I
was in my teens and my mother I recall being concerned that I would get it
because I’m the last male in my particular patriarchal line and I had ‘a
responsibility to carry on the family name.’ ”
In high school, there was a classmate who died of meningitis.
“It was early in the week, Monday or Tuesday, and in Latin class Miss Gardner
started talking about a girl who was absent, whom I didn’t know very well, and
the way she was talking—”it was meningitis, and it was very
quick”—and I was thinking “Wait, what? Someone died?” Yes,
someone in our Latin class died of meningitis over a weekend. I’m told that
because of the vaccine, most doctors these days have never seen a case of it.”
Peter also remembers having the flu as an adult. He says:
“it’s not a bad cold. It feels like you’ve been hit by a truck. If the air is
circulating in the room and your hair
moves it hurts. Just incredible hypersensitivity to any sort of touch to the
skin. Any effort at all would cause me to start sweating, and I could feel the
droplets flowing across my scalp. They
More recently, in 2009, Peter lost a Facebook friend to H1N1
flu. He describes her as a “very colorful woman; absolutely unforgettable.” To
protect her privacy, he asked not to disclose her name, but he said: “When she
was first taken sick, she kept going on — posting on Facebook — about how bad
she felt. Really, really bad. She was hospitalized and it was reported that
they were still trying to figure out what she had, and a few days later some family
was there and all of a sudden she sat bolt upright, stopped breathing, fell
back and she was gone; they couldn’t being her back. And it turns out that it
was H1N1 flu, verified by PCR testing.”
Peter says: “When the H1N1 flu vaccine first came out, one
of my Facebook friends asked our circle if we thought she should get the
vaccine. Despite the fact that that particular group leans strongly toward
“alternative medicine,” the discussion was fairly polite. Some of the usual
misinformation was shared, like “I got the flu from the vaccine; never again,”  and she said that she’d decided to take her
chances because the “natural” immunity was “better,” and I thought,
“To get the natural immunity you have to get sick as hell for two weeks; what
is wrong with you.” I don’t remember
whether I posted that or not; sometimes it’s best to just accept that people
won’t make the best choice despite your efforts.”
“Pro-vaccination?” Peter concludes.  “I’m as pro-vaccination as it gets.” Knowing what he knows,
seeing what he has seen, he does not understand how anyone could be otherwise.

Carmela’s Ordeal

This blog post is
based on a chapter from the book Nettie: Tales of a Brooklyn Nana, by Peter
Franzese (
http://www.amazon.com/Nettie-Tales-Brooklyn-Peter-Franzese/dp/1420807633/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1378146197&sr=8-2&keywords=nettie+tales+of+a+brooklyn+nana).  Carmela
was the elder sister of his grandmother, Nettie.

Carmela Carrano was born on September 2, 1912, in a
six-family tenement house at 60 Kingsland Avenue in Brooklyn that was gas lit and where an
airless hallway bathroom was shared with another family. She was the 7th
of 11 children born to Maria Carrano between 1898-1925. The sisters – there
were five at the time – all slept together in a large bed. Carmela was severely
bow legged and had difficulty walking, but in spite of that difficulty and the
teasing other children subjected her to, she was a sweet, kind-hearted girl.
This is Carmela at
her confirmation with her confirmation sponsor. Her bow legs can be seen in the
picture. This picture is posted courtesy of Peter Michael Franzese.
Peter says: “She looked out for her younger sister, my
grandmother, and always worried if my grandmother had her school supplies and
would make sure my grandmother was ready for school.  She was also devoted to her mother, even
though she was small.” Peter’s grandmother was 2 years and 13 days younger than
Carmela, and the two were very close. Peter’s grandmother would walk to school
with Carmela every day; she was always sad when kids at school taunted Carmela
over her bowed legs. The kids would tease Carmela about her “bandy legs.”
But aside from her legs the kind, gentle child had no serious
health problems.
“Then,” says Peter, “on August 25, 1922, she had been playing
with a cousin all day, when she suddenly was stricken with high fevers and
lancing headaches. The neighborhood doctor was summoned to the house, where he
diagnosed her malady as viral meningitis.”
This far back, we don’t know if Carmela actually had viral
meningitis and if so what caused it, though the CDC lists a number of
vaccine preventable diseases among the causes, including mumps, “varicella-zoster virus (which also causes
chicken pox and shingles), measles, and influenza.”
Debbie Fearon,
a pediatrician from Australia, isn’t sure. “The death rate from viral meningitis
in otherwise healthy ten year olds is very low.” Debbie and other physicians
aren’t sure, on these facts, what Carmela actually had. But at any rate, the
little girl suffered horribly. Carmela lay in bed, her fever burning, her head splitting. The
house was quarantined – she was trapped in there, with her parents and seven
siblings and all the families in the tenement. There was nothing they could do
for her.
She screamed her agony.
For nine days, she screamed day and night, non-stop. Towards the end,
she was stricken blind. The other children, the other neighbors, never forgot
her screams. Peter says: “The thing that stayed with the children in the house
was the screams that seemed to never end over those 9 days.”
This picture of Carmela was put up in a place of honor in the apartment of her older sister, Rose. Picture posted courtesy of Peter Michael Franzese.
She died on September 2, 1922, the day of her tenth birthday, in
the same house in which she was born, via a midwife. Her wake took place in the
same apartment, too. Dressed in the same beautiful dress in the photo above,
she was laid in a casket. Peter remembers how “Her brother, Jimmy, filled the
pots to represent the tears their mother shed with water,” – a child’s effort
to express the deep, painful sorrow he saw his mother suffer through.
Peter describes her funeral procession: “Her casket was brought
to church in a white horse drawn carriage with white horses. Their heads were
bowed. As the horse drawn hearse was pulled from her home to church, the girls
who she had made confirmation with walked along side dressed in their white
She is buried with her parents at St. John’s Cemetery in Middle
Village, Queens, NY.
It wasn’t unusual to lose a child at the time; Peter describes
the experience of his great-great-grandmother on the other side of the family:
“My great-great grandmother came to America in 1895 and between 1892 and 1914
she had I believe 12 kids…and buried 8 of them …some babies and some adults
– so, I guess, Maria Carrano was lucky that she only lost one child compared to
my great-great grandma Luppino.”
But Carmela’s death left a hole in her mother’s heart: “For 35
years her mother travelled [to Carmela’s grave], mostly by foot, to visit her
daughter. Just because she had 10 additional children, that one child was never
far from her mind.”
Others remembered Carmela too, her life and her death. Her
sisters never forgot; and her neighbors. Peter described how the last person
who knew Carmela – a child of a tenant in the building, who met Carmela in 1917
(and died in 2011, at the age of 101) – still remembered her 90 years after her
death and “spoke with such a vivid description of this little girl she had not
seen in 90 years”.
Carmela was remembered. Partly for her kindness, partly for
her painful, too early death, in an era when there was nothing to protect her
against disease and when no one could help her.Acknowledgments: I am grateful to Peter Michael Franzese for sharing this story, and to Melody Butler for bringing it to my attention. I am grateful to Alice Warning Wasney for reading the draft and to Debbie Fearon and other physician  friends, including Carolyn Bursle, Amy Eschinger, and Khedron Frank, for discussing Carmela’s illness and offering insights.