Ontiveros: Those dreaded childhood illnesses are gone, right?

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I was so surprised when my mother-in-law came down with the mumps that I shared the news with just about everyone.

People my age were shocked to hear about Joan, who is 93. Younger ones asked: what’s the mumps?


I forget that entire generations never experienced once-common childhood diseases. (Mumps is a viral infection mostly impacting the salivary glands. This is why Joan had a hard time swallowing.) Like other childhood diseases, mumps isn’t common anymore. The vaccine program against it began in 1967 and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has led to a 99 percent decrease in mumps in the United States.

However, as more parents opt not to vaccinate their children and they catch these illnesses, people who’ve never had them can contract them.

Coincidentally, just as Joan was recovering, a friend asked: “Hey, did I ever tell you my photo was once on the cover of the Sun-Times?”

Since he had not, longtime Rogers Park resident Jeffrey Chouinard brought me a photocopy. Accompanying it was a portion of an autobiography that Jeffrey, who had a long career as an advertising copywriter, is writing. That’s when I discovered he’d had infantile paralysis – polio — another of those primarily childhood diseases rarely experienced now, thanks to a vaccine. Time has faded our awareness of what an illness like that can do.

Here’s Jeffrey’s story:

It was July, 1949, and Jeffrey, then 11, was spending his second summer at camp in northern Wisconsin. That’s where he fell seriously ill and a doctor pronounced that he had “a slight touch of polio.”

There Jeffrey was, almost 350 miles from home, and very aware of the danger he faced. Like most Americans then, he knew he polio could mean paralysis or death.

If Jeffrey were to survive, it was decided, he had to be returned to Chicago, and fast. A plan was hatched, and soon a Navy C-47 took a “terrified” boy on his first plane ride, home to Chicago. The landing at Municipal (now Midway) Airport drew media attention, and that’s how the touching photo of Jeffrey’s worried mother, Florence, giving her son a tender kiss landed on the front page of the Chicago Daily Sun Times (no hyphen then, it appears).

Weeks of hospitalization followed. Treatments included difficult stretching regimens and twice-daily wraps for hours in hot, dampened blankets. If that wasn’t bad enough, imagine being 11 and quarantined in a room with other sickly young boys – some with arms or legs shriveled from polio – where many could breathe only with the help of an iron lung. Scary stuff.

To take his mind off the “hideous from hell” pain, Jeffrey would look out a window, but still he wondered: Am I going to die? Will I spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair?

Eventually, he was sent home. Treatments continued, but now mom was there to read to him to help pass the time. When he returned to school, Jeffrey had to limit physical activity. By the next year, he say now, he was “as good as any other kid.”

Now he is 79.

I know there is a contingent of parents who are wary of vaccines. It’s important to be reminded that the childhood diseases vaccinations curtail weren’t easy to endure. Children got very sick. Children died.

Polio is almost eradicated from the world. It could never come back, we think. But then here are the mumps laying up my poor mother-in-law.

Something to think about.

Email: sueontiveros.cst@gmail.com
Twitter: @sueontiveros

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.


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