Those Good Old Time Diseases

ancient diseases

I was a first-grader at Van Nuys Elementary School the first time I came into contact with the medical system. As a healthy child, the only thing that slowed me down was the occasional off-color weenie on “Hot Dog Friday.” None of the hair-netted ladies behind the steam table thought for a minute that I could have something as serious as Ptomaine Poisoning and wouldn’t have been able to recognize it even if I had. Instead, one of them took off her apron and marched me downstairs to the nurse’s office where she laid me down on an old army cot that smelled of other 6-year-old kids.

Nurse Blumenthal looked like every other grammar school nurse – a clinical version of the Pillsbury Doughboy with a red cross centered squarely on the front of her hat. She was probably a cracker-jack clinician at some point in her career. But, you could sense that 30 years of working nights at the V.A. hospital had eroded her diagnostic skills to the point where she was grateful just to have a place to spend the twilight years of her career.

After feeling my forehead and poking around my mouth with a tongue depressor, she wrote off my symptoms as “being a kid.” Regardless of why I ended up in her office, Nurse Blumenthal always recommended the same treatment: a tablespoon of Castor Oil and a Mercury suppository and a note telling my mother I’d contracted a 24-hour case of Summer Complaint – also known as the backdoor trots, Montezuma’s revenge or Tourista.

But I digress. Thanks to my parents’ diligence, I managed to get through most of the common childhood diseases in a single year: Chickenpox, the Croup, Measles, Mumps, Whooping Cough, Cholera and Yellow Fever. Each malady was supposed to give me immunity against some other future disease – like the Shingles, 60 years later. Too bad nothing could have prevented my drooling and Alzheimer’s.

It was all part of a carefully orchestrated plan. Instead of waiting for nature to take its course, my mother made me spend the night with every kid in the neighborhood who was flattened by Asperger’s Syndrome, Diabetes, Rickets, Osgood-Schlatter Disease, Leprosy and ADD to improve my chance of getting them behind me before the Christmas holidays. Nowadays, kids are expected to succumb to a slew of newer, trendier diseases like Acne, Respiratory Syncytial Virus, Fifth Disease, Scarlet Fever, Impetigo, Kawasaki Disease and Reye’s Syndrome. It’s still too early to tell if exposure to any of those diseases will prevent them from coming down with the Collywobbles later in life. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Up until the 1950s, diseases always had colorful names: Bilious Fever, Chin Cough, Crop Sickness, Dry Bellyache, Grocer’s Itch and Bucket Fever that sounded far more serious than tendonitis, hay fever or influenza. According to my parents, half my family suffered from Lumbago or Consumption, while my great uncle Bert was leveled by Apoplexy. Two of my aunts passed away when their Grippe progressed to fatal Decrepitude. The rest succumbed to Dandy Fever, English Sweating Disease or Stupid Fever. One was hospitalized for months when her Milk Leg got the best of her after giving birth to a beautiful Mope-eyed girl. We never knew what any of those meant and neither did our doctors, but those were the medical terms they used. It was strangely comforting to know that our loved ones succumbed to something far more serious than merely slipping on a bar of soap.

We hardly see anyone with Black Water Fever anymore, although I’m sure it’s still around. Penicillin, antisepsis and germ theory have eradicated most cases of Bad Blood, Bronze John and Jail Fever. But who’s to say? I can’t remember the last time I was quizzed on a medical history form, “Are you now, or have you ever suffered from Canine Madness, The Cooties, Dropsy, Dog Bark, Dancing Mania, Winterbottom’s Sign, Softening of the Brain or Egyptian Inheritance?”

Certainly, standardizing the names of diseases and their treatment is one of the things that has driven up the cost of health care. Once upon a time, a simple case of Commotion was the same in Boston as it was in Twin Forks, Nebraska – and it was always treated at home with a week of bed rest followed by liberal doses of Winslow’s Soothing Syrup (containing more than 65 mg of morphine). In fact, most cases of Noodlepox, Goiter and Philippine Itch were treated with Dr. Bonker’s Celebrated Egyptian Oil, heroin tablets and Mack Mahon’s Rattle Snake Oil Liniment. Patients struggling with obesity could look forward to a prescription for dehydrated tapeworms or their eggs.

It wasn’t until later that people started running to physicians’ offices for simple cases of Schistosomiasis, Scorbutic Fever and Scrumpox instead of patiently waiting for them to come to their homes. There, family physicians could better treat nasty cases of Frog Tongue, Nerve Pang and Scald Head with more sophisticated approaches like blood letting and applying leeches to suck out the bad body humours.

When patients complained of seizures, migraine headaches and depression, accommodating physicians began drilling holes in their heads (called Trepanation) to relieve pressure on the brain. And in 1936 a charismatic, innovative psychiatrist named Walter Freeman started performing Prefrontal Lobotomies without anesthesia by driving ice picks into his patients’ eye sockets, then jamming them around in circles, “…cutting certain nerves in the brain, eliminating excess emotion and stabilizing the personality.”

When health insurance started to be included as a standard job benefit, people immediately began abusing the medical system by running to the emergency room for things as simple as Catarrh, Shinbone Fever or Scrivener’s Palsy. And, instead of treating their patients with proven, inexpensive compounds like cocaine throat lozenges, morphine sulphate, chloroform, codeine, heroin, powdered opium or cannabis indica, physicians drove up medical costs by ordering new fangled procedures like x-rays, biopsies, laboratory tests and magnetic resonance imaging.

To make matters worse, everyone has become a medical expert. Thanks to the Internet, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Woman’s World, Redbook and all of the other quality medical references in the check-out aisles, people now have a better understanding of their diseases and how to talk to their doctors. Gone are the days of simply accepting that their Mexican Trench Mouth is responding well to the blood letting. Today, every Tom, Dick and Harriet insists on learning exactly how they came down with their Japanese Flood Fever, Sinking Chills or Sanguineous Crust. They want to know why after multiple electrical shock treatments, they’re still hearing voices coming from the television.

Thankfully, we’ve grown into a kinder, gentler society when it comes to treating our medical complaints, even though it’s caused the cost of medical treatments to continue to skyrocket. We no longer amputate gamey legs and psychiatrists stopped performing Lobotomies in 1967. But, pharmaceutical leeches do appear to making a comeback to help heal wounds and enhance circulation in narrowed veins. That is, once you’ve met your annual deductible.


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