BRUNSWICK — As I read in the paper that many parents are refusing to let their young children be vaccinated to prevent serious diseases, I can’t help wanting to share my concern for the consequences to their children, and for the risk it causes for immune-compromised children whose health may depend on not being exposed to these all-too-common diseases. My concern is based on memories of how much my childhood was affected – you could say “crippled” – by one case of pertussis (then called “whooping cough” because of the persistent, rasping cough it caused).

I was 3 years old and my sister 5 in the winter of 1934 when, as mother drove to the main street of the small Arkansas town where we lived, we saw a family we knew walking to town. We stopped and picked them up since we were all going in the same direction.

It was a mother and two little girls our age. The younger child had a cough. I noticed because she had, to me, a unique way of covering her cough; not by holding her open hand or a handkerchief over her mouth, but by rolling her hand into a fist and putting it in front of her mouth.

It may not have been a very good cover, because during the ride Jeanne and I both caught her germs and it was the dreaded whooping cough. We both got sick in October; mother said we were still coughing with it the following June.

If there had been at that time any shot or other whooping-cough preventative, our parents would have gladly used it. But it was many more years before there was a shot for that powerful disease.

We were both sick, confined to bed, that whole winter. Having been so young at the time, I have only a few memories of that winter. What I do remember is its effect on the rest of my childhood. I guess it seriously weakened our immune systems, because we both seemed to catch every flu-like germ that came by.


We lived on the Arkansas side of the banks of the Mississippi River, first in one small county seat and then another just down the river.

Because of constant flu-like ailments and difficulty breathing, Jeanne and I had to be taken across the river (by ferry; there was as yet no bridge nearer than Memphis) to be seen by the eye, ear, nose and throat doctor in Greenville two or three times a week for what, in memory, seems like all winter long.

I don’t remember as much sickness while I was in kindergarten or first grade, but the chronic sickness returned by third grade, with mother having to take me to an eye, ear, nose and throat doctor doctor every week.

Finally, when I was in fourth grade, he said I’d never improve or be able to have a normal life unless someone operated to cut through the bone that had grown over and covered what should have been the open passageway for air and drainage for my sinuses. Both sides.

Mother explained the operation, which she said I needed. I remember explaining to her very carefully that I did not want the operation and that I was sure our family could enjoy spending in another way the money it would undoubtably take.

Then she told me, gently but firmly, that there was no choice: I had to have the operation, to undo some of the damage from the case of pertussis I’d had. I had the operation and missed nine weeks of school at once, on top of all the other days I’d already missed.


Mother tried to prepare me for the fact that I would turn out to have failed that year. It felt like the end of the world. I didn’t know even one person who had ever failed.

My sister was a quick, bright student; I was always at the bottom of my class in math and spelling. It didn’t seem to matter that I was a fast, accurate reader; what mattered was math.

In fourth grade for a second time, I felt like the dunce of the world. It was not until I was doing well in the eighth grade and had a teacher who obviously believed in me that it dawned on me that maybe, just maybe, I could be at least average, after all.

That was five years of public misery that I was put through – most of my childhood – because I’d had whooping cough when there was no remedy available.

Please, parents, help your children avoid this dangerous and sometimes deadly disease, and be thankful that they do not have to fight the unequal battle with pertussis because now there is a preventative vaccine.

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