I would like to tell you about my mother and all mothers like her who suffered through the loss of a child from an infectious disease. Raising a family in the hills of Kentucky, where most people were too poor to pay for the little, if any, medical help available, my mother struggled to keep her family healthy.
When one of her babies became seriously ill, my mother and her parents did everything they could to try and help her. Despite their efforts, my mother watched her child, Patsy Lynn, die from whooping cough. While making arrangements for Patsy’s funeral my mother learned that another one of her children was gravely ill. Both children were buried on the same day, in the same casket, in the same grave next to my mother’s church.
After the death of two children, my family was able to relocate to the Cincinnati area where medical attention was more readily available. We all had our vaccines as my mother was determined not to lose another child to unseen viruses and she insisted on washing and boiling everything that we touched.
I lived through the effect the loss had upon my mother’s life. The fear of disease was so real then, but many of us today forget what it was like to live in a time when diseases like measles, polio and smallpox were so much more common and deadly.
I remember the time that I was not allowed to play with a friend because her mother had been sent to the “TB hospital” and I vividly remember the Sunday that we spent standing in the long lines to receive our sugar cubes laced with the polio vaccine.
During the early ’60s, I remember being put to bed in a dark room when it was thought I might have the measles. Most of all, I’ll never forget that several of my teachers wore braces because of the effects of polio.
My mother tried her best to prevent us from succumbing to any disease which may shorten our lives, so I’m thankful that when she died of cancer in 1982 she did not know that I had somehow contracted the hepatitis B virus.
In June 1995, I was diagnosed with hepatitis B about a week before my 25th wedding anniversary. A doctor told my husband that I had a sexually transmitted disease and that he should be tested and vaccinated. What the doctor failed to tell us at the time was that this hepatitis could be spread in many other ways. I had complete trust in my husband and, thank God he had faith and trust in me, so this suggestion of sexually promiscuity did not harm our marriage.
Within the week we were informed that my husband tested negative, as did my children, who have all been vaccinated.
I have tried for years to find out where I got the virus. Could it have been from my mother who died of liver cancer? Did I get it in grade school, or from dental work, surgeries? Did I get it in one of the hospitals or clinics where I have worked as an interpreter? Did I get it from a child who ran into me on the playground, or from the little girl who bit me while I was working in the Cincinnati Public Schools?
The only thing I can be sure of is that I did not get hepatitis B from sexual contact, drug use or tattoos. However, I have now arrived at a place of peace in my life by accepting the fact that I will never know the path of transmission—and I no longer search for that answer.
And this is my mother’s legacy to me: protect your children the best you can.
By Barbra Anne Malapelli Haun