My dad’s sister, Mary Margaret, died at age nine from laryngeal diphtheria.
One of the things Dad and I talked about when I became an immunization coalition coordinator was whether he would mind if I told his sister’s story in my work. He felt if her tragic story would help prevent anyone from losing a child to a vaccine-preventable disease, then it would be a wonderful tribute to her and it’d give her short life even more purpose.
Mary Margaret died a week before Christmas, 1927, after contracting diphtheria from schoolmates. This was three years before the diphtheria vaccine was available in the area, according to my grandmother’s recollection that came down to me through my dad.
She had home care by family, and a visit from a doc who visited the poor families, so they worried that maybe she could have had a more timely diagnosis and better care.
After her death, the family was put out of the house by the local board of health, and the house was roped off with a “do not cross” type of line and sulphur candles were burned in the house to rid it of any leftover contagion. They were treated like lepers.
Our family is and was Catholic. Mary Margaret was allowed no funeral service (no stopping by the church) on the way to the cemetery located nine miles outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma. No last benediction or funeral rites from the church were given to her because of the contagious aspect of the disease. The grave wasn’t even marked until 1960, when my dad and his brother visited the cemetery to make arrangements for their mother’s burial. They were horrified to find it unmarked and ordered not one but two stones.
There was no money in 1927 for the family to mark it—the family, like most at the time, was living on the edge of poverty.
The summer after Mary Margaret died, my dad and uncle (ages four and five) were put on the train to Kansas City with notes pinned to their collars to let them off at Union Station there, as their aunt would pick them up and keep them for the summer—a rough summer for their parents who needed a break.
My grandparents coped as best they could, but my dad said he and his brother never saw the same sparkle in their parents’ eyes, and they couldn’t bring it back by themselves no matter how hard they tried.
Grandpa continued to work long hours as a baker, but coped by drinking. Grandma just carried on, never sharing her grief with the boys and never complaining.
My mother once talked to my grandfather (her father-in-law) about his daughter’s death, and it was the only time he said anything to her about it.
“For Christmas that year, my daughter had asked for a music box; instead, I had to buy a wooden box to bury her in,” he said, and then cried.
I have told Mary Margaret’s story to people occasionally since I have been the TAIC coalition Coordinator, and I have to tell you, even though my own grown sons are familiar with it, one of my daughters-in-law (and her mother) have bought into the false information about immunizations collected from the Internet and through their homeschooling network.
No matter what I can respectfully, carefully, or diplomatically say or try to teach, their attitudes of distrust about immunizations cannot be changed. So, their children, my grandchildren, remain unimmunized, much to my anguish.
On a cheery note, I can see the photo of Mary Margaret, the aunt I never knew, with that wonderfully whimsical orange clown nose on her face in celebration of Orange Nose Day.
And Grandma? She probably would have wanted to see something hopeful and meaningful come from the sharing of her daughter’s story. Maybe by relating our family’s story, today’s parents will realize just how serious vaccine-preventable diseases are, and make good, timely decisions about having their children properly immunized. Grandma would be AMAZED to know that several cancers can now be prevented with vaccines!
As to the diphtheria vaccine and my dad and uncle? When it was available in 1930 at the Tulsa Board of Health, Dad said his mother couldn’t get them there FAST ENOUGH to get both boys immunized. She wasn’t going to lose any more of her children to a preventable disease.
By Kathy Sebert, RN, BA/Coordinator, Tulsa Area Immunization Coalition & Tulsa Health Department employee