My Dad and Mom drove me home from the farm in McHenry County. It was a long ride back in 1940. Even now with the expressways it takes over an hour from that area to Chicago but in those days it must have been almost interminable. In farm country, all the roads were either simple 2-lane highways or gravel with tar poured over the gravel to keep the dust down. I’m very sure that I got hungry on the way back to Chicago and that would have meant bringing out that canning-jar-cum-baby-bottle that was used to feed me.
At some point Mom began to notice I was getting pink all over and felt warm the touch. I didn’t even want to eat. They decided to not take me home but directly to the only hospital they knew that was closest to their home, St. Mary of Nazareth on Division Street in Chicago. It was there that the hospital staff said I should go to a hospital that would be more capable of figuring out what was wrong with me because by that time Mom was terrified because I was burning up with a very high fever and my skin had turned a bright red. Dad drove as fast as he could to Cook County Hospital known as the best place for patients with unusual illnesses or trauma.
Cook County Hospital in 1940 was in the old building. The doctors told my parents that I was incredibly lucky to have arrived when I did because I had a highly contagious disease called erysipelas. I was immediately taken from Mom’s arms and placed in a ‘contagious ward’ so no one without proper precautions and clothing could touch me. Much later Dad told me it was really a single room with a single crib and a very large window so they could see me. The doctors told my parents there was very little hope for my survival because erysipelas was related to rheumatic fever (streptococcal bacteria) and the fatality rate was extremely high. The doctors sympathetically recommended that Dad buy a grave for me. Obviously Dad couldn’t just buy a single grave. We were now a family so he bought 3 graves in St. Josephs’ cemetery in the far western suburbs. He wanted all three of us together in death as he wanted us together in life.
The first few days neither Dad nor Mom wanted to leave me alone but the doctors insisted that they go home because by that time I was very red and extremely unhappy. Another name for erysipelas was St. Anthony’s Fire because of acute burning sensation of the skin. From the little research I’ve done it’s very likely that my severe case of erysipelas was due in no small part to my mother’s problems when I was born.
Dad told me that Mom kept threatening to go into the contagious ward even if the doctor wouldn’t let her. That’s when the doctors and nurses insisted that Mom and Dad go home and they would call if anything changed. Luckily for my parents they not only had a car to make the daily trips to see me but they also had a telephone. In 1940 telephones were still rare and the use of a ‘party line’ was common. The staff was certain that they’d have enough time to get to the hospital if I got any worse. But, they assured my folks, they would call if I was getting better as everyone hoped. Mom and Dad wanted to believe the doctor so they went home over to their apartment near Armitage on Kedvale.
In those days the Catholic churches were left unlocked day and night. Mom and Dad went to St. Philomena’s for the last stop before they finally would get home and go to bed. The church was empty and they went to the front where the candles were lit. Dad said Mom used up all the money in her purse so she could light an enormous amount of candles for my life. Dad and Mom did nothing but cry all that night. They were sure I’d die but praying that I wouldn’t. In the morning the telephone rang. Mom was afraid to answer the phone so Dad picked up the receiver. Much later Dad said his heart was in his mouth when he answered the phone.
The doctor’s voice was gentle, “We still don’t know what happened but about an hour after you left, Dorothy’s fever broke. She’s going to live. If this little baby made it through erysipelas she'll live to at least 84 years old!”
Apparently my fever broke just as Mom was lighting up the candles at St. Philomena. From that day on, my parents firmly believed that those candles saved my life, with assistance from the doctors. As soon as the erysipelas was non-contagious, Mom and Dad took me home to their apartment on Kedvale. I was finally home for good.
Filed under: Autobiographical