Fountain of Hope and Love – Part I of II
By Jorge D. H. Prósperi, 2019
Disease – a topic most of us try to avoid. We consciously and unconsciously try to sidestep its reality. We don’t want to hear about it as it relates to ourselves, family, friends and colleagues – especially the youngest and eldest among us. I remember in the 1950s how the slightest mention of “POLIO” would shake family members and community into a frenzy.
Polio (also known as poliomyelitis) was a highly contagious disease caused by a virus attacking the nervous system. That it was contagious only added to the social fear and trauma. Children younger than 5 years old were more likely to contract the virus, with paralysis a possible result. Schools and parent associations were not prepared to deal with the “contagiousness.” Neither were public places like amusements parks, summer camps, pools, beaches, theaters, birthday parties, playdates, locker rooms – even a Sunday church social and classroom could place a child at risk. Parents were on alert regarding any sign of fever, sore throat, headache, vomiting and fatigue.
Keep in mind that parents dealing with such horrific social fear, did not have the means to access 21st century knowledge and communication. They could not google symptoms, diagnosis, prevention, treatment and cure. Access to immediate medical treatment was restricted. The medical insurance industry was caught by surprise scrambling to find pre-existing conditions. So were the countless victims who could not afford the treatments.
Physicians treating people in the acute, early stage of polio saw that patients were unable to breathe as the virus paralyzed muscle groups in the chest. To assist patients with their breathing, devices were engineered called the Negative Pressure Ventilator, Iron Lung, The Tank Respirator, Pulmotor. It was a 700-900lbs piece of equipment that assisted with breathing. The machine cost in the 1930s-1950s between $1,200 to $2,000; the price of a house. Another hard fact to believe.
My grandchildren look at me with eyes and mouths wide open hearing descriptions of the 1950s. They think I am describing an alien world, aside from being convinced that I am an alien. They just can’t believe that I did not have an Iphone, grew up without a TV, play station, laptop, portable wireless anything, did not have a car until my 20s.
¡NADA! “Abuelo, how did you survive?” An excellent question by critical thinking grandchildren! I am sure that the same question will be asked of them by their grandchildren. But in retrospect, it does sound as if we lived in an alien world that some still call “The Good Old Days!” To me they are just old and not so good.
Fortunately, there were some aliens in our alien world that saved the day. One of those aliens was Dr. Jonas Salk. On April 12, 1955, the world learned that Jonas Salk had developed an effective vaccination against polio. Thomas Francis Jr., chair of the Department of Epidemiology, announced one of the most significant breakthroughs in modern medical history at U-M’s Rackham Auditorium. It took courage as the nation was suspect of the vaccine. The same vaccine conspiracy theorists began their chant. So Dr. Salk vaccinated himself, his wife and children. The nation followed. Leadership, courage and the greater good was on the line and he delivered. Dr. Jonas Salk is a genuine American hero.
But Dr. Jonas Salk had his own bout with another deadly disease – RACISM and Anti-Semitism. After City College, Salk enrolled in New York University to study medicine. Tuition was “comparatively low, better still, NYU did not discriminate against Jews, … while surrounding medical schools had rigid quotas in place.”
During his years at New York University Medical School, Salk worked as a laboratory technician during the school year and as a camp counselor in the summer. He was a stellar student demonstrating academic prowess and decided to dedicate his medical practice to research. He forfeited lucrative personal financial gain by choice because of, “the desire to help humankind in general rather than single patients.” The laboratory became the direction and passion for his life.
In his words, “I had an opportunity to spend time in elective periods in my last year in medical school, in a laboratory that was involved in studies on influenza. The influenza virus had just been discovered a few years before that. I saw the opportunity at that time to test the question as to whether we could destroy the virus infectivity and still immunize. And so, by carefully designed experiments, we found it was possible to do so.”
So what does all of this have to do with Diversity?! I could not help thinking that Dr. Salk could have been blocked from ever attending medical school because he was Jewish. I could not help equate Polio in the 1950s with the deadly disease of racism that plagues us to this day. I could not help thinking that racism is contagious, debilitates and cripples.
Racism has all of the same symptoms. It produces a social fever that reflects the infection within, the throat and vocal cords are silenced, anxiety, stress and fatigue wear the body down into submission. It corrupts and obstructs the social immune system of social justice. Racism contaminates destroying healthy notions of democracy, justice and equity. It weakens resiliency and attacks vital social norms. It preys overtly, covertly and aversively creating multigenerational trauma.
The differences between Polio and racism is that racism’s deadly virus and its pathology is self-induced by choice – by design. No child is ever born a racist. S/he is taught, learns and self-inflicts the disease. RACISM – its pathology – its vileness is lived and maintained by choice.
END OF PART I