People are never more insecure than when they become obsessed with their fears at the expense of their dreams.
Even many years later, my dad could still recall how his mother had hovered over him and wept. When he was 6 years old, one of the horses had pulled a hay wagon over his toes while he was helping in the fields. A nail had become loose and his foot had swelled. For the next few days, his mother soaked his foot regularly, applied poultices, changed dressings, and checked his foot for signs of infection. My dad recalled how they had both cried through the entire episode.
“She had me convinced that I would die just like the President's son.”
Her fear was real. In the summer of 1924, 16-year-old Calvin Coolidge, Jr., had developed a blister on his foot while playing tennis with his older brother, John. Over the next couple of days, his swollen foot had become infected. Despite the best efforts of the doctors, he developed a systemic infection and died a week later at Walter Reed Army Hospital. The entire country followed the family's ordeal and then mourned the death. Historians believe that the grief in the aftermath of young Cal, Jr.’s death was the main reason for the decline of his father’s presidential career.
In my grandmother’s era, there was a pervasive fear of infection. In fact, until the 1940s, Americans worried intensely about infections, epidemics, and tuberculosis, as well as sudden devastating illnesses like strokes and heart attacks. It is only in recent decades that cancer has joined the other conditions in our collective list of fearsome ailments thanks to longer lifespans, effective antibiotics, new technology and an increased public awareness of cancer.
Living in the pre-antibiotic era on a farm in rural Missouri, my grandmother certainly must have seen animals die of infections, yet I am certain that she had successfully treated dozens of sores on her livestock over the years. In her world, though, she understood that any scratch might lead to death. My father’s foot injury and the simultaneous publicity surrounding Cal, Jr.’s death must have shaken my grandmother profoundly. This heightened anxiety kept her awake every night until my father recovered.
My dad joked about the distorted toenail that he carried for the rest of his life although I am certain that it always reminded him of the anxiety and tears of those terrifying days. Perhaps, in a similar way, my cancer patients and their family members are reminded of their own ordeals whenever they touch the scars and deal with the physical changes that they carry.
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I really enjoy reading your blog and I always look forward to the next post. Keep up the great work Dr. Campbell!
Very wonderful post.
We are very fortunate to be living in this era where antibiotics, pain killers and miracle drugs are accessible.
Keep them coming!
- Kristina Lo
Posted 6:09 AM