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When Illness Hit Home


Illness, medical attention and recuperation were very personal experiences in the Baltimore of the 1950s. You had your one doctor; his nurse (female physicians were not too common) knew all your business, and she spread it about, far and wide.

If you were down with a cold or flu, your condition would become public knowledge as soon as you got in touch with the local drugstore. Half the neighborhood seemed to congregate around the soda fountain there. News of an outbreak of a late-winter bug made its way around the blocks faster than the germs that brought the bug.

At my home, those who were confined to bed got sympathy, hot tea and a sick tray. The tray was a rectangle of metal that hung on one of the kitchen walls when not in use. It had a picture on it, a varnished reproduction of an 1850s view of Baltimore, with the Washington Monument in the center.

The sick tray held certain foods and beverages essential to a patient's well-being. The plate of toast went to the left, the location of the Waterloo Row apartments. A small glass of orange juice (fresh squeezed preferred) went to the right, near the Basilica of the Assumption. A plate of scrambled eggs or chicken soup (always homemade) rested on Charles Street.

Occupying the harbor site were a pair of miniature china pelicans. Their mouths contained the holes for salt and pepper.

The ending weeks of the winter always seemed to bring some of the dreaded childhood diseases -- especially the ever-scratchy chickenpox and nasty measles.

Great Aunt Cora was the house nurse. She had a son who was a physician, but she never paid any attention to anything he had to say about medicine. She had her own cures.

Her sister, Lily Rose, hated to be sick and therefore was rarely so. Despite the fact she forked up some of the money for her nephew's medical schooling, she had no faith whatsoever in doctors. Much earlier this century, she accepted confinement at Mercy Hospital to bear a child, but very soon after she had the baby, she escaped down the stairs of the fire tower on the Pleasant Street side of the building -- with the newborn in her arms, of course. Lily Rose was not about to wait to be released. She was not going to stay in that institution one minute more than she had to.

The adult members of our Guilford Avenue rowhouse had differing beliefs about home remedies. My father liked Coca-Cola syrup. It was often used in that day to settle the stomach or cure colds. But for my father, it was a cure-all.

My grandfather advocated Victorian cure-all remedies that terrified me. I always believed they were based in narcotics or laxatives, or probably both. One of my grandfather's favorites was ipecac, a word that used to occasion laughing bouts from his grandchildren. We'd heard the comedian W. C. Fields use the word in an old movie. When my grandfather spoke that word, ipecac, it was all we needed to turn red with laughter.

Aunt Cora's favorite cure-all was a boiled egg custard flavored with vanilla and thickened with a little cornstarch. But she had other homemade remedies. Her idea of medical treatment was to fill that Washington Monument tray with her special medicines and put it before the patient. Sometimes she administered a milkshake made with an egg white. Like many folks of the day, she believed a milkshake of this kind strengthened the weak.

Cora made sure her sick trays were attractive and inviting, but the minute you started to make requests for delicacies such as chocolate caramels, Nurse Cora pronounced you recuperated.

It was a good idea for you to return soon to the dinner table. The rest of the household was probably talking about you behind your back.

One winter I got scarlet fever. I had to take -- or rather chew -- bitter-tasting penicillin pills. Cora devised a way of tackling me, then forcing the pill down my throat along with a glass of sugared water. When she got the ambush just right, you didn't know what hit you.

The doctors I knew as a child all made house calls. Our family pediatrician, Dr. Joseph Cordi, made his peace with my doctor-distrusting grandmother early on.

The first time he stopped by, he asked to wash his hands before conducting an examination on some sick child. I think he walked into the kitchen and happened to pick up a cake of my grandmother's homemade lye-based soap. He washed up and praised the soap to the heavens for its germ-massacring power.

This soap was strong stuff (no perfumes or cleansing creams here), and Lily knew it. From that point on she trusted this doctor a little more.

Whenever Dr. Cordi returned, he always made a ritual of washing up in Lily's disinfectant soap.

His visits to the home, however, were not always as welcome as his diplomatic gesture of washing his hands.

When one of her six kids became sick, my mother would sometimes have the good doctor administer shots to those who were not ill as a way around having to haul her brood to his office. Before long, we figured out her ploy and realized that you did not have to be sick to be given a needle by the visiting doctor. As a result, we all tried not to be sick.

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