Think About It: Something old, something new

My brother and I stood outside the grey building looking up at the window waiting for our father to appear. The sky was turning into the fading light of dusk on a cloudy day. It should have been brighter given the long hours of daylight in late May but it was a typical Pacific Northwest day.

I have vivid memory of the circumstances of and surrounding the visit but I can’t quite recall my age at the time. I had either just turned 10 or 11, which meant my brother would soon turn 13 or 14.

My mother had gone into the building to let my father know we were outside. It seemed like a very long wait probably due to my growing apprehension before he arrived. I did not know what to expect.

My father’s face appeared and he spoke through an opening of less than 1 foot. He held his head sideways so most of his face showed through the opening. He smiled and asked how we were. I suddenly became shy, unable to speak. The visit was strange to me in a way that I could not explain.

I only understood the sadness I felt that my father had to stay behind that window. The only conversation I remember was he asked me what gifts I received on my birthday and I was barely able to tell him.

Another contagion, another time

Tuberculosis (TB) and the germ, a bacteria, that causes it have been around a long time. Some researchers theorize the TB bacteria has ancestors as old as half a million years. Most scientists agree the TB bacteria we see today was found in skeletons of people who lived 6,000 years ago.

Unlike the Coronavirus, the TB germ is a bacteria that literally has a life of its own; it can live outside the body of humans or animals whereas the Coronavirus responsible for COVID-19 is a virus that must find a host body, most likely human, in which to live.

TB bacteria doesn’t demand its independence; in fact, it is perfectly happy to infect the lungs of humans and other mammals.

COVID-19 and TB are both spread through respiratory droplets in the air. Both are more likely to be contracted in environments of prolonged exposure to crowds.

Both, when active in the body, are serious infections that can be deadly.

People can have latent TB meaning they carry the bacteria but it or the infection is inactive and not contagious. We have learned that people can have COVID-19 and be asymptomatic but different from latent TB, they can spread the virus.

I claim no expertise in either disease but I do know from what we’ve learned that COVID-19 has a rapid onset compared to TB. The virus settles in the body, mainly in the lungs and within short time causes respiratory distress, cough, fever, chills and fatigue in people who become ill with it.

The TB bacteria settles in the body, mainly the lungs and begins a long journey to disability and death of it home body. Typical symptoms as the disease progresses are cough, coughing up blood and/or sputum, chest pain when breathing or coughing, unintentional weight loss, fatigue, fever and chills.

Amoral, apolitical threats

An effective medication to treat and prevent TB was not available for distribution until 1952 likely a year before my father talked to me through an open window high above my head. TB was viewed as so contagious that people who were diagnosed with TB were sent to sanitariums, sometimes for years.

Rest was the primary treatment until medications were developed to treat it. My father’s place of quarantine was in Firlands Sanitarium in north Seattle, a series of army barracks from World War II. He had no choice but to go.

TB the disease was frightening because it meant long separations to protect others and long declines leading to death. The disease and its sad outcome were romanticized in the 19th century notably through operas such as “Les Misérables.”

Public health experts began efforts to provide sanitation facilities and other measures to control the spread. Like today, these efforts included a campaign to stop behavior that led to the spread of the disease, such as to practice special precautions around infants and children and stop spitting on the sidewalk.

Like today, some people ignored the recommendations.

Today some people are choosing to ignore the precautions of wearing masks and maintaining social distancing in enclosed and/or crowded areas.

Perhaps, since they don’t believe in science or public health, they should sign up for schools for the foolish so they can explain to the rest of us why they have no role in protecting themselves and their families if not us.

It is still true that people with underlying conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease, cancer, the old-old, the very young and living in poverty are more susceptible to serious illness related to harmful bacteria including TB and highly susceptible to the highly contagious, amoral and apolitical COVID-19 virus even if carried by a loving relative.

Sometimes, I think the explanation for their risk-taking rests in magical thinking about the science of medicine’s ability to cure and heal. People in medicine, nursing and public health know better. I learned firsthand as a child at that window who grew up experiencing the consequences of an amoral bacteria.

As much as I wished it not so, I learned that science and medicine needed time to truly understand the disease, its causes, treatment and, importantly, its prevention.

The near eradication of TB was not an overnight wonder, likely more a century of overnight wonders nor did it have only one answer or only one mediation for treatment. Nor are TB bacteria gone forever.

There is no magic, romance or miracles in COVID-19. To think otherwise is relinquishing one’s responsibility and stewardship for humanity.

Bertha Cooper, featured columnist in the Sequim Gazette, spent her career years in health care administration, program development and consultation. Cooper’s book “Women, We’re Only Old Once” is due out this summer. Cooper and her husband have lived in Sequim over 20 years. Reach her at columnists@sequimgazette.com.

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