After my mother’s death, my Aunt Helene readily inserted herself as a surrogate. I had always been very close to Mom’s younger sister and I welcomed her nurturing and support at both that difficult time and for many years afterward. I never failed to call her weekly and always sent her a wonderful birthday present. On her 70th birthday I hosted a party for her, her three children and their spouses at The Four Seasons for dinner – although I had to specify that they gave the guests menus without prices on them – as she would have gone into cardiac arrest if she saw the cost of the meal and would have opted for bread and a glass of water. She was a very practical lady.
There was a one year period when I was a child when my aunt disappeared from the scene. It’s as though she had been abducted by aliens and transported to a distant planetary system. In fact, although my parents never told me what happened and I learned the truth many years later, she had been consigned and confined to Bellevue Hospital to be treated for what was diagnosed as schizophrenia. This was in the late 1950’s.
The “modern medicine” of that day frequently addressed this psychological illness with what today we may consider to be a rather primitive treatment. It was known as “shock therapy.” If you saw the first “Lethal Weapon” Mel Gibson movie, you may remember the scene where he is suspended by his hands from the ceiling and water is poured over him as his interrogator hits him with electrodes to force him to talk. That’s “shock therapy.” It’s apparently extremely painful.
Well, the medical practitioners at Bellevue pronounced my aunt “cured” after she had been confined there for a year and undergone that treatment twice a week during her interment. She returned home to her family, but I could see that she had gotten much more docile, measuring every word and making sure never to offend anyone. She had always been a very gentle person but her gentility had transmuted to an almost submissive meekness. It was many years before she rediscovered some of her previous élan. And discussing that one year was so painful that no one in the family dared speak of it or ask for details – until many years later when my aunt felt comfortable discussing it and brought it up herself.
Four years went by and Aunt Helene began experiencing the same symptoms she had exhibited before her commitment. Many years later she confided in me that she would have committed suicide rather than repeat her “therapy” at Bellevue, which incidentally, was known as one of the premier psychiatric hospitals in the country. Fortunately, she had found an osteopathic doctor and had been seeing him for several years. She described her current symptoms and told him about her stint at Bellevue. He told her that he had a theory but he would need to request her medical records from the hospital before he could confirm his belief. While waiting for those records he ordered some blood work done so that he would have those results when he received her transcript from Bellevue.
Two weeks later he called my aunt with news – some bad, some good. “Helene, you do have a medical condition – that’s the bad news. The good news is it isn’t schizophrenia – it’s hypoglycemia. You have low blood sugar, the reverse of diabetes. And hypoglycemia manifests itself in many symptomatic ways that may look like schizophrenia. We need to raise your blood sugar level which we probably can accomplish through diet – and you should be just fine.” My aunt told me that when she hung up from that call she felt as though the weight of the world had been lifted from her shoulders. And she dealt with her condition through dietary management until her death at the age of 85. I still miss her as she was a wonderful lady.
The blood work that Dr. Castin had received from Bellevue Hospital showed the same low blood sugar levels five years earlier. But none of the physicians there caught it. So my aunt went through nearly one hundred unnecessary shock treatments which left deep psychological scars. Well, we all know the old joke that if you’re on the operating table the one thing you don’t want to hear your surgeon say as you float off under the anesthesia is, “Oops.”
Ebola is a potentially fatal disease – the mortality rates ranging between 50 – 70% according to the World Health Organization. Mostly it has been confined to large areas of west Africa. Probably those mortality rates would be lower in countries with more advanced infrastructure and medical systems. Both the flu and traffic accidents kills more people in the United States than have fallen to Ebola in Africa.
As much as man would like to think he is in complete control of his own destiny, what we used to refer to as Mother Nature has a vote in the conversation – and she sometimes holds a very strong hand. We have seen devastating plagues afflict human populations several times in recent and past history. And while it is probably true that we are better equipped today than in the Middle Ages when bubonic plague ravaged Europe, it would be pure hubris to believe that we are so wise and so well prepared that we are impervious to a potentially ruinous outbreak of something the old gal has cooked up for us. Admitting that would be to take the first step toward truly preparing for the potential of just such an outbreak. And therein lies the problem.
Repeatedly since the first Ebola victim came to America from Liberia and subsequently died in Dallas, we have been told that any “large scale” outbreak of the virus is unlikely. While that sounds reassuring, I for one would like to know the definition of “large scale.” Is that one hundred patients; one thousand or one million? That would seem a germane question since we have now been informed by the CDC that we have five hospitals which are prepared to handle just such an outbreak should it occur. What the CDC has neglected to tell us is that between all five of those hospitals, spread throughout the country, there are a total of eleven beds to accommodate those who might come to them with the infection.
The CDC and its head, Dr.Tom Frieden have not exactly been reassuring in the way in which they have handled the situation thus far. Nurses’ union leaders are complaining that they not only have not been instructed in the protocols that should be implemented to insure their safety and the proper treatment of the patients entrusted to them, but that they do not have the appropriate equipment nor instruction in how to use it. That is a bit chilling.
The president assured us that there was no chance that Ebola would make its way to the United States. As of this writing, we now have four such cases, the latest being a returning doctor who is with Doctors Without Borders and lives in our most populous city, New York. He is currently quarantined in Bellevue Hospital.
This evening, from that hospital, the mayor of NYC, Bill de Blasio and NY governor, Andrew Cuomo together with the physicians who head NYC’s and the state’s health services appeared together at a news conference to update and reassure the public about the most recent Ebola patient and any potential threats to the health of New Yorkers because of the exposure he may have had to others. I was impressed with several things at that press gathering.
First, in the finest tradition of the White House, the scheduled press conference began late. In fact it started nearly forty minutes late. Simple common sense would suggest that if you’re dealing with a restive public who are concerned about a situation, delaying a scheduled press briefing is not the way to instill confidence.
Second, I was struck by the almost robotic monotone in which the public was updated on the latest Ebola patient by both the mayor, the governor and the female doctor who heads NYC’s health department. I will give credit to the state’s chief physician. He appeared definitely to have a pulse and seemed to engage actively and with interest in the topic at hand. I don’t expect a Periclean speech from either our elected officials and certainly not from appointed bureaucrats, but a little bit of emotion would convey a sense of actual interest.
Third, we are asked to rely on our government’s public health officials and agencies to keep us safe from harm. One of those on a Federal level would be Sylvia Burwell, the head of Health and Human Services. You’ll remember that agency which formerly was headed by Kathleen Sibelius who brought us the Obamacare website roll out. In his remarks, Governor Cuomo, never a candidate for a MENSA application, referred to Ms. Burwell as the head of Homeland Security – a post currently occupied by Jeh Johnson. Forgive me but I’m not instilled with the warm glow of security when those who are supposed to be in charge don’t know where those with whom they may need to coordinate actually work.
If we accept, perhaps with a grain of salt, that Ebola is fortunately a hard virus to transmit from one person to another, that may give us some comfort. But what is disturbing is the response from those within Federal agencies which seem at best, confused and unprepared. That is not unlike this administration’s response to a host of other issues which have surfaced in the last six years.
There are threats which nature provides and which man has created. The two terrorist attacks which have occurred in Canada, I use the term terrorists because Canada’s PM has done so being unafraid to call it as he sees it, are truly disturbing, especially in this context. We have seen recent purported uses of mustard gas in Syria. After 9/11 we had a mini crisis as we worried about the dissemination of anthrax. And terrorists in Japan have used sarin gas to advance their agendas.
In view of the savage brutality of the Islamic extremists (terrorists), it is not beyond the realm of possibility to believe that if they view their mission as destroying the infidel by any means possible they would eagerly resort to the dissemination of chemical weapons within major U. S. or other western population centers without regard to the niceties of international conventions to the contrary.
I hope that our officials are correct and that any outbreak of Ebola in the U. S. will be limited in nature and that we may assist in eradicating it in west Africa. But based on the response we’ve seen to date, to put all one’s faith in that outcome might cause a trained medical professional to question the state of our mental health.