Friday, April 16, 2010

The Disease Time Forgot

How can we forget about these kinds of things?, the historian in me wonders.

Recently, I saw the book "Asleep:  The Forgotten Epidemic that Remains One of Medicine's Greatest Mysteries" by Molly Caldwell Crosby  at the local library and picked it up to leaf through.  I haven't put it down yet.  I'm not into thrillers but this nonfiction story about the disease time forgot is one of the scariest books I've every read.

I remember seeing a movie a long time ago about survivors of an encephalitis epidemic starring Robin Williams.  When I read about the real Dr. Oliver Sacks I got chills.  He practiced at a hospital called Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx...the hospital where both my mother's mother and my mother's father died.  The institution still exists.  I remember going there to visit my grandmother.  I may have been so close to a great neurologist and writer.  And to some of the last survivors of the epidemic Molly Crosby wrote about, the ones fictionalized in the Awakenings movie.

Why should we care about an epidemic that started somewhere around 1915 and ended around 1927?   I never would have heard about it if I hadn't seen the movie, and more people may have heard of it only through the writings of Dr. Sacks.  But way too many people, including those in the medical people, have not paid much attention to it.

Well, the short answer is "H1N1".
If H1N1 scares you, Ms. Crosby's book will insure never sleep again.

Her writing is so masterful, that you find yourself in the middle of early 20th century New York City, trying to solve a medical mystery that still hasn't been solved in 2010.  You walk right in the doctors' footsteps.  You feel the agony of the families touched by this unknown epidemic - including some very famous families.

(I highly recommend you read this Time magazine link.  Really.  How far have we come?)

Yet, most people, I bet, have never heard of sleeping sickness, except as a joke.  We all know about the 1918 flu pandemic.  We've heard of zombies, of Sleeping Beauty (intriguing thoughts that this illness has struck before.) But how could we have forgotten this part of our history?

The medical establishment would do well to increase their research into this disorder....and fast.  Just in case.

After all, George Santayana said, not long before this epidemic started, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

And now, back to my vacation musings.

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