First grade. Last day of school. I got home, and my mom said, “Summer at last! Why don’t you go outside and play!” Yes, why don’t I?! So I ran to my favorite climbing tree and wriggled right up the trunk. I was feeling it hard: the warm air, the freedom. I stepped out onto a branch and loosed a mighty Tarzan yell, beating my chest at the sense of possiblity ahead of me.
And promptly toppled to the ground. Oops.
I suppose it hurt, but all I remember is standing up and looking at my arm. It was shaped roughly like this (my fingers aren’t that jaggedy in real life):
Later, at the hospital, I learned a new word. Shattered. (Yay, vocabulary!) I spent the next two months in a cast from fingertips to armpit.
So much for that summer. But my arm healed up just fine!
Not all my childhood summers were quite so inauspicious. Still, one June I hacked open my hand with a paring knife while trying to sharpen a branch to make a spear. Another year I managed to catch the middle finger of my right hand in a fire door as it shut. The end of that finger is still kinda funny looking. There was another broken arm in middle school — I fell off our garage roof. But these were pretty typical mishaps of childhood, the kind of thing most of us experience along the way in one form another.
Then there was the summer of 1979. The fever showed up on the 4th of July. Instead of going out to the fireworks I watched the Boston Pops on TV. At first, the fever responded aspirin. But two days later it hit 104.7° and I landed in an ice bath in the emergency room.
I would go on to spend six weeks in the pediatric wing of Good Samaritan Hospital in Dayton, Ohio. My fever cycled twice a day from low grade to volcano, but I had no other symptoms. I scored a private room was because I was quarantined, which meant people had to dress in space suits to visit me — at least until they ruled out any number of infectious diseases.
That’s mostly what they did that summer. Rule things out. I experienced my first spinal tap, and had bone marrow sucked from my sternum. Those two delightful experiences ruled out encephalitis and leukemia though, so there’s that. Over time, a whole bunch of other things were ruled out too. That’s good, obviously, but what wasn’t good all the time I was alone, wondering when a test would finally turn out to be positive, and what it would be positive for. Beriberi? Trypanosomiasis? Skittles pox? (Mmmm, delicious Skittles pox.)
After the first week, my visitors dropped to almost zero — despite the fact my doctors cleared the quarantine so there was no more need of spacesuits. My second week in, I contracted pneumonia, which made my Fever Dream rollercoaster even more thrilling for a while, but they were able to knock that down with antibiotics.
I spent most of my non-fevered periods by myself. I had plenty of books, which helped, and four channels of pre-cable TV. But not much else. The nurses were great, but they were busy and had no time to entertain a restless 15-year-old who passed into delerium twice a day. My doctors (I would eventually have five) stopped by each day, but they mostly just looked serious and told me they were doing everything they could. I think I was mostly an interesting puzzle to them.
As time passed, the fevers became less severe, and eventually they just … stopped. My doctors had run out of tests, and with no more symptoms, they sent me home. I spent the last a week or so before back-to-school wondering what I would have done if I’d had a summer.
I also spent a lot of time thinking about who my friends were, who I could count on. In retrospect, I think that summer may have been harder on my emotional health than my body. I think I lost a little faith in others that summer, and a little faith in myself. Sometimes I look back on some choices I’ve made that were hurtful toward others and wonder the seeds of those choices were planted in 1979. All that time I spent alone during the long, lost summer, wondering if my friends and even some of my family had forgotten me — hell, sometimes wondering if I was going to die — what did it burn into me, or out of me?
Still, I remember one thing. For most of my hospital stay, I was getting blood drawn a couple of times a day. There was one hematology tech who would time his arrival at my room to coincide with his break, and then he’d hang out and watch TV with me or chat. It was just half an hour, but it was huge. I missed him on his days off.
Back then, I didn’t understand what a gift he was giving me — the gift of time. But if I saw him today, I’d hug him. So if I learned a little cynicism that summer, it wasn’t all I learned.
By way of epilogue, we got a phone call from one of my many doctors the next November. They’d done a number of cultures that took months to return a result, and finally they had an answer for me — or sort of an answer.
One of the cultures had been positive for histoplasmosis, a fungus which most typically infects the lungs. It’s common in the Ohio River Valley, and may have contributed to my development of pneumonia.
For people with healthy immune systems, a histoplasmosis infection can resolve on its own. That may be what happened with me, since I was never treated for it. Or the histoplasmosis may not have been the problem at all. The cycling fever isn’t among its usual symptoms. I’ll probably never know for sure.