Modern medicines miraculous in saving lives, parental heartache

Posted: Friday, June 23, 2006

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

We live in an age when modern drugs are often used to prevent disease and cure sickness. This, of course, is a recent phenomena. Prior to the discovery of penicillin and the sulfa drugs in the 1930s and '40s, it was so easy to succumb to the infection of a small cut on the arm or leg, or to the rubbed abrasion on an ankle, or the painful sore throat or contaminated food or water. Especially anguishing was the loss of small children.

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Nothing perhaps in American history is so well known as the travail and bereavement of Mary and Abraham Lincoln. But their experience might easily reflect that of millions of other mothers and fathers.

They lost their son Eddy in Springfield, before Lincoln became president. Their son, Willie, died in 1862 at the White House.

From David Donald's biography of Lincoln, on page 336, he writes, "On February 20 the end came. Stepping into his office, Lincoln said in a voice choked with emotion: 'Well, Nicolay (Lincon's secretary), my boy is gone - he is actually gone.' Then he burst into tears and left to give what comfort he could to Tad.

"Both parents were devastated by grief. When Lincoln looked on the face of his dead son, he could only say brokenly, 'He was too good for this earth ... but then we loved him so.' Long after the burial the President repeatedly shut himself in a room so that he could weep alone. At nights he had happy dreams of being with Willie, only to wake to the sad recognition of death. On a trip to Fort Monroe, long after Willie was buried, Lincoln read passages from Macbeth and King Lear aloud to an aide, and then from King John he recited Constance's lament for her son.

'And father cardinal, I have heard you say that we shall see and know our friends in heaven: If that be true, I shall see my boy again.'

Lincoln's voice trembled and he wept."

My father and a doctor from New York saved my life at the dawn of this age of miracle medicine. We were living in Douglas among the neighboring children with whom I had grown up. Down the street was Tom Cashen. Across from him was Gary Bach. Just across from my house was John Jensen, and down the street in the other direction were the McCormick brothers including Dick, Bob and Tony. Others close by were Tommy Horn, Harry Worbeck, Jimmie Sey and the Pusich brothers, of my age, Larry and Louie.

When I was about 8 years old, I caught a cold with a burning raw throat. Slowly, I got sicker and sicker, until I hurt with pain if any part of my body was touched. The doctors did not know what was wrong. In the early 1940s, no one thought of going to Seattle for care. There were no airplane flights, and the boat schedule was uncertain.

During World War II, the U.S. Army was expanding their camp at Duck Creek out beyond the airport and Juneau was a stop-off point for men going north to Anchorage or out to the Aleutian Islands.

My dad, in his frantic worry and desperation, heard of an Army doctor from New York; I believe his name was Dr. Bernstein, who would be in Juneau on a stopover for a day. My father hurriedly sought him out and importuned him to come to Douglas for an hour to look at me. He came and immediately recognized I had a dire case of strep throat and ordered massive doses of a sulfa drug, which he had brought with him. Then he left. In a day or so, I was feeling better and soon recovered.

• Lifelong Alaskan Elton Engstrom is a retired fish buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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