The following guest post is a a first hand account of the 1989 measles outbreak at the Principia Upper School.
What were your experiences with CS nursing while at Prin during the measles outbreak? How did they diagnose it since they’re trained to see disease as unreal & contagion as just as unreal?
This measles epidemic hit at the beginning of my first year at Principia Upper School, in fall of 1989. I was fifteen and it was the first time I had attended a boarding school or been away from my family. The student population was almost entirely unvaccinated due to Christian Science beliefs. The first quarter, I was paired with another sophomore named A___. She was a most unusual combination of kind, unconcerned with appearances, and popular. And she was totally into CS, or appeared to be on the outside. A tranquil understanding of the philosophy, is how I would describe it, although it sounds strange to say it that way now as ex-CS but that is how I remember perceiving her. A___ tells me “I’m not going to get sick, you’re not going to get sick”, and I was like huh? cause it really seems like we’re all getting sick but you seem so sure about it. So that kind of worked and I remember thinking, ok, of course we’re not going to get sick.
Then one Sunday after church A___ laid down and didn’t get back up, just laid there with her eyes closed, skin blotching up, listening to CS tapes. I was scared. Still nobody said anything, but frequently housemoms, the women employed by Principia to live in the dorms with us, one per wing, and act as our guardians, would walk by and look in the door at A___ without comment to either of us. Eventually a housemom came and took A___ away. The dorm got really quiet. Lots of kids came down with it the same weekend that A___ did. I’m happy to presume I felt this way for my own reasons, but I definitely felt that I was expected not to get it, in the same way I would be expected not to sneak off campus or expected not to skip my homework.
The housemoms never said “measles”, only the kids spoke of it– “some kids have measles”, “this one has it now”, “so and so’s roommate was gone when she came back from practice.” But no one in the administration talked about it. They would just tell you reassuringly that they were “taking good care of” your roommate (anyone who got spots disappeared shortly thereafter). The housemoms did not say anything about your symptoms, they would just appear at your bedside after you’d been down for the count for a few hours to a day, and they’d say ‘Come with me, honey. Is there anything you want to bring?’ There was no communication from administration otherwise.
As the epidemic started up, they put students who showed measles symptoms in Campus House, which was a separate residence on campus for students sick enough to need care from a CS nurse. That filled up quickly, with a combination of students who had measles symptoms as well as kids in there for other reasons. They were not segregated. Next, they started putting sick kids in the middle school quarters of each dorm. There were no middle school boarders at the time and those attached quarters had been locked and empty. Soon they were full.
At that point, they expanded the quarantined area to include, in each dorm, the entire wing leading to the middle school quarters. This is a couple dozen rooms per dorm we’re talking, on top of all the rest. They relocated the remaining non-afflicted students living in those wings to other, now empty, beds belonging to students who had been moved into quarantine. It was just like, ‘take your clothes and shoes and go live in this other kid’s room, we’re putting a measles-ridden student in your bed/room now.’ They had a big sheet NAILED OVER THE DOORWAY to the “quarantined” wing of the dorm. And in the girls dorm anyway, that was the wing straight in front of you when you entered– the view from the windowed housemom station, the communication hub of the dorm. It was very strange to see things in this state of affairs after growing up in a first-world country.
The campus was quarantined; no day students were allowed on campus and no boarders allowed off, but this was not enacted until the school was instructed to by authorities. There was a “quarantined” tape across the school’s front driveway/entrance and it was on the local news. We sat and watched the news until the housemoms caught us.
A day or two after A___ fell ill, they came for me. I really was shocked to have gotten sick. Nobody said anything or said I had measles, they just brought me to a room in the middle school quarters. It felt unreal. Everybody else there was sicker than me so I just made my deductions about what was coming by looking at them. Okay, looks like I’m gonna have a heavy cold, be covered in rough red bumps and lumps that itch, and have glassy eyes and stare at the wall and drink milkshakes.
God, how those women resented making us those milkshakes. You know who is the absolute Worst group of people in the entire world to have care for a bunch of sick children? Christian Scientists. They were feeding us milkshakes with raw eggs snuck into in them because they thought it was a good source of extra calories, I guess. But isn’t that a terrible idea? To feed uncooked, possibly salmonella-carrying eggs to children whose immune systems are fighting off the measles with no medical help? That seems like a terrible idea to me, I don’t know.
There was so much inexplicable conflict and tension over feeding us. For the most part, we couldn’t eat real food because the insides of our throats were coated with measles pustules and we couldn’t swallow. So like, aren’t you actually getting off the hook here because you don’t have to cook us anything? But I guess if we could’ve eaten real food they could’ve utilized the cafeteria menu and wouldn’t have had to do ANYTHING except sit around judging us for being sick. In any case, I don’t care WHAT you give me to suck on because I am half dead. If a milkshake is such a pain in the ass then just pour me a glass of milk or whatever, who cares. I don’t even want your milkshake that’s served with resentment. You’re the nut jobs who are panicking about getting enough calories into us while simultaneously pretending we’re not almost dying of measles.
It was like being cared for by twelve resentful stepparents or something. It was all local CS nurses and practitioners and local CS mothers/wives. They did almost nothing for us. We didn’t get bathed because we couldn’t stand and they never suggested that we do so with help. I think I went about eight days without bathing. They didn’t even wash our hair, mine was oily from the roots out about four inches.
There were no thermometers anywhere on campus although the sick all had raging fevers. There were no medications or medicated products of any kind offered. I would be staggering up and down the hall to the bathroom clearly in need of assistance, in full view of the kitchen where they all congregated, and they pretended not to see. The CS nurses and other helpers didn’t go down to the rooms much actually, where the sicker kids were. They hung out in the living room with the less sick and read CS literature out loud, etc. (We were not allowed to watch anything on television that was deemed a distraction from our healing process.) Observing this healthier crowd in the living room was what had given me my initial, and as it turned out, extremely optimistic perception of what having measles was going to be like. If someone started coughing uncontrollably in one of the rooms the women would look at each other knowingly and sort of roll their eyes and sigh like “what an incompetent, I guess one of has to go sit with them and read to them.” Teachers would come by and visit sometimes, which was a bright spot, and regularly I would notice a CS nurse or one of the other congregated CSers peeping in my door. But this didn’t offer much other than a sense that someone would probably notice within a few minutes if I got to where I couldn’t breathe at all or I fell or something.
The school administration “strongly encouraged” our families to use (and pay) local practitioners instead of our family practitioners, which even back then in my almost eternal naivete, I knew was a bad idea motivated by a desire to fund the local practitioners who were going to be asked to help out locally with the milkshakes and the ignoring and such. So I didn’t even have communication with my practitioner-since-birth. (Not that I really felt that attached to her, as you can imagine.) Instead I was assigned this cold local practitioner who tired of my through-the-night phone calls when I got a horrible ear infection near the end of my measles. She was like “isn’t there someone THERE who can help you?” and I was like (some shy fifteen year old’s version of) “NO of course there is no one here I can find to help me, why else do you think I would call you four times between 2 and 4 AM in panicked agony when you clearly don’t even LIKE me?”
I wish I had a photo of myself. Eyes hopelessly glued shut with pus at all times, red measles so dense and scaly they only died out around the eyes, where the skin turned deathly white. I remember thinking I looked like one of the performers in makeup for the Broadway show CATS, which was popular at the time. Like a leopard, and then the crazy-looking dirty hair sticking out in all directions around my face. But the fever-induced hallucinations were the worst. They came any time I had to do anything for myself or try to reason at all. The strongest impression I retained from the whole experience was once when I was trying to alternately walk and crawl down the hall to the bathroom and the hallway was growing in length like that scene from the end of the movie ‘Poltergeist’. I remember it as having taken about five minutes for me to progress down the hall to the bathroom. Several years later when we had middle school boarders at the school again (that started back up in fall 1991 when I was a senior) I walked down to the now-unlocked wing and was startled to realize that the room I had stayed in was only three doors down from the bathroom.
I also remember standing in the dark little dorm room and staring at myself in the mirror (though I had been instructed not to look at “the material picture”) seeing myself swaying slightly, and thinking, how can I be this sick, all of us this sick, and everyone is acting normal? They’re not even being NICE to us! And I was shocked that my parents didn’t fly out. Most other kids had at least one parent or another visit at some point. Or maybe not most, I don’t know. They did discourage parents from coming, no surprise there. My parents took the ‘out’.
So, I’ve been quarantined with the rest of the sickos for a while now, and my symptoms have greatly worsened. I haven’t breathed through my nose in days and it’s now gotten to where I can’t breathe through my mouth either because I’m literally drowning in mucus. It also happens that I have extremely chapped and cracked lips which are covered in dried blood, but I’m unaware of that because I’m delirious with fever and also because the state of my lips is very low on my priority list. To the appearance-obsessed CS crowd taking care of us, perhaps my bloody lips were the most offensive symptom I was presenting.
Anyway, in the absence of any sort of real caregiving, I determine that a great way to stay alive would be to CRAWL to the bathroom, wet a washcloth with hot water, and hold it to my mouth and breathe through it so that it would melt the mucus enough that I could cough some up and swallow some down and be able to breathe for maybe ten minutes. So I do this repeatedly, and no one seems to notice, until this one lady who I will refer to as megabitch to protect her identity and also because she was a megabitch, decides to “help”. She finds me laying under the sinks in the bathroom, takes my life-giving washcloth away, says, “honey that’s not going to help your lips” and guides me back to my room.
Well, I have no idea what has just happened. It makes no sense to me, but I am very sick and confused and I kind of realize that. There’s nothing else to do but crawl back to the bathroom again once the choking starts back up. I settle back in bed with my temporarily hot washcloth and she appears again, wordlessly snatches it away and leaves without a glance, or she would have seen me desperately trying to explain how much I needed the washcloth and what I had to go through to get it since no help was forthcoming. All this lady can see is chapped lips, she is actually pretending I am not dying of pneumonia in front of her.
The next time she flounces into my room to snatch away my washcloth (where did this vigilant oversight come from all of a sudden?) I gather my wits and make a desperate attempt to communicate with her to please not take away my washcloth and to explain to her why I need it, but the wrong words come out. My fever-addled brain is picking nonsense words. I hear them and I know they are not the words I meant to say but I can’t fix it. I start to cry. I’m so thirsty. I can’t get enough air, I haven’t for hours now. She leans down over me looking straight into my eyes with the sanctimonious perfume of CS-ery just wafting off of her, and says “You DON’T need to rely on material objects for comfort! How about some Vaseline?”
How does a reasoning person utter that sentence and not hear how completely insane it is?
When she went for my washcloth this time, I clung to it and kicked her right in the shins. That’s why you shouldn’t deny fever-reducing drugs to fifteen year olds (or anyone.) I was so delirious. I felt I was fighting for my life. In retrospect, I’m pretty sure I actually was fighting for my life. But I was an obedient and easily intimidated kid, and I had never behaved like that with an authority figure.
The absolute nadir of my measles adventure came a few days later. I had been staying in the same room in the middle school quarters from the time I was originally removed from my normal assigned dorm room. I got sick near the height of the epidemic; the last to get sick were in the makeshift dorm wings. As the first to get sick (mostly at Campus House and a few in the middle school quarter) began to recover, Prin was hot hot hot to get those makeshift sick wings returned to normal dormitory use (the ones with the sheets hanging in the archways) because there’s absolutely no way that was kosher in terms of meeting the conditions of the quarantine. With that in mind, they divided us up into either Very Sick or Almost Dying so that they could move the Almost Dying kids over to Campus House where they’d be in a separate building that was actually intended for caring for sick students, and they could then consolidate the Very Sick kids all back into the Middle School quarters of each dorm, where there was an actual door they could lock and put the quarantine sign on. So it’s not that this was a bad idea.
They tell me to get my stuff together and they are going to drive me over to Campus House. Folks, I do not know why this was my breaking point but it was. I mean this fever I had was FANTASTIC, unquestionably it was in the 103-106* range because I was hallucinating and convulsing, and it had gone on for days with no medication or hydration. Anyway, I lost my damn mind. I cried hysterically. I refused to go to Campus House. “I’m getting better! I’m fine! I feel great!” I had absolutely no voice, of course, okay? Not even a whisper. Nothing. Just the horrible, wet, racking cough punctuating everything.
I break away from my caregivers’ grasp, lock myself in the nurse’s station and begin desperately calling each of my parents in turn, collect, because I think that I can tell my parents to tell Prin not to move me to Campus House. Number one, the operator cannot hear me. It takes several attempts before I successfully communicate with one. But even when the operator puts a call goes through, my parents can’t hear me either and hang up. Start over. Try other parent. Same problem. Through all this there is a crowd of CS nurses & housemoms knocking on the door trying to reason with me. High drama. Finally I luck out with a compassionate (and especially acute-of-hearing) phone operator who attempts to slightly explain the phone call, and Mom figures it out. “Elizabeth?? Is that you??” and she lets me freak out for a while, and then convinces me to go to Campus House. So I did.
The first exchange I had upon arriving at Campus House was with a certain CS Teacher (CSB’s) wife who was helping out during the epidemic. She asked me if I “should really be eating that Popsicle, dear?” I was overweight, and so shocked at her remark that I did not have the presence of mind to point out that 1. none of you are tracking or communicating to each other what any of us are eating, so really? Really, lady? and 2. I have measles IN MY THROAT. That’s how much measles I have. ALL I’ve eaten for the last ten days is popsicles and milkshakes! And nothing. Mostly nothing. Also, surely you’re not suggesting that these material popsicles can influence my weight? Because if you ARE suggesting that, then this entire measles epidemic is a complete hypocrisy! I mean, you’d basically be torturing children under a bullsh*t premise! Hahahahah!!! Crazy!
In closing, and although it is also a compliment I actually say this to emphasize how horribly the measles thing was handled, I loved Prin. I had a great time, I have lots of fond memories, and other than this instance and a few other WTF conversational exchanges with administration, I have no complaints, so this is not a “Prin sucked” thing. This is someone who had a largely positive Prin experience saying that the measles epidemic was a fiasco, and that CSers actually have no business caring for the very ill (and particularly the underaged) unless they are there only for spiritual support and are working in conjunction with actual nurses who know what the hell they are doing and how to treat the sick with a modicum of compassion. Prin mismanaged it, and the CS nursing staff & local support team mistreated and neglected us. Really badly.
My roommate A___ made it through the measles epidemic but died shortly after graduation. She came down with a respiratory illness while she was studying in Europe, and she didn’t go to the doctor. Her flatmates found her unresponsive and brought her in, and she died in the hospital. I’ve pondered this over the years because many of us had lasting effects from the measles. I have somewhat chronic strep throat due to scarring in my throat from the measles. Several of my friends reported that they had chronic chest coughs well into their college years (4-6 years on).
Elizabeth was a 4th generation Christian Scientist and attended Principia Upper School for three years. She boarded on the Upper School campus during the 1989 outbreak.
To contact Elizabeth, please e-mail excsmemoir (at) gmail (dot) com, subject: “Elizabeth’s measles story”
Edited 2/3/2015 to protect privacy and fix a few typos.