Month: January 2022

So, You Want to Be a Writer?

Well, was that a blink of light at the end of our two-year tunnel of discontent – or a snowdrop proudly poking its head above our South Island snowline only to find winter in Canada’s Camelot can still provide a knockout punch for flowers that bloom presumptuously.

I apologize for my weak attempt to be humorous about our continuing vicissitudes, mainly with COVID-19 and its various shape-shifting threats. But, I was genuinely delighted a couple of days ago to read that “in the spirit of supporting a healthy democracy with a thriving journalistic community Janet Austin, Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia, with support of the Government House Foundation and in partnership with the Jack Webster Foundation, is pleased to announce the launch of the Lieutenant Governor’s BC Journalism Fellowship.” 

I think the “thriving journalistic community” is a bit of a stretch that can only be justified if the proliferation of online publications is the measuring stick. The numbers may give the appearance of thriving, but the quality of the content all too often falls far below the standards most daily newspapers use to strive for routinely.

To be clear – I am hoping my presumed “snowdrop” survives any surprise frosts.

To be fair to whoever penned the Lieutenant Governors’ press release, they did note that the annual $25,000 fellowships would be available for at least three years to “encourage and enable journalists to go above and beyond their typical level of coverage so that some of the under-reported, but crucial, challenges of today receive the deep, complex storytelling deserved by the citizens of BC.”

Sounds a bit like one of my old editors’ oft-repeated edicts “get it first and get it fast, but FIRST get it right.” And, one that still lingers with me: “If in doubt – leave it out,” a piece of advice to which so many of today’s editors give little or no thought when they let reporters slide editorial comment into what should be just the facts.

The fellowship will be available to “a journalist, or team of journalists, in various stages of their careers (emerging, returning or experienced).” Would-be applicants can get details at: https://jackwebster.com/lieutenant-governors-bc-journalism-fellowship/.

Before applying, applicants would do well to familiarize themselves with L-G Austin’s thoughts on the need for quality journalism: “One of the greatest challenges faced in our society is the fragility of democracy in the 21st century. Across our communities, we see increased polarization as we encounter trials on a magnitude never experienced (while) all the news outlets we rely on to maintain an informed citizenry are eroding and under-resourced.”

My advice to any young journalist applying: Remember, you will never write anything you couldn’t have written better, and make sure you have a good, tough editor.

Stand Firm with Public Health Protectors

It is 30 years now since Charles Panati’s Extraordinary Endings of Practically Everything and Everybody found its way to bookstores and libraries. It should be mandatory reading in Grades 11 and 12 and a passing grade requirement in first-year university exams.

There is an urgency to my recommendation. It springs from the open rejection and defiance by so many young people to public health authorities attempting to curb the spread of COVID-19 with its ever-challenging virus variations.

So far, there is no magic bullet to eliminate the new intruder threatening our health and happiness, but we do have vaccines that challenge the invader and slow or halt its progress. However, we also have a vociferous and militant anti-vax movement shouting, protesting and, in some cases, threatening frontline workers who are putting their health and their lives at risk every day and through the long hours of each night.

Two hundred years ago, people had cause to question experimenting doctors who probably killed as many as they cured. One hundred years ago, even in so-called advanced nations, our overall record wasn’t all that great. I was born into a five-children family, but only two of us made it beyond our teens. A 10-month-old sister and five-year-old brother were lost to meningitis, and an 18-year-old brother was lost to peritonitis because there was no cure to offer.

When I was born in 1923, smallpox was still a feared disease, although English country Dr. Edward Jenner had found a vaccine in 1796 to stop it in its track. For years, the people of England feared the needle more than they feared smallpox. Vaccination didn’t become globally accepted until George Washington was informed that half the men in his 10,000-strong Continental Army were infected. He asked Congress for funds to inoculate the still-healthy soldiers. It took a few more decades to placate the fearful, but, in 1977, what was billed as the last case of smallpox on earth was declared found and cured.

Of more recent memory is the once-frightening battle with poliomyelitis which had been around since ancient Egyptian times with outbreaks of a relatively minor nature until 1916. In his book, Panati writes: “That summer, polio killed six thousand American young children and paralyzed 27,000 others.” The dreaded disease spread worldwide, and you don’t have to be really old to remember front-page pictures in local newspapers of banks of “artificial lungs” keeping people alive by breathing for them. If you were a young parent, you lived in fear for your children and yourself until Dr. Jonas Salk (1955) and Dr. Albert Bruce Sabin (1961) brought the world the cure.

Health workers had other successes – some two steps forward, one step back – like the battle to conquer tuberculosis. They called it “the White Death,” and it was so contagious and invariably fatal that Panati quotes Quaker physician Thomas Young, labelling it as the first disease “to deter practitioners from attempting a cure.”

In the 1950s, there was hope that as the antibiotic streptomycin had sharply reduced the death rate, eradication now seemed possible. But, Panati writes sadly: “Once nearly eradicated in the Western world, TB is tragically on the rise again.”

Never one to mince words, he warns that the primary causes of TB are crowded living spaces created by homelessness, poor diet and drug addiction. He suggests that if those problems are not solved, “the world might be re-visited in pandemic proportions by the White Death, a plague that in the area of modern medicine should never happen.”

One final thought on pandemics and why those opposing protective vaccination need to be completely honest in their self-analysis.

Mary Mallon – an American citizen who died in 1938 at age 69 – was a cook, and Panati tells us, unknown to herself, she was a “medically immunological marvel; a person who carries a deadly agent without ever becoming sick, but who can kill others with a kiss or a meringue pie.”

In 1900, Mary was a cook for a New York residence. Ten days after starting her job, several consumers of her cooking came down with typhoid. Mary quickly found a new position. Members of the new employer’s family developed fevers and diarrhea, and the family laundress died from typhoid. Mary moved again, this time to cook for a lawyer and his household. Seven of his eight family members came down with typhoid, and no one suspected the cook who willingly provided care for those she had made sick.

Panati reports that in 1906, Dr. George Soper was investigating a “cluster” of typhoid cases in New York. He noted one person appeared to show up at all outbreaks. No name was mentioned, but the person was described as an “unmarried, heavyset Irish cook, about 40 years old with thick graying hair, round steel-rimmed glasses and a sombre, sullen countenance.”

But nobody knew her whereabouts.

Undeterred, Soper traced Mary from a fading old case to a new active case at a Park Avenue penthouse where two servants had been hospitalized, and the family daughter had died. When he attempted to interview her, she cursed him. When he asked her to provide stool and urine samples, she threatened him with a meat cleaver. With unspecified assistance from the New York Health Commissioner “and the police,” she was arrested “though not without a fierce battle” and taken away kicking and screaming that she “never washed her hands when she cooked” and never had a need to.

Panati leaves his readers to fill in some descriptive blanks on hospital procedures for Mary. “Daily cultures made of her urine and stools – each forcibly taken with the help of several hospital matrons – revealed that her gall bladder was teeming with typhoid salmonella. She refused to give permission to have her gall bladder removed and also refused to give up cooking as a career.

And – shades of today’s health care protesters – she insisted she was a victim of a medical conspiracy and carried no disease. Dr. Soper’s report identified her as the most likely cause of a major typhoid outbreak, with 1,400 cases in 1903. Seven years later, on the promise that she would never again work as a cook, she was released from commitments made when first arrested and immediately changed her name to Mary Brown.

For the next five years, she managed to stay one jump ahead of Dr. Soper until 1915, when typhoid hit the staff at New York’s Sloan Hospital for Women. There were 25 cases and two deaths, and one of the cooks, “a portly Irish-American woman,” was missing.

This time when they tracked Mary down, she was quarantined for life on North Brother Island, where she often entertained visiting journalists in the furnished cottage provided by the State but was strictly forbidden to provide them with even a drink of water.

She died of pneumonia on November 11, 1938. At autopsy, Panati tells us: “Her gallbladder was found to be as actively shedding typhoid bacilli as ever.”

It leaves me wondering just whom she thought was conspiring against her and why? But find no answer from Mary or today’s conspiracy believers.   

A Cautionary Tale

Well, that’s it then. Just a few days ago, on Dec. 27th, I rolled quietly and gently through my 98th birthday and started work on my 99th year. In past years, I have penned my birthday musings a few days before the event. This year, too nervous to tempt fate, I thought it wiser to wait until the 98th was actually posted and the first careful steps of the 99th taken.

They have been truly momentous years, and I have written many times that my glass of life was always more half full than half empty. However, it is a metaphor for a good life that I have tripped and fallen three times in 2021; the first hilarious, the second and third warnings that legs that had always obeyed automatic commands were no longer prepared to respond as they had since my first steps in the 1920s.

Still standing, I have a duty to offer a little advice to others now old enough to fear falling.

My first fall came as I was walking past the open office counter where fellow guests of Berwick Royal Oak Retirement Centre register for various in-house activities. Two elderly ladies had just completed a successful attempt to get seats together for a theatre or bus tour event. Laughing and smiling, arm-in-arm, they turned from the counter and, in lockstep, neatly detached me from my walker with a robust tackle.

The apologies were voluminous. My embarrassment was acute as I sat in a circle of solicitous faces, unable to move my legs into a lever-able position. Staff quickly assumed command. A check for bone or muscle damage and then, to modest applause from onlookers, I was lifted to my feet and on my way.

My second and third calls were scarier. I was alone and had ignored the advice of Nic, my paramedic son, to always wear a wrist-strapped button that, when pressed in an emergency, alerted staff to my precise location in the Berwick facility. I had been on a long walk that late summer day. I got back to my apartment feeling a little tired and, with shaky legs, collapsed as I took two or three steps into my room. 

My wrist band emergency button was in my bedroom, unreachable from where I sat on my living room floor. On a small table behind me, my landline phone sat also beyond reach. My mobile phone was on a small table beside my TV-watching chair. Unreachable.

I was learning the hard way that my paramedic son was preaching serious survival gospel when he said: “Strap your button on and leave it on except when you wash or shower. And even then, make sure it will be within reach if you fall.”

So, as trained in old air raid drill lessons, I stayed calm and managed to struggle myself a little closer to my mobile, kick it with a favourable bounce toward me, grab it like a drowning man’s life ring, and call for paramedic aid. Before they left, one of the paras suggested I keep the mobile a little closer. “It could have bounced away from you and…..” I just grunted my thanks.

My third fall was a gentle collapse as I prepared for bed one evening. As I disrobed, one pant leg at a time, my left leg just folded. No pain, no warning, just total collapse. I bounced face-first off the bedroom wall. I twisted as I fell and finished up sitting with my back against the wall, a trickle of blood ambling down my face, knuckles scraped. This time, I proudly pressed the magic button – since fall two, I had never taken it off except in the shower.

My pride was fleeting. My mobile phone placed earlier on a bedside table and well beyond my reach, beeped. The front desk had obviously received my emergency alert and was calling to know if the button had been pressed by accident or did I actually need help.

Once again, I reached into my old air raid drill box and tapped out the Morse code SOS – three dots, three dashes and three dots. I have no idea if the sequence was being received as Morse, but within seconds, I heard a key unlock my room door, and a bright voice asked: “Where are you?”

The cavalry had arrived, and in double-quick time, I was checked for broken bones. Scratches and scrapes were cleaned up, and with what seemed like no effort at all, a young lady had me standing up. I never did figure out how she did it. It was quite remarkable, and “thank you” seemed inadequate.

It’s quite possible readers will think this 98th birthday offering is inadequate for a day that should be celebrated. But I felt, maybe I’m not alone – moving so close to what was once that distant 100th star – in processing the signals my ageing body and mind are sending me. It took me a long time to accept and get used to; first, a walking stick, then ski poles and then the embarrassment of a walker that is a damned nuisance but an essential, dependable aid.

I thought maybe there are readers out there who, as they move into their late 80s and later 90s, are equally reluctant to admit they need a little help. And so, my 98th birthday message: You are not alone; you are not the first to feel this way.

And “thank you” to readers kind enough to wish me well. May the year now beginning bring us all that we need for happiness.

My birthday wish for those who have read his far: Take care; don’t be shy. Use every available aid. Keep that safety call button on your wrist. Remember, your portable phone, your cell or the latest magic electronic marvel are only helpful if within reach when your need is greatest.