I was one of nine students who caught measles at a Key Club conference in the Catskills in 1992. I was 17 and a junior in high school at the time. The outbreak made it into The New York Times and my family’s paper of record, Newsday. I saved the clippings and my dad recorded all the TV coverage. Me getting the measles was hot news.
The press couldn’t mention me by name, but they could talk about the havoc I unleashed by dragging the little-seen disease from the Catskills to Long Island. Sports games were canceled across the school district. My entire high school, driver’s ed class, and every co-worker at the local McDonald’s where I worked suffered through a round of precautionary measles shots, all because of me. I was 17 and mortified.
While they managed to stop the spread, one unfortunate classmate did catch it, even though she never believed I was the culprit. “I don’t even know that girl!” she told her friends. And she’s right about that, we didn’t know each other. Nor did I know the boy who gave me the measles at the Key Club conference. That’s the terrible effectiveness of measles.
Looking back, 27 years later, I’m struck less by the embarrassment of it all (including the memory of a classmate sneaking into my bedroom to see first-hand the rumored red spots) and more horrified by that fact that the disease could have easily killed me.
When I got back from that Key Club conference, I was exhausted. At school the following week, the nurse pulled me aside to say that someone from the conference now had a confirmed case of measles. She didn’t seem particularly concerned that I’d catch it. It seemed far-fetched, considering I’d had my measles shot and was scheduled for a booster before college. All normal, nothing unusual. My parents were unfazed. Who gets the measles in 1992?
My entire high school, driver’s ed class, and every co-worker at the local McDonald’s where I worked suffered through a round of precautionary measles shots, all because of me.
While everyone around me seemed pretty sure I didn’t have the measles, I still felt exhausted and fuzzy-brained. Yes, I’d partied a little too hard on soda, cookies, and optimistic brainstorming at the Key Club conference, but my teenage self had a remarkable capacity to snap back into top form. I started to wonder if maybe I didn’t have the measles after all? Just to be sure, my mom made an appointment with our pediatrician, Dr. B. He was so sure I didn’t have the measles that he had me sit in the regular waiting room. “I haven’t seen a case of the measles since I started practicing 20 years ago,” he said. “You probably just have a bad cold.”
Thanks to Dr. B’s diagnosis, I still had to go into work that Saturday. My dad woke me up, ever worried my clock radio would fail, and made sure I was out the door by 6 a.m. I’d been working in the early shift at my local McDonald’s since I was 15, but that morning I barely had the energy to put on my uniform.
By 8:30 a.m. I felt like the living dead. I could barely keep my eyes open. The manager told me to get off the drive-thru and go make salads instead, so I propped myself up against the metal prep table and scooped lettuce and chicken and cheese into plastic salad boxes. I looked down and thought I saw something move on my skin. A bug? No, red spots. I watched them spreading in real time, a battle line of red dots marching slowly up my arm. OMG, it’s really measles, I thought, in a panic.
“I’ve got to go! I have the measles! Throw out the salads!” I shouted as I headed out the door. My parents didn’t even have time to ask why I was home early — I just showed them my red-spotted arms and slouched down on the couch.
By the time we got the all-clear to come to Dr. B’s office, I was so weak my dad carried me to the car. Of note, I was not some waif of a teenager. Had I been in my right mind, I would have strenuously objected. Instead, I flopped into his arms, too weak and confused to fight. We entered through the back of the doctor’s office, the entrance usually reserved for contagious kids with run-of-the-mill chicken pox, and he was absolutely stunned to see me in such a state. He ran some tests but knew on sight that I had the measles.
After Barry recovered from the measles, she returned to normal early ’90s high school life: big hair, concert T-shirt, nose ring.
For the next week I struggled through a frightening collection of symptoms including a very high fever, hallucinations, and a body covered in those terrible red splotches. I lost my appetite and struggled to stay awake. During a particularly bad hallucination, I threw a bowl of rainbow sherbet at my mother who was making every effort to keep me fed and hydrated.
I could have died. Measles is a dangerous disease.
My temperature hovered in the danger zone for days, and I remember being deeply afraid that the fever would cook my brain. It’s a phrase I’d heard someone say, and it stuck with me. I didn’t want my brain to cook, no way. And I wanted those spots gone, too.
Lucky for me, I did make it through the measles unscathed. After missing more than a week of school, I went back feeling equal parts exhausted and embarrassed. People whispered about me and stared, but the memory faded. The measles came and went from our lives. Eighteen years later, in 2000, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared measles to be eliminated from the U.S.
That my experience — an anomaly when it happened over a quarter-century ago — is happening again and again to more and more people across the country is chilling. I don’t bear any physical scars from that time, but when I turn on the news and see story after story about quarantines and outbreaks it brings back the memories of that frightening time, those nights I spent feverishly worried about staying alive, and the pain my parents felt watching it all when they believed they’d taken every precaution in their power to protect me from getting sick.
When I turn on the news and see story after story about quarantines and outbreaks it brings back the memories of that frightening time, those nights I spent feverishly worried about staying alive, and the pain my parents felt watching it all when they believed they’d taken every precaution in their power to protect me from getting sick.
Terrible things happen every day to children, and measles doesn’t have to be one of them. Right now, according to the CDC, we’re facing the greatest number of reported cases of measles since 1994. I know first-hand how fast-moving, fast-spreading and dangerous measles can be, and to watch it re-emerge because of the spread of misinformation and laxness toward vaccination shocks me.
Let’s not return to the dangerous time before the advent of the measles vaccine when hundreds of children died each year and millions more children were infected. Parents have the power to stop this now, for the sake of their children and every child across the country.
Rachel Barry is a NewJersey-based writer, reader, marketing wizard, and activist. She’s co-author of ”The Happy Book” and ”This Book Is About You.”
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