I’m riding my white horse today.
As a lawyer, I know that people get harmed through no fault of their own by other’s people’s negligence and failure to pay attention to what is important. Whether it’s a car accident, a doctor who ignores symptoms, or a vicious dog who attacks a child, the person who is hurt should not have to pay the price for the injury. The court system cannot give back the things these people have lost: time away from work which leads to the loss of their careers, the pretty face that existed before the dog mauled the four year old girl, the mother who was killed by a drunk driver, living without constant pain caused by the injuries in the accident, the cheerful contributions to her family that the coma patient used to make before the doctor ignored the pulmonary thrombosis that led to her vegetative state.
When lawyers screw up a case, clients want to sue them and recover their losses. And they should. They should also be able to sue doctors, negligent drivers, and other people whose failure to pay attention has hurt them.
Unfortunately, “tort reform” usually means “medical malpractice lawsuit reform.” People think that lawyers are mean to doctors, who are just doing their best to heal people who probably can’t be healed in the first place.
That is not the case.
Look at the statistics in a recent Huffington Post article. Only 2-3% of ALL medical malpractice results in a lawsuit. That’s not 2-3% of medical care cases; that’s 2-3% of actual malpractice situations. Is such a number of lawsuits really excessive?
Caps on punitive damages is the issue Obama is expected to embrace, though. Punitive damages don’t reimburse someone for money they are out. Compensatory damages cover that. Punitive damages are intended as punishment – hence, the name “punitive.”
Why would someone require punishment for a screw-up? Think about how we decide how and whether to punish our children for negligence. Let’s say that Susie and Jenny are at a birthday party for one of their classmates and it’s cake and ice cream time. Susie gets excited explaining something and throws her arms wide, knocking over Jenny’s glass of punch, spilling it on her and ruining her party dress. Of course, Susie has to apologize to Jenny, and she has to get Jenny another glass of punch. She has to help clean up the mess, and if Jenny’s party dress is expensive Susie’s mom might offer to pay for it to be cleaned. These actions are compensatory in nature. They compensate Jenny for the loss of her glass of punch, her clean and dry dress, and her hurt feelings.
If Susie knocks the punch over because she was dancing on the table, though, Susie will be punished. Punitive action will be taken to ensure she doesn’t dance on the table and spill someone’s punch again.
Maybe we put Susie in time-out. Maybe Susie gets a spanking. Maybe Susie is grounded from her Barbies, or she is not allowed to go to any parties for the next month.
The point is not that Susie is being punished for doing something intentionally. She did not. She did spill the punch while being grossly negligent, though. She should have known that if she danced on the table where Jenny’s punch sat, the punch would spill.
Punitive damages in these cases are intended to stop gross negligence. They are not appropriate where there is no gross negligence – where the punch spills accidentally due to something unforeseen or where the negligence was minor. Punitive damages are for those egregious cases where the doctor ignored clear warning signs of his patient’s impending doom and did nothing.
Punitive damages are not awarded lightly by any jury. If a jury awards an amount in the millions, it is because the defendant in those medical malpractice actions has the resources to pay such an amount, even if it hurts. Punishment is not intended to kill, and punitive damages that bankrupt a company or a doctor aren’t appropriate. Punitive damages are supposed to hurt, though – just like being grounded from birthday parties hurts. And just like Susie, the idea is that punitive damages will hurt for a little while, but the defendant will get over it – hopefully to go forth more carefully in the future.
Breast cancer has taken the lives of women we knew and loved, and has made the lived of other women we know and love very difficult. Has anyone’s life been unaffected by it? Don’t we all know someone who has had breast cancer?
The Susan G. Komen Foundation is the beneficiary of a Three-Day Walk for a cure for breast cancer. The walk is a National Philanthropic Trust project, aimed at nationwide and even worldwide participation.
With money for cancer research, more women diagnosed with breast cancer can be like my friend Ellen, who miraculously survived with a spontaneous remission despite being given a death sentence by her doctor, and my aunt Jackie, who survived with successful treatment. I can name others who have recovered and others who, sadly, have not. My cousin Margaret, my neighbor Sassy, my old friend Faye…. all have been the unlucky victims of this insidious disease.
As many of you reading this blog know, I’ve had cancer twice. I’ve not had breast cancer, but my nightmares tell me to I expect to. None of us are safe.
Please donate to this worthy cause.
My friend Kathi, who happens to be my former husband’s girlfriend, is participating in the three day walk in October. If you don’t participate yourself, please donate to her effort to raise money for a cure.
Is it weird that I ask you to support Kathi? She’s dating my ex-husband, after all. If you don’t already know, Skip and I have a wonderful relationship – much better than when we were married – and it all revolves around a certain boy who is closing in on adulthood. Our son Jack is sixteen, personable, creative, and reasonably well-adjusted despite his parents’ divorce. Skip and I have worked hard to make sure we work together for Jack’s sake. He is the single most important thing in our lives. Skip and I encourage each other constantly, talk almost daily, and support each other’s goals, hopes and dreams. We call each other for support and to vent. We still like each other. Thank the gods we divorced before we could develop hatred for one another!
I support Kathi not only because she is my friend and Jack’s possible future stepmom, but because she is actually doing something for a cause I believe in strongly. If you don’t participate in the walk yourself, support someone who is. Support Kathi!
The link will get you to the page where you can donate money to the cause. Five dollars, ten, any amount you can contribute will help. Please help!
Here is the message Kathi is sending out to her friends:
I just wanted to send an update on the Breast Cancer 3Day Walk that I am doing in October.
We are asked to raise $2200 per participant and I have already raised $400 toward my goal! How exciting! Some of those donations are from people forwarding my email to their friends and I want you to know how much I truly appreciate your support. I joined a team called the “Buttercups” and our team has already raised $5,672! We are all training and getting ready for the 60 mile journey.
If you have already donated I can’t thank you enough! If you are still interested in donating here is the link to my site. You can donate online or print a donation form and mail it in. Nothing is too small and it is all tax deductible.
Thank you again!
In the last couple of years I’ve changed my stance on gun control.
I don’t like guns. They scare the hell out of me, and I see nothing “sporting” about attacking unarmed animals with them in the woods. I don’t own one and I’ve never been comfortable with the notion of having one in my house, despite the fact that my ex-husband had a hunting rifle and a boyfriend had a pistol.
I’ve represented kids with criminal charges involving guns. I’ve seen bullet holes in children’s bedroom walls from drive-by shootings. I’ve represented women who were threatened with guns by their husbands, boyfriends, and even their sons. I’ve been to funerals of people killed by guns. I’ve held and hugged a weeping grandmother when a stray bullet in a gang shooting left her favorite grandson, a good boy with an “A” average and college-bound, dead on a dark street in a small town in southeast Arkansas.
I don’t like the attitude of the NRA. It comes across as arrogant, shrill, and combative – not the kind of attitude a responsible gun owner/handler should display, especially around guns.
This is going to sound stupid, probably, but one of the things that tipped the scales for me against gun control was a movie. It wasn’t just any movie. It was a movie based on a comic book. Bear with me. I’ve watched V for Vendetta, a film by the incomparable Wachowski Brothers, multiple times, and I find no fault with its future history philosophy.
Perhaps the helium in my brain is showing, but the point that disarming a populace oppresses the citizens makes sense to me.
One of the very best quotes from the movie is, “People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.” Why? Because the power to change government, to oversee government, and to demand that government be accountable lies with the people.
There is a poignant scene in this movie in which thousands of unarmed citizens in Guy Fawkes masks confront the well-armed military. As they pour into the open areas on this auspicious night, the astonished military doesn’t open fire. Perhaps it is the sheer numbers of people; perhaps it is the eerie, surreal fact that they are costumed like that seditionist of the past, but for whatever reason, the armed forces of the government holds its fire and allows itself to be overrun. Perhaps it is because the members of the armed forces are citizens, too, and the whole point of the movie is that citizens must require and compel change in the government.
And then there’s this quote, the source of which I’m desperately seeking:
“An armed society is a polite society.
An unarmed society is a police state.
A disarmed society is a tyranny.”
One morning in 1999 I went to my optometrist for a routine eye exam. It was time to check the strength of my glasses and contacts. With my pupils uncomfortably dilated, Dr. Randall Teague peered into the depths of my right eye. He looked into my left eye for a quick moment, then looked into the right again. He looked for what seemed like a very long time, since he was shining a light directly through the pupil onto the retina.
“Has anyone ever told you that you have a freckle in your eye?” he asked.
I was a little startled. In fact, my neurologist had asked the same question when I was last in his office for a visit for my migraines. I told Dr. Teague this.
“You need to see a good ophthalmologist,” Dr. Teague said. He turned and reached for a phone book. “I’m going to call to make you an appointment.”
This was certainly an unusual thing to happen during an eye exam, I thought. As I sat in the darkened room, in the exam chair, I watched as Dr. Teague called the office of Bill Mabrey, a very respected Little Rock ophthalmologist, and asked to set an appointment. “She needs to be seen this afternoon,” he told the person on the other end of the conversation. I began to worry.
“Why this afternoon?” I asked. I had other plans for the day, but Dr. Teague exuded a sense of urgency.
That afternoon I went to see Dr. Mabrey, who, coincidentally, was the son of my in-laws’ neighbor and close friend. Over the past ten years I had heard of Bill Mabrey’s professional progress from his mother, who loved to talk about how well he was doing and the awards and recognition he received as an extraordinarily accomplished ophthalmologist. I knew that he was the best in Little Rock.
“You have a choroidal melanoma,” he told me that afternoon. He explained that the “freckle” in my eye was similar to a mole on the skin. It was essentially a growth of pigmented cells in the part of my eye just behind the retina. Some people have small “freckles” in their eyes, just like they have freckles on their skin, and there is no problem. When the freckle grows, though, it is considered to be a malignant tumor that has to be removed surgically.
Only 5 in a million people have choroidal melanoma. That means about 1200 people in the United States have this condition. It is rare. And it is scary as hell.
The choroidal melanoma can metastasize, or spread to other parts of the body, usually to the liver or the lungs. Aggressive action to eradicate the tumor is necessary to prevent the spread of the melanoma. Usually this means the patient loses the affected eye. It is removed to prevent the melanoma from spreading. “You will most likely have to have your eye removed,” Bill Mabrey told me. My world rocked.
I have always had a fear of blindness. When I was first given glasses at the age of 9 I was told that my eyesight would continue to decline. “How bad will it get?” I had asked the eye doctor. He replied, “Oh, eventually you’ll go blind.” He thought I understood he was kidding. I didn’t, and it wasn’t until several years later that I came to understand his remark to be flippant. But in the meantime, I was sure my eyes would soon fail me completely and I would be in a world without books, without sewing, without the fine details that I loved to give to things.
More than anything else, I use my eyes. I read. I write. I sew. I make miniatures. I cannot possibly imagine life without eyes. I can lose my hearing and be okay. Yes, I love music and movies, but losing hearing would only handicap me. Losing my sight would make life much less worth living.
The fear of blindness that had permeated my childhood and adolescence came roaring back into my life. It arrived with a powerful blow and knocked me senseless. I didn’t hear the rest of what Dr. Mabrey said, but as I left I was told to make an appointment to have an MRI done on my eye.
The only place in the state that had the equipment to do an MRI on my eye to determine the size of the tumor was the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS), which is located in Little Rock. Pursuant to instructions from Dr. Mabrey’s office, I called for an appointment. It would be six weeks before they could fit me in. I made the appointment.
The next few weeks were hell. This was the second time I had been diagnosed with a cancerous condition. Jack was three years old the first time. Now he was eight. The notion of this cancer metastasizing terrified me, not so much for me but for my son. My dad had lost his mother to leukemia when he was a teenager and never recovered from the blow. I didn’t want this to happen to Jack. I was 36 years old. My grandmother died at the age of 39.
I walked around in a daze. Depression hit me hard. I spent a lot of time just going through the motions of life. Going to my law office, going home, making dinner, sitting in a daze waiting for the next blow to fall. I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I spent a lot of time just staring into space. Blindness, a cancer metastasizing, the possibility of my child growing up without his mother. I couldn’t even cry. I was numb.
It’s hard for me to write about those months of my life. Even now, nearly a decade later, I can’t think of them without tears. That time was easily the lowest I have ever been, and I’ve had plenty of lows.
My sister, Susan, recognized the fact that I couldn’t function. My husband didn’t – I think maybe he was too close to the situation himself to take action. My sister, though, didn’t hesitate.
Susan researched the diagnosis. She started making phone calls. She found that there were five clinics in the US that treated choroidal melanoma. One of them was at the University of Tennessee in Memphis, just a two hour drive away. When she told me she had found the clinic, she joked that she had hoped we’d have to go to New York, where the shopping was better. I managed a smile. I was so numb I really didn’t care.
Susan got me an appointment at the clinic in Memphis for two weeks later. She cancelled the appointment at UAMS and got the records from Dr. Mabrey’s office. She was ready to drive me to Memphis when a few days before the appointment my husband said he would take me.
Ophthalmic oncology is a tiny subspecialty within ophthalmology. There are approximately 147 ophthalmic oncologists in the world. Getting a second opinion would be virtually impossible, and would most likely be done at my own expense. It wasn’t practical. If the ophthalmic oncologists at the University of Tennessee, which was also associated with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis couldn’t save my eye, it wouldn’t be saved. (Remember the plugs actor Danny Thomas used to make for St. Jude’s on television? He founded the hospital.)
That day I waited in the crowded reception room with about 40 other patients. Not everyone had the same problem I did. There were some who were blind, some who were obviously frail and feeble, and others who appeared just as healthy as I did. After what felt like a lifetime my name was called and I began a series of tests.
After an ultrasound of my eye, photographs of my retina, and two doctors peering through the enlarged pupil of my right eye, Dr. Barrett Haik told me that the spot was most likely malignant and that there were just a couple of options for treatment. One was that my eye would be removed and I would get a glass replacement. If the second option didn’t work, that’s what would ultimately happen anyway.
The second option was a radical new procedure. A tiny laser beam would be aimed through the clear pupil of my paralyzed eye and the melanoma would be burned to a pile of ash. The blood vessels feeding it and helping it to grow would be cauterized by the laser, too. The procedure had rarely been done before, and never by Dr. Haik. However, Dr. Matthew Wilson, his associate, had seen it done. It was experimental. If I did it, I might still need to have radiation treatments on the eye. Despite the laser and radiation, I might still lose my eye. Was I willing to try it? I shrugged. Sure.
It could not be done that day. The doctors would have to get the necessary equipment from St. Jude’s. I should come back in a month. New measurements could be taken by ultrasound and by photograph at that time to confirm that the spot was malignantly growing inside my eye.
I was still numb. When Skip and I explained the options to our families, the consensus was to go for the laser surgery. I was still in such a state of shock and denial that I couldn’t pick up the phone to call for the appointment. My sister came to my rescue again. She called the office in Memphis. I had an appointment to have the surgery.
This time the reception area at Dr. Haik’s office wasn’t as crowded and I was ushered in almost immediately. The pupil of my right eye was dilated with drops. Measurements were again taken with the ultrasound and the photographs. I was seated in an examination chair and given a painkiller.
The team knew what they were about to do to me would hurt and they warned me it would be uncomfortable. Still, I was unprepared for the excruciating agony of a paralytic agent being administered to the muscles around my eye by a hypodermic needle. The shot and the searing agony seemed to go on forever. When it was finally over I asked if it was a boy or a girl. I hoped, for that much pain, I had a baby girl to show for it. Jack was, alas, still sibling-less.
While they waited for the paralytic drug to take effect, Doctors Wilson and Haik talked and joked with me. I have never met a doctor whose bedside manner was better than Dr. Haik’s. He was constantly patting my hand and arm in a fatherly manner, soothing me with his soft voice, and putting me at ease with every word. He explained each step thoroughly.
He was also honest about the fact that he had never attempted the procedure he was about to perform on me. Dr. Wilson had done it, and would be supervising him. The two medical men readied the laser and talked with me and each other about what was happening. Dr. Haik bent over me and aimed the light through my pupil onto the part of the retina where the melanoma was bulging through the choroidal layer of my eye. As soon as he was confident of his aim, he activated the laser. I felt nothing.
For several minutes he directed the laser into my eye. He explained that he was burning not only the melanoma itself, but the blood vessels that were feeding it. Cauterizing those vessels was paramount: if they could still deliver nourishment to that tumor, the spot would continue to grow. All the cancerous cells had to be eradicated.
At last he was finished. He moved aside and Dr. Wilson took a look. He readied the laser and burned a little more of the area. Still, I felt nothing. Dr. Wilson backed away and removed his mask. “I think we got it all,” he grinned. I smiled with relief. It was probably the first time I had smiled in over two months.
Four weeks later I returned to the clinic for a checkup. The tumor wasn’t growing. There was just a mountain of ash where it used to be. I had a blind spot in my vision where the laser had seared the retina and damaged it permanently. A small black spot in one corner of my vision is such a small price to pay to keep my eye. Nine years later, I don’t even see it. In fact, even when I look for the blind spot I can’t find it. (I guess I’m blind to it – right?) My brain has compensated for the small gap in my vision.
I now go to Memphis once a year for a follow up exam. Last year Dr. Haik was on sabbatical and I really missed seeing him. Dr. Wilson was there, though. I adore these two men who saved my eye.
When I came across a story of a small boy who had eye cancer, and who has a gift for something else special, I decided to share this story with you. I hope you find inspiration in it. I did. I found the courage to tell you about one of the darkest periods of my life.
You’re at a cocktail party and the conversation around you has waned. People standing around you are your shoulder hoping they see someone more interesting to talk to.
You’re on a date – the first you’ve had in months – and suddenly you’re tongue-tied. You can’t think of a single thing to say.
The debate around your in-laws’ dinner table has become heated as your wife’s younger brother defends displaying his latest nipple piercing (the one on his girlfriend) and you desperately want to change the subject to something more innocuous, yet interesting enough to distract the rest of the family, thereby making you the in-laws’ favorite hero and guaranteeing you some action with the spousal unit later.
You’re wishing you had a fun fact to know and tell.
Wish no more. If you lean closer, refill your glass of wine, and settle in for a bit, I’ll share one with you.
You’ve heard of Death by Chocolate.
I speak of Death by……
“Death by molasses? You’ve got to be kidding,” I hear you say. And you’d have a point. To a point, anyway.
Molasses is really kind of healthy. It’s made when the juice of sugar cane is boiled, similar to the boiling of maple sap to make maple syrup. After boiling, the sugar crystals we are familiar with are removed from the resulting syrup with centrifugal force.
Sugar cane is grown mostly in the West Indies (in the Caribbean, for those of you who don’t know), and was exported to the American colonies and then to the US, where it was the primary sweetener until the late 19th century.
The cane juice is boiled three times. Light molasses comes from the first two boils, and can be the color of homey to a medium amber shade. The third boiling of the juice yields blackstrap molasses, which is the dark stuff that traditionally sweetens ginger cookies and baked beans.
Holding Tanks for Molasses
In addition to the benefit of being a natural sweetener, blackstrap molasses is just chock full of minerals and vitamins. In fact, several tests have shown that the more blackstrap is boiled, the higher the concentration of iron. This is something every anemic ought to know. Depending on the brand and the quality, up to 25% of the RDA of iron can be found in blackstrap. How about using it instead of an artificial sweetener in your coffee or tea? The 16 calories per teaspoon is counterbalanced by the other health benefits, in my opinion.
And while no self-respecting blogger such as myself would hold herself out as a doctor, I am always looking for herbal remedies and cures. The Earth Clinic website excitedly claims to “have emails from our readers about blackstrap molasses curing cancerous tumors, fibroid tumors, anxiety, constipation, edema, heart palpitations, anemia, arthritic pain, joint pain, and acne, just to name a few. It has also been reported that molasses turns gray hair back to its original color and is a wonderful skin softener!”
I shall be washing my hair in molasses this evening, just to see if the gray fades as Earth Clinic’s readership claims. I hope the disappearance of the gray isn’t due to the blackstrap sticking to the hair and gumming it up. (Actually, it’s the copper in the molasses that does the trick. A copper deficiency is usually to blame for prematurely gray hair.)
Molasses has been credited with curing tumors, cycts and other benign growths, cancerous growths; arthritis; ulcers, dermatitis, eczema and psoriasis; high blood pressure, angina pectoris and other conditions related to the circulatory system; constipation, colitis and other digestive disorders, including gallstones and bladder problems; various types of anemia; nervous conditions; and even the effects of menopause. It is said to strengthen nails and hair, and, like I said before, reverse premature graying of hair. It speeds healing after surgery. Yeah, this molasses is some healthy stuff.
It even makes certain herbs more potent. For example, certain growers of marijuana claim that molasses binds the nutrients to the soil more efficiently than other agents, so they use it to grow better weed. Far out. (Anybody got that guy’s number?)
And speaking of mind-altering substances, no story about molasses would be complete without a reference to all that makes being a pirate worth being a pirate (in addition to the booty, or course): Rum!
You didn’t think all that sugar cane was grown just to sweeten some colonist’s tea, now did you?
“That’s all well and good,” you object, “And all this rot about molasses is fascinating. But, you promised us a story of death by molasses.”
And so I did.
When Molasses is stored, it’s is kept in great round tanks, similar to those that store oil.
I’m going to tell you a story of one such tank, which once sat on a pier in Boston Harbor. It was noonish on a weekday, January 15, 1919. The temperature rose that day from a frigid 2 degrees Fahrenheit to about 43 degrees. As it did, the air inside a tank holding 2.3 million gallons of molasses expanded. Because of the speed with which the air temperature rose, the air expanded faster than the poorly constructed tank could let it off. The tank exploded.
A wave of molasses 15-40 feet high soared and sloshed its way across two city blocks near the pier at about 35 miles per hour. A housewife was crushed to death in the debris of her house, which was demolished by the wave of molasses. The molasses ripped apart nearby elevated train tracks, nearly taking out a train. Gluey death captured people, horses, and dogs in its sticky ooze, finally settling two to four feet deep in the streets near the north Boston pier.
In his book Dark Tide, Stephen Puleo wrote,“Anthony di Stasio, walking homeward with his sisters from the Michelangelo School, was picked up by the wave and carried, tumbling on its crest, almost as though he were surfing. Then he grounded and the molasses rolled him like a pebble as the wave diminished. He heard his mother call his name and couldn’t answer, his throat was so clogged with the smothering goo. He passed out, then opened his eyes to find three of his sisters staring at him.” A fourth sister died, and Anthony himself was found among those thought to be dead.
The Boston Globe reported that people “were picked up by a rush of air and hurled many feet.” That rush of air tossed people, animals and debris in every direction outward from the exploded tank. A truck was picked up by the sticky deluge and thrown into Boston Harbor. A gathering of municipal employees on their lunch break in one of the buildings were caught in the flow as the building shattered around them and pieces of it hurled as far as fifty yards. A fire station was destroyed by the force of the blast and one of the four firefighters was killed. Three others were injured. Carts, wagons, and trucks were overturned and a number of horses were killed, unable to regain their footing in the sticky flood.
Approximately 150 were injured, and twenty-one people died.Some were crushed by debris and others became mired in the molasses and asphyxiated. At least two of the dead were not found for several days, and were so bruised by the pummelling they had taken in the molasses wave that they were unrecognizable.
The cleanup took months. As volunteers traveled to and from the site of the disaster, molasses stuck to their shoes, clothes, tools, and skin. It was transferred with them through the trains and transports of the city, and soon all of Boston, from the waterfront where the horror had taken place, to the suburbs where helpful volunteers lived, was covered in a sticky verneer.
On a warm day, the smell of molasses still permeates Boston.
I found this recipe while researching this blog, and I thought it would be a fitting start to our healthier new diet, which shall, I know, henceforth be sweetened with molasses. It’s written the way recipes from the time of the disaster would have been written: by hand, on scrap paper, in somebody’s grandmother’s handwriting.
And if anyone ever says you’re moving as slow as molasses in January, you can smartly respond, “So this is what 35 miles per hour feels like!”
See more of these drawings from Recipe for Disaster: The Great Molasses Flood by Andrew Einspruch and Scott Fraser (published by EPS as part of the Making Connections series) on Scott Fraser’s Live Journal blog.
I have a cousin. He’s 66. He’s a medical doctor. He is currently serving six concurrent one year terms in the Berks County, Pennsylvania, Prison for six DUIs he had in the last 14 months. Two of the incidents where he was arrested involved accidents. In one accident someone was hurt, although I’m not sure how badly. It’s amazing to everyone in the family that he hasn’t killed himself yet. He lives alone when he’s not in jail. He drinks alone.
I had an aunt. She was an Olympic class equestrian. She and her horse fell in the early 1970’s at a practice for the trials for the Olympics. Her horse had to be put down and she never rode competitively again. She took solace in a bottle and in the prescriptions she was given. For more than 30 years, alone and angry because her dreams were dashed, she drank and medicated herself. She was hospitalized at least 20 times for detoxification, overdoses, and various problems with her health due to her alcoholism. When she died her blood alcohol content was .043. Yes, she drank herself to death.
Alcoholism runs hard in the genes of my family. I can point to almost any member of my grandparents generation and say, “He was an alcoholic” or “She was an alcoholic.” The alcoholics are fewer in my parents’ generation, but the ones that are alcoholics are bad ones. I remember swearing to myself growing up that I would never drink alcohol.
I did drink. In college I realized that I drank too much and too often. I thought about the alcoholics in my family. I slowed down. I slowed further in law school, and then when I married and had a baby I realized how hard it was to change a smelly diaper with a raging hangover. I slowed drinking even more.
In 1997 I was in a serious car accident. As a result of that accident the migraine headaches I have had all my life became worse. Ten years later I have a condition called “Chronic Daily Headache.” I have to take drugs to combat it. Most of the drugs don’t alter my mind, but occasionally I have to take muscle relaxers and painkillers.
Because of my headaches I have stopped drinking alcohol almost completely. Two drinks and I can guarantee myself a migraine. The margaritas aren’t worth it. I may go out with friends and sip one drink for three hours. I may drink it faster then switch to soda water. I never have more than one drink any more.
But there’s another problem. You see, addictive behavior runs in my family. And I have prescriptions for addictive medications for the pain I have almost daily.
I am afraid of these drugs. I hoarde them; I use them sparingly. I don’t want them to control my life.
Yesterday and today have been a bad days. My headache started early yesterday, but I was focused on something I was doing and didn’t take a break to get my Imitrex. By the time I was through with my project, I could barely sit at my desk. I wanted to curl up under it in a fetal position. Unbidden, tears fell down my cheeks. I staggered downstairs. The movement exacerbated the pain. I could barely think.
I fumbled for the device that contains the most powerful dose of Imitrex. It’s an injection, and thankfully it works quickly. I can use the injection no more than twice a month. I use it only when I can’t bear the pain. By the time I reached for the device, I was unable to form a coherent sentence. My thoughts were disjointed, and overlying it all was a little girl crying plaintively in my mind, “It hurts! Make it stop!”
I gave myself the shot. I took a muscle relaxer. I went to bed. I slept for three hours. When I woke, I still had a horrible headache. I took a painkiller. My head still hurt. Yet I still had to function.
I am a mother; I run a business. I have to take care of myself so I can take care of my child and my office.
I worry that I will become addicted to the painkillers. I worry that I take too many prescription drugs. I take three pills every morning in a futile attempt to control the neurological aspects of my migraines. They have helped. I shouldn’t say it’s futile. The headaches would be worse if I didn’t take them. Then there are the triptans – the drugs that actually stop the migraines. I can’t take them more than three days in a row, or I risk rebound headaches.
On days like today, when my head feels like it is split in two and one side is three times the size of the other, when a throbbing pain goes from above my left eye over the crown of my head and down into my left shoulder blade, when the pain is so bad I can’t sleep even with the soporific effect of the drugs, I despair of ever feeling good again.
The drugs don’t make me feel good. They just mask the pain. It’s still there; I just don’t care as much. I can laugh and joke and carry on a conversation with the drugs. I hate them.
I am terrified of addiction.
Today is my Dad’s birthday. He would have been 71. He died five years ago and I miss him more than ever.
My Dad was my champion. His confidence in me never flagged, even when I was an angry, incorrigible teenager bent on self-destruction. He always told me, without any qualifying adjectives, phrases, or conditions whatsoever, that I could be and do anything I wanted in life. I’m 45 years old and I still believe him.
Daddy wasn’t perfect. He drank too much. You know the kind of drunk I’m talking about. He was perfectly functional during the day – had a pretty high-profile position in the little community where he lived, in fact – but evenings were a different story. He was a melancholy drunk, the kind who wanted to sing “Danny Boy” and worry about the re-institution of the draft.
No kidding: when I was a teenager the draft was one of his favorite drunken topics. He was on the county draft board during Vietnam and the experience scarred him, I think. He objected strongly to the war and did all he could to keep kids from our area from going. He had a cousin who was on the ground in Vietnam, a brother who spent his tour with the Navy just off the coast of Vietnam, and a brother in law who was about to be shipped out when his luck changed and he was sent home instead. Wars that were nothing but someone’s political agenda pissed Dad off. You can imagine what he’d think about Iraq Redux.
Dad made Christmas magical. His birthday, coming on the Twelfth Day of Christmas, meant that the whole season was special. We had a tradition when I was young, that he and my sister continued after her divorce: Christmas Eve meant a trip to the closest Wal-Mart, 40 miles away in the town of Searcy. Dad wasn’t looking for significant gifts on that trip. If he saw something perfect for someone, he’d pick it up, of course, but the purpose of the trip was really to grab silly gifts, stocking stuffers, and prepare for Pre-Christmas, a tradition our family held dear.
My family inherited Pre-Christmas from Dad’s family. The legend goes that on Christmas Eve the kids were allowed to open one gift, and the adults, being who they were, didn’t want to get left out. They started exchanging gag gifts on Christmas Eve, accompanied by really bad poetry. There was a $10 limit on any Pre-Christmas gift when I was growing up. This encouraged creativity in gift giving. A rubber chicken was always the booby prize, and one lucky person a year got it. It was a badge of honor to receive the chicken, which was always dressed up a little differently and presented with new panache.
I cooked my first Thanksgiving turkey at the age of 22 and had to call my mother to find out, halfway through cooking, that the giblets were in a package in the turkey’s neck. That Pre-Christmas I got the chicken with feathers stuck in its butt, intended to resemble the turkey. The chicken’s head had been cut off and, um, things were inserted in it. I don’t remember the poem (who can remember those horrible poems?) but I assure you it was appropriately insulting. A new chicken was purchased the next year to replace the poor decapitated capon.
It is still a badge of honor to receive the chicken. Jack and his cousins would be devastated every year when they’d open their pre-Christmas gift and it wouldn’t be the chicken. We had to contrive chicken gifts for them three years in a row just to get it out of the way. It’s hard to come up with a rubber chicken idea and poem for a ten year old!
But this isn’t a blog about Pre-Christmas. Dad made Christmas special in several other ways, but I should have written about that at Christmas. At least I have blog fodder for next Christmas. No, this is a blog about my Daddy, whose birthday is today.
I was Daddy’s Girl. Dad had two daughters, but I was It. Every girl, even my sister, should be a Daddy’s Girl. Sis got double billing with me as an adult, but as children we were very definitely divided. She was Mama’s and I was Daddy’s. We sort of shared our little brother, who came along half a decade later and was the only boy.
As Daddy’s Girl I had the seat of honor. I considered it the seat of honor, anyway. I think I more or less took the seat, but I had it nonetheless. I sat on the floor at his feet when we had company. I sat to his right at the dinner table. On weekends I snuggled with him on the couch and watched John Wayne and Henry Fonda and James Stewart. If he went somewhere I was the child who accompanied him.
When I was about eleven years old I rebelled completely against going to church, which I thought was stupid and pointless. I just didn’t buy the whole “god” concept, which was no more believable than Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny in my mind. The story of Jesus and the ultimate sacrifice he made seemed ridiculous, and I said so rather vehemently. Martyrdom was foolish, no matter whether it was Jesus or Galileo. The choice between burning at the stake and telling a bunch of threatening men that I lied would have been easy for me. I’d be Galileo’s twin.
But at the tender age of eleven, too young even for confirmation in the church, it was Dad who told me that before I declared myself an atheist (I had no idea there was a name for it) I needed to consider whether there was a “Mover of the First Part.” There may not be a benevolent intelligence watching us now, but at some point, something, or someone, set the thing in motion. This was my first real theology lesson. It intrigued me a lot more than any Bible story ever could.
Because of this conversation with my Dad I was agnostic for years. I had to come to intellectual grips with the concept of infinity before I could put agnosticism away completely. Thanks to my dad, I actually studied theology, philosophy and religion instead of just saying, “This whole ‘Jesus and God’ thing is nonsense, and I want no part of it.” I still study religions. Maybe I’m still agnostic in some ways. Nah….
I have my Dad’s sense of humor. All three of his children do. The three of us have all remarked on multiple occasions how glad we are that we have Dad’s quickness to laugh, that we inherited the song that was in his heart. We are all basically happy people. We are happy on the outside and we are happy inside. My brother and I both struggle with depression, a genetic problem that comes from Mom’s side of the family. Believe it or not, though, even when we are depressed and at our worst, we are still optimists with a sense of fun. We are quick-witted. We see the irony in situations that make us sad.
Like Dad, all three of his children often laugh inappropriately. At the funeral of a family friend not too long ago, my brother and I walked in together a little late. Mom and Sis sat on the other side of the church. Jay and I opened the hymnal and the book that had the funeral service in it. We read the paper program. Then I noticed what I thought was a theme to the funeral.
“Jay!” I whispered, nudging him. “Do you notice that all these hymns have something to do with being submissive to God?”
He looked. Sure enough, each hymn had something about bondage or submission. He nodded. “Do you think the deceased and his wife were into BDSM?” I asked.
He moved a step away from me and turned red, trying to keep the laughter in. The widow was and is a woman of a very strong, dominant nature, and we were on the receiving end of her dominance many times growing up. The notion of her dominating her kind, soft-spoken, wheelchair-bound husband wasn’t far-fetched at all, but the idea that she’d do it in leather and with a flogger was making us snort.
Then came the concordant reading. More submission stuff. More bondage. Both of us were trying hard to keep a straight face, and we were not doing a good job. The homily was just as bad. Accepting death as God’s will, submitting whether we want to or not…
Yes, we laugh inappropriately. We should not have read anything naughty into the chosen hymns and texts of the funeral service. We were very bad. We will now submit to be punished, but only by the widow dressed in leather. (giggle) Dad would have found that to be hilariously, and inappropriately, funny as well. Too bad he missed it.
I was Daddy’s Girl. I didn’t care one thing about disappointing my mother or doing what she wanted me to do. If I thought I had disappointed Daddy, though, it was worse than being spanked, grounded, or otherwise punished. I never wanted to let my Daddy down. When Dad got angry at me, I knew I had truly screwed up. I knew I had to fix it.
When I was in my early 20’s and living 1500 miles away from him, I had a decision to make. It was a major decision, and I wanted him to tell me I was doing the right thing. I laid out the paths I could possibly take and I asked his advice. He said, “Why are you asking me? You’re just going to do what you want to anyway.” He said it gently. I realized that he was pointing out a flaw in my nature. I wanted him to reassure me that a decision I had already made was the right one. I didn’t really want his input.
Years later, when my husband said essentially the same thing to me, I understood that even though I had tried to be more conscientious about heeding the advice I was given, I wasn’t asking for it in the right way. I still have this flaw. Thanks to my dad, I am aware of it and it gives me a really guilty feeling whenever I realize that I’ve done it again. Gee, thanks, Dad.
Dad died very suddenly, either because of an aneurysm in his aorta or more probably from a deep vein thrombosis – a blood clot. He had been having problems with numbness in his left foot for several years and no doctor had been able to determine what was wrong. It’s likely that he had a clot in that numb area that finally made it to his heart and stopped it for good. His death devastated all of us.
Jack was ten years old when Dad died. We were talking about Dad one day not long after the memorial service, and Jack put his finger on what really made my Dad special. “You know what was great about Papa? He listened.”
That was really and truly what was great about my Dad. He did listen, and he listened well. He didn’t interrupt with advice. He didn’t change the subject because he was uncomfortable. He listened, he asked relevant questions, and he led us to the answer. He wasn’t afraid of feelings. If we needed to vent, he understood that and he let us vent. He only tried to solve problems when we asked him to. He helped us see solutions and he did it with humor, diplomacy, and quiet support.
My Dad was a great man because he listened.
I hope that when I die someone can say something that good about me.
I went to college where I did, then went to law school because of my dad. I accomplished what I have because of my dad’s support and encouragement. I look at life the way I do because I am my father’s daughter. I am who I am because I was Daddy’s Girl.
I love you, Daddy. Thank you for making me me. And Happy Birthday, you old fart.
In those days, when there was no king in Israel, a certain Levite, residing in the remote parts of the hill country of Ephraim, took to himself a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah. But his concubine became angry with him and she went away to her father’s house at Bethlehem in Judah, and was there some four months. Then her husband set out after her, to speak tenderly to her and bring her back. Judges 19:1-3
“It’s Bobby Wayne!”
The shock at hearing my husband’s name was only slightly less than the shock of hearing it spoken with such pleasure by my father. Exchanging a look with Mama, I moved to the kitchen window. The familiar F-150 was indeed in the driveway, and Daddy, who had been working on his old Camaro under the shade of the live oak, was stuffing a shop rag in his hip pocket and walking toward the truck with a grin on his face.
I couldn’t believe it. Daddy knew why I had left. The meth had led Bobby to more and more erratic behavior, and by the time I was able to get the money together to get back home I was practically unable to use my left arm any more. I think Bobby had broken it at least twice, and the second time he didn’t let me go to the hospital for two weeks. They said they’d have to break it again and do surgery, and he said he didn’t have the money to pay for it, so it never did heal right. Finally it seemed like the muscles just seemed to quit working in it.
But Daddy was greeting him like a long lost son, not the abuser of his only daughter.
Bobby stayed three days. By Monday morning, Daddy had loaded my things into the bed of the pickup and told me my place was with my husband. Mama didn’t argue about it any more after Daddy popped her in the mouth Saturday afternoon. I had no choice. Bobby had been making sweet promises about how good things were going to be. I thought that if things got bad I’d just walk out again.
We were on the outskirts of the city, about an hour and a half from home, when Bobby told me he had to go see a man there for business. Since the only business Bobby ever did involved things like guns and drugs, I knew we weren’t likely to go to a good neighborhood. I was right.
We were in an area that had clearly seen better days. “Urban blight” is the euphemism for it. Porches sagged without anyone standing on them. Graffiti covered everything from the walls of the homes to the fire hydrants to the sidewalks, and I could understand none of the writing. No one ever taught me this other language or the script in which it was written.
Bobby parked on the street in front of what looked like a store front that had been converted to living quarters. Before getting out of the truck he reached under his seat and removed his pistol. He checked it to be sure it was loaded, then stuck it into his pants at the waist, covering it with his t-shirt. “Stay in the truck,” he said.
As I waited, tough looking men drove by. I saw no women. No children played outside. Finally I lay down on the seat and slept.
Bobby had been inside almost three hours when a group of men approached the truck. When they tapped on the window I sat up, confused for a moment. An ugly scar bisected the cheek of the tall man who demanded Bobby’s whereabouts through the slightly lowered window. Wordlessly, I pointed at the building. The tall man stomped off, his followers behind them. There were about ten of them.
They pounded on the door, and although they apparently talked with whomever was on the other side, I could hear nothing. I saw the angry looks on the men’s faces, though. I saw two unsheath knives. Another’s gun was poorly concealed in the waistband of his jeans. A man on the edge of that crowd leaned down and picked up a piece of pipe.
While they were enjoying themselves, the men of the city, a perverse lot, surrounded the house, and started pounding on the door. They said to the old man, the master of the house, “Bring out the man who came into your house that we may have intercourse with him.” And the man, master of the house, went out to them and said to them, “No, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Since this man is my guest, do not do this vile thing. Here are my virgin daughter and his concubine; let me bring them out now. Ravish them and do whatever you want to them; but against this man do not do such a vile thing.” – Judges 19:22-24
The door opened then, and I saw an older man holding a young girl by the arm. She couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen years old and she looked terrified. He shoved the child toward the crowd of men, but the tall one with the scar pushed her back inside. There was more discussion. Gesturing, and then loud voices told me that they wanted my husband, they wanted him now, and they wanted him dead.
Bobby had taken the keys with him when he went inside. I locked the doors of the truck and sat in the middle of the seat. I was afraid, but I didn’t panic until I heard the thundering demand from the tall, scarred man: “If he won’t come out here and answer us like a man, he’s a pussy. We want the pussy. If you don’t give us that pussy, we’ll take his other pussy!” He was pointing at the truck. He was pointing at me.
The men surrounded the truck. Terrified, I refused to open the doors. The man with the pipe struck the window on the passenger side. It took him several tries, but finally it shattered and he reached inside and unlocked the door. They pulled me out of the truck. At first I screamed my husband’s name. Then I simply screamed.
They more than raped me.
Every man in that crowd had his turn, and several of them had more than one turn in more than one place on my horrified body. I lost track of the number of times each took me, and the way each took me. My abdomen felt near to exploding, then was numb. Two at once, three at once, there were more than I could count. I knew I was bleeding because they pulled away from me drenched in my blood.
Apparently their access was not easy enough, because they pulled my legs apart to more easily get at me from front and back at the same time. My hips and thighs cracked audibly, and I knew I would not be walking again any time soon.
When they forced my mouth open to defile me there, too, I bit down. Mercifully I felt only the first few of their blows to my head. After that, I lost consciousness.
As morning appeared the woman came and fell down at the door of the man’s house where her master was, until it was light. In the morning her master got up, opened the doors of the house, and when he went out to go on his way there was his concubine lying at the door of the house, with her hands on the threshold. – Judges 19:26-27
“Get up. We are going.”
I lay on the pavement at the door to the house. I couldn’t answer. My jaw was probably broken, and the teeth on the left side of my mouth were gone. Painfully I lifted my head slightly and dropped it again. I could only see out of my right eye, and Bobby looked blurry even out of it.
He reached down and yanked on my arm. I screamed wordlessly. It was obviously broken and the shoulder was probably dislocated as well. My legs had no feeling in them. I couldn’t walk. Bobby dragged me whimpering to the truck and threw me in the passenger side, ignoring the fact that I was naked and the broken glass was ripping my skin to shreds.
I died on the way home.
When he had entered his house, he took a knife, and grasping his concubine he cut her into twelve pieces, limb by limb and sent her throughout all the territory of Israel. – Judges 19:29
What I found to be humorous about the whole affair was that he packaged up the parts of my body and mailed them to the men in that crowd. He also mailed a piece of me to the man in whose house he had hid. He sent my head to my parents. Daddy opened the package and vomited. I laughed.
I haunt them all. The pieces of my flesh that were sent to each man allow me to stay with him. The fact that their flesh is part of me because of that awful night allows me to stay as long as I wish. I have learned to give them boils, to call lice and fleas to their hairiest regions, to drench them in a stench so powerful none can stand near them, to afflict them with breath so fetid even their vicious dogs turn away from them. They don’t sleep at night, these twelve men who wronged me. The man whose seed created me, the man whose seed claimed me as his wife, and the ten men whose seed defiled me against my will do not sleep because of the wrongs done to me.
The thirteenth man, the one whose seed never became a part of me, is haunted by his own daughter, whose reproachful eyes remind him of the woman he sacrificed, and remind him that he nearly sacrificed her.
She prays to the bit of finger she saved from the rotting flesh that was delivered to their door by an unsuspecting postman. She prays to me to help her escape the madman she calls her father.
She will kill him soon.
I will help her.
The serum arrived, frozen, on Gunnar Kaasen’s sled at 5:00 a.m. February 2, 1925, two weeks after the first diphtheria death in Nome. Five people had died waiting for the serum to arrive. With 28 confirmed cases of diphtheria and as many as 80 people in Nome known to have been exposed, the 300,00 units of serum were gone long before the second shipment of 1.1million units arrived.
Dr. Welch later said that there were 70 confirmed cases of diphtheria in and around Nome that winter. Although the official death toll was five, Dr. Welch believed that the actual number was much higher since the Eskimo population may have buried children without reporting the illness. Without that first heroic run by 20 men and their hardy dogs, the death toll would have been much higher. And although the initial delivery of 300,000 units of diphtheria antitoxin serum is the one that made the headlines, without the same heroic effort made two weeks later by many of the same men and dogs, the casualties of the epidemic would have been much worse.
Ed Rohn, the man who had been sleeping at Port Safety when Gunnar Kaasen passed him by at 3:00 a.m. delivered the package containing 1.1 million units of serum February 15, 1925. Once again the teams braved howling winds and blizzard conditions to get the serum to Nome. The quarantine was lifted Saturday, February 21, 1925, a month after diphtheria killed little Billy Barnett and nearly three weeks after the first doses of serum arrived in Gunnar Kaasen’s sled.
The serum made it from Nulato to Nome in five and a half days, traveling along a mail route that normally took 25 days. Not only had the serum made it to nome in record time, it had done so in the dead of winter during a major winter storms in the Alaskan Interior as well as around Norton Sound.
A Dog Sled Crossing Norton Sound
Wild Bill Shannon, the Irishman who was the first driver in the relay, returned from the initial serum run to Nenana with four dogs riding and five dogs pulling his sled. Three of the four riders, the same three he had left in Minto because of the pulmonary hemorrhaging, died a few days later. Shannon told a newspaper reporter, “What those dogs did on the run to Nome is above valuation. I claim no credit for it myself. The real heroes of that run …were the dogs of the teams that did the pulling, dogs … that gave their lives on an errand of mercy.”
His dogs weren’t the only ones sacrificed in the race to keep children alive at the top of the world in the dead of winter. Charlie Evans had borrowed two lead dogs for his run between Bishop Mountain and Nulato, both of whom died of frozen groins. Because dogs not specifically bred for the Arctic tend not to have thick fur in their groin area, mushers often wrapped the dogs in additional furs to prevent this problem. When Charlie Olson’s dogs began to suffer from frozen groins, he stopped and put blankets on each dog to keep them from freezing. Two of his dogs ended up badly groin-frozen. Ed Rohn’s lead dog, Star, was seriously injured in a fall into a fissure crossing Golovin Bay during the second serum run. Togo and one of his teammates didn’t make it back to Nome with the rest, either. They saw a reindeer and tore out of their harnesses to chase it, much like Henry Ivanoff’s dogs had done just outside Shaktoolik, about the time Leonhard Seppala happened by. Togo found his way home several days later, much to Seppala’s relief.
Leonhard Seppala and a Team of His Sled Dogs
Seppala always maintained that it was categorically unfair that Togo, the leader of the dog team which covered the most miles in the desperate race to save to the children, never got the recognition Balto received. Indeed, Togo is actually made a villain in Balto, that children’s movie I mentioned back in the first segment of this series. Should we blame producer Steven Spielberg and his ilk for making a truly exciting story intentionally wrong? Frankly, in this case, I do. The serum run is a story that is exciting and dramatic without having to resort to exaggeration, distortion of facts, or outright fabrication.
Togo and the man who drove his team, Leonhard Seppala, are names known mostly to hardcore followers of the Iditarod race. Seppala made the decision to cross frozen Norton Sound with the serum despite the danger of breaking pack ice that might have cost the team and the children of Nome their lives. Had he not crossed the frozen expanse of sea, though, more children would have died because of the delay in getting the serum to them. Seppala was already widely regarded as the territory’s best musher, and his part of the serum run was certainly the hardest of any of the 20 mushers who participated. Togo worked so hard on the Serum Run he injured himself and never raced again.
During the 625 miles the dogs and men ran from Anchorage to Nome, many Americans were transfixed by the story as it unfolded almost in real time in their homes via the marvelous invention called “radio.” The story gripped the imagination of the entire nation, and once the children of Nome were saved the team led by Balto began touring the country.
Within a couple of years, though, the dogs ended up a permanent attraction in one of the many vaudeville shows that were so popular at the time. The animals were apparently mistreated and not well cared for. George Kimball of Cleveland, Ohio, saw the team in Los Angeles and was appalled at their condition. With the help of Cleveland’s schoolchildren, $2,000.00 was raised and Balto and the rest of the team were purchased from the vaudeville show. The dogs lived in Cleveland for the rest of their lives. After Balto’s death in 1933 he was stuffed, mounted, and placed on display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where I believe he is still a very popular attraction.
Balto, at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History
Togo is also preserved for posterity. His stuffed and mounted form is on display at the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Gift Shop and Museum in Wasilla, Alaska.
Togo, at the Iditarod Trail Museum
The Seppala Siberian Huskies continue to be a much coveted bloodline. Leonhard Seppala imported his dogs from Siberia. They were dogs intended to work hard, pull loads, and last in the harsh Alaskan cold. Most of today’s Siberian Huskies tend to have characteristics more suited to racing, with shorter coats, longer legs, finer bones, and a narrower head. Seppala’s Huskies had wider heads with larger sinus cavities for warming the Arctic air; today’s Siberian Huskies need to be more concerned with heat than with cold.
The news reports of the Nome epidemic and the publicity afforded by the touring dogs inspired a drive to immunize children against diphtheria. The first successful diphtheria vaccine had been tested in 1924, less than a year before the Nome epidemic. Now, of course, diphtheria vaccines are part of all early childhood immunization programs. If there is any doubt as to whether it might be preferable to allow a child to have the disease rather than inoculate him against it, parents should read a description of the progression of the illness and be informed of the nearly 100% mortality rate prior to the discovery of the antitoxin serum.
In 1966-67 Dorothy Page and Joe Redington Sr. organized the first Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race to commemorate the original serum relay. In 1973 the race was expanded to its present course. The entire course of the relay from Nenana to Nome has never been covered as quickly as it was between January 28 – February 2, 1925.
Resources for this series of blogs include:
Salisbury, Gay & Laney Salisbury, The Cruelest Miles: The Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic (New York: Norton 2003)
Nome Convention & Visitors Bureau (http://www.nomealaska.org/vc/cam-page.htm)
The Official Site of the Iditarod (http://www.iditarod.com)
Kent A. Kantowski’s Serum Run Web Pages (http://www.angelfire.com/ak4/kakphoto/SerumRun/serum_run.htm)
Mike Coppock’s Serum Run Web Page (http://www.dountoothers.org/serumrun.html)
Race To Nome: The Story of the Iditarod Trail Dog Race (http://www.lucidcafe.com/library/iditarod.html)
Balto’s True Story (http://www.baltostruestory.net/)
Norman Vaughan Serum 1925 Run (http://www.serumrun.org/index.html)
The Seppala Siberian Sled Dog Project (http://www.seppalasleddogs.com)
Leonhard Seppala had gambled with the crossing of Norton Sound and won. He had crossed during the daylight hours of January 31, 1925, and although he could tell a storm was coming, it wasn’t there yet. The northeast wind was at his back as he left the roadhouse at Ungalik and pushed his fast toward Shaktoolik. Seppala had come 170 miles in his three days on the trail and believed he had about 100 miles to go before meeting the serum in Nulato. Togo and the rest of the dogs were making good time, had good energy, and so far had had good trail conditions.
A few minutes out of Shaktoolik Seppala saw another sled stopped ahead of him on the trail. The dogs had apparently started after a reindeer that had run across the trail and were tangled and fighting in their harnesses. Their driver saw Seppala and began waving frantically. Seppala had no intention of stopping to help. Time was of the essence. the wind was blowing at Seppala’s back and he wanted to take advantage of it as long as he could. As he passed the other sled, though, the driver jumped over the morass of agitated dogs and ran at him, screaming, “The serum! The serum! I have it here!”
The stunned Seppala had not gotten word of the change in the plans for the relay and had no idea that the serum could have made the trip from the railhead at Nenana in just three days time. Such speed was unheard of. It was true, though. The other driver, Henry Ivanoff, a Russian Eskimo who captained a ship on Norton sound in the summers, had taken the serum from Myles Gonangnan at Shaktoolik. He had been on the trail only a few minutes when he encountered Seppala. It was mid-afternoon, and the few daylight hours had turned to dusk.
Ivanoff informed Seppala that the epidemic had worsened and that the governor had ordered teams to run with the serum round the clock until it got to Nome. Worried at the news, Seppala wasted no time turning around and heading back toward Ungalik, 23 miles away. He was to take the serum back across Norton Sound if it was safe to do so, or run along the shore to Golovin, where Charlie Olsen waited to take the serum on the next leg of the relay. He was still unaware that his only child, eight year old Sigrid, was now one of Dr. Welch’s patients.
Having crossed the sound in daylight, Seppala knew that the coming storm would wreak havoc on the ice, and now that he was heading into the wind he realized that the storm was coming quickly.He had to cross the sound before the ice broke up or he and the serum, and Nome’s diphtheria victims, might all be lost.
Seppala and Togo had crossed the sound a number of times, but one time in particular had to be preying on Seppala’s mind as he headed toward it. Togo had been leading his sled across the sound during a northeastern gale on another occasion when, a few miles from shore, Seppala heard an ominous crack that let him know the sea ice was breaking up. Togo headed toward shore even before Seppala could give the command, but drew up short so fast he nearly flipped backwards. A yawning chasm of water had opened almost at Togo’s feet, but the dog had reacted quickly enough to avert immediate disaster. Seppala looked around and realized with dismay that he and his team were trapped on an ice floe and headed out to sea.
They spent more than twelve hours on that raft of ice, waiting as it drifted in the icy waters. Finally it neared land, but ran up against another floe that was jammed against the ice still connected to shore. they stopped moving, but there was still a five foot gap of water that Seppala couldn’t hope to cross. He tied a lead onto Togo and heaved the dog across the water. Togo landed on the ice and sensing what Seppala intended, the dog began pulling with all his might, narrowing the gap between the two ice floes. Then the lead rope snapped. Seppala thought he was a dead man. Then Togo, showing himself to be possessed of more intelligence and resourcefulness than most men could expect from even their lead dogs, leaped into the water and grabbed the broken end of the lead rope in his jaws. He clambered back onto the ice and continued pulling until he had narrowed the gap enough for Seppala and the sled to cross safely.
Seppala knew that he would be trusting Togo completely to make a night crossing of Norton Sound in another northeastern gale. In the Arctic darkness, and in a blowing blizzard, Seppala wouldn’t be able to see to color of the ice or hear it creaking. He didn’t hesitate, though. When he reached the Ungalik he put his life, and the lives of Nome’s diphtheria patients, in Togo’s capable paws.
His trust was not misplaced. At 8:00 that evening, Seppala and Togo pulled back onto shore at Isaac’s Point. They had crossed Norton Sound twice in one day, traveling a total of 84 miles. Such a distance was incredible. They would rest at the roadhouse at Isaac’s Point until 1:00 a.m., then head out again. The next driver of the relay was waiting at Glolvin, another 50 miles away. As the dogs and the man slept, the ice in Norton Sound began cracking.
By the time Seppala hitched Togo and the rest of the dogs to the sled again, the wind was howling. An old Eskimo man warned Seppala not to go back out onto the ice of the sound, and Seppala would heed the advice for the most part. But unless he drove across the ice, the trail between Isaac’s Point and Golovin was extremely rugged. In fact, the current path of the Iditarod Race follows a different trail because of the dangers. Seppala’s route from Shaktoolik to Golovin was made even worse by high winds and temperatures of less than -40 degrees.
The ice Seppala and Togo had crossed just hours before had already begun to break up, so they also faced the constant threat of the ice breaking apart beneath them, even just a few yards from shore, and yawning chasms of open water. The howling wind blinded Seppala and, again in the darkness, he trusted Togo entirely. Once they crossed the last bit of frozen sound, Seppala had to be relieved, especially when he learned that by the time the sun rose the entire expanse where they had driven broke up completely.
Despite the potential hazards of the open ice, the most grueling portion of Seppala’s leg of the relay was about to begin. The team would have to climb eight miles along a series of ridges, including the 1,200 foot summit of a mountain called Little McKinley. Seppala’s hardy team was exhausted, but never stopped. They reached Little McKinley’s peak then descended three miles to the Golovin roadhouse, arriving thirteen hours after they had set out from Isaac’s point with only five hours of rest. Seppala and Togo and brought the serum 135 miles, and now, with the northeastern gale threatening even more, the serum was 78 miles from Nome and the dying children.
Charlie Olson took the Serum from Golovin to Bluff, where Seppala’s colleague, Gunnar Kaasen, was waiting with another team from Seppala’s kennels. Kaasen was to take the serum from Bluff to Port Safety after stopping to warm the serum at the Solomon Roadhouse. From Bluff, Ed Rohn was to take the serum into Nome.
None of these drivers knew how bad the storm was, though. Back in Nome, Dr. Welch was in worried conference with the public health officials. The mushers were carrying enough serum to treat 30 people, and 28 were already in Dr. Welch’s hospital. If the storm worsened and the serum was lost or frozen, all of those people would probably die. With the worsening storm threatening more than just the men on the trial, the decision was made to halt the relay until the storm had passed. Nome’s mayor could only guess where the serum was at this point, but it was almost a moot point since the telephone line only reached as far as Solomon. The mayor called the roadhouse at Solomon, where Kaasen was to rest and warm the serum, and gave the order that Kaasen should stop there until the storm passed. Word was also sent to Ed Rohn who was waiting at Port Safety, just 21 miles from Nome.
Kaasen hadn’t yet gotten the serum when the call went out, though. Charlie Olson had been hit with hurricane force winds on his leg of the relay and was making very slow time. At one point he was blown into a drift and had to dig his way out with his bare hands and then free the dogs. The fight against the wind and the blowing snow had exhausted him and he had not been able to warm himself up after digging out of the snow. When he arrived at the roadhouse at Bluff, Olson’s hands were so stiff with the cold that he couldn’t get the serum off the sled by himself. His dogs were nearly frozen, too. Their vulnerable groins were stiff with the ice and cold and the dogs limped into the roadhouse to get warm themselves. As they waited for the serum to thaw, Olson pleaded with Kaasen to wait for the storm to pass before heading out.
Kaasen was reluctant to wait. He had put together a team from Leonhard Seppala’s kennels, and believed that with the steady, strong Balto in the lead position he could make it. Balto was inexperienced as a lead dog on a run like this, and Seppala had left instructions that if another team needed to be put together his choice for the lead was a dog named Fox. Kaasen preferred Balto, though. He waited with Olson for a couple of hours. The storm showed no sign of abating. Kaasen went out at one point wearing sealskin mukluks, sealskin pants, a reindeer parka, and a second parks over that one. The wind pierced the furs, but Kaasen decided to head out anyway. He was afraid that if he waited the trail to Solomon and Port Safety would be blocked by drifts.
Just five miles from the Bluff roadhouse, Kaasen met his first drift. Balto tried to go though it but got mired in the snow. Kaassen couldn’t punch through the drift, either. Balto would have to find a way around. The dog was on an unfamiliar trail in the dark of night during a raging blizzard. He put his nose to the ground, though, and within a few minutes the team was running down the trail toward Solomon. A few miles further on the trail followed the frozen surface of the Topkok River. Kaasen was startled when Balto suddenly stopped and refused to go again. He realized that the dog had stepped into the water of a spot of overflow. Kaasen steered the team off the river and dried Balto’s paws, then ran them along the ridges toward Topkok mountain.
The storm was so bad by this point that Kaasen had no choice but to trust Balto to find his way along the trail. The man just held onto the sled and let the dogs do the work. It wasn’t until he recognized Bonanza Slough that he realized that he had completely missed the Solomon Roadhouse in the dark and the blowing snow. He was at least two miles past it. Rather than turn back, though, Kaasen decided to keep pushing toward Port Safety and the next leg of the relay. Because he missed the roadhouse, he never got the message that the health officials had ordered the relay halted to let the storm pass.
He started the dogs back on the trail through Bonanza Slough. The slough created a wind tunnel for the hurricane force winds of the storm. More than once the sled was literally picked up by the wind and the dogs became tangled in their harnesses. Each time Kaasen had to remove his gloves to right the sled and untangle the dogs. Then a particularly mighty gust picked up the team and tossed them all into a drift. Kaasen had to dig himself and the dogs out. He felt the bed of the sled for the serum. The box was gone! Panicked, Kaasen floundered around in the drift, finally locating it. He lashed it to the sled with extra straps this time and without further incident made it to Port Safety.
Believing that Kaasen would stay at Solomon, Ed Rohn had gone to bed at the Port Safety roadhouse. Kaasen considered waking him, but rejected the idea since Rohn’s dogs would have to be fed and then hitched to the sled for the continuing trip. It was about 3:00 in the morning, and Nome was about 20 miles away. Since leaving Bonanza Slough the storm appeared to be abating somewhat, so Kaasen decided to press on.
At 5:30 a.m. Gunnar Kaasen pulled into Nome with the serum. “Witnesses … said they saw Kaasen stagger off the sled and stumble up to Balto, where he collapsed, muttering: “Damn fine dog.”
Leonhard Seppala with Togo, and Gunnar Kaasen with Balto
Next: the Conclusion
Half an hour after Charlie Evans and his dead lead dogs had arrived in Nulato, the serum was thawed and Tommy Patsy, another Athabaskan driver with a formidable reputation for his wilderness survival skills, headed down the trail following the Yukon River to Kaltag, the last stop on the run before the trail rose into the Nulato Hills. He covered his 36 miles in about three and a half hours, making the best time of the entire relay at just over 10 miles per hour.
Jackscrew, a Koyukuk Indian, took the serum through the mountains from Kaltag to Old Woman Shelter. To lighten the dogs’ load and make better time on this difficult stretch of the trail, Jackscrew ran uphill through the woods of the Nulato Hills for a good bit of the first 15 miles of his 40 mile leg of the relay. Once he passed the Kaltag Divide and headed downhill toward Norton Sound, he climbed back aboard the sled.
Victor Anagick took the 34-mile leg from Old Woman Shelter to Unalakleet, across mostly open tundra and through the stunted coniferous taiga closer to the coast, where he passed the package to Myles Gonangnan, an Eskimo musher.
On the morning of Saturday, January 31, at Unalakleet on the southern shore of Norton Sound, Gonangnan took the measure of Norton Sound. He had to make the decision as to whether to cross it or go around it. The shortest route from Unalakleet would have been straight across Norton Sound to Nome. Leonhard Seppala had been warned against taking this route as it was entirely too risky. The center of the sound at this point rarely froze entirely because of the currents and motion of the water.
Norton Sound is an inlet of the Bering Sea. Nome, Alaska, sits on its north shore. The sound is about 150 miles long and about 125 miles across. Norton Bay is its northeast arm. The Yukon River, along which the teams of dogs drew their sleds carrying the precious diphtheria antitoxin serum in January 1925, flows into the sound from the south. The sound is only navigable from May to October. In October the sound begins to freeze as average temperatures dip well below freezing. By January, when the average temperature is below zero, the sound is completely frozen.
The closer you got to the sound, the more conscious you became that the ice was in a constant state of change and re-creation. huge swaths would suddenly break free and drift out to sea or a long narrow lead of water would open up…. Depending on the temperature, wind, and currents, the ice could assume various configurations – five-foot-high ice hummocks, a stretch of glare ice, or a continuous line of pressure ridges, which look like a chain of mountains across the sound. …
Then there was the wind. It was a given on Norton Sound that the wind howled and that life along these shores would be a constant struggle against a force that tried to beat you back at every step of every task. But when the wind blew out of the east, people took special note. These winds were shaped into powerful tunnels, and gusts barreled down mountain slopes and through river valleys, spilling out onto the sound at spectacular speeds of more than 70 miles per hour. The could flip sleds, hurl a driver off the runners, and drag the wind chill down to minus 100 degrees. Even more terrifying, when the east winds blew, the ice growing out from shore often broke free and was sent out to sea in large floes.
–The Cruelest Miles, pp. 195-196
The overland route was safer than crossing the sound even in the best conditions. Gonangnan considered the fact that the wind had been blowing for several days from the west, pushing the ice against the coast and raising the level of the ice in the sound and weakening it. Had the wind remained from the west, the decision would have been easier. Even if the ice broke into floes, it would be blown toward shore and a sled team could navigate safely along the floes to shore. With the shift in the wind’s direction, though, the ice was being blown out to sea. More disturbing was that the northeast wind was building in strength. A storm was coming and would be there soon. When it came, the ice would be likely to break up. He decided not to risk the shortcut directly across Norton Sound. He turned northeast, toward Shaktoolik.
On the other side of Norton Sound, at about the same time, Leonhard Seppala was facing south and facing the same decision as Myles Gonangnan. Although he had been told not to risk the crossing, he knew that the fastest way to get the serum in the hands of Dr. Welch was to go across that frozen expanse. In two days he had covered about 110 miles, and had 200 more to go before he got to Nulato where he believed the serum would be waiting. Word had not reached him that not only had the number of teams in the relay increased tenfold, but that the serum had passed Nulato 24 hours before and was just on the other side of the sound.
Seppala decided the time saved by crossing the sound was worth the risk. Doubtless he would have hesitated even less had he known that his own daughter, Seigrid, had been admitted to Dr. Welch’s infirmary that very morning with diphtheria. Five more children had died, and twenty-seven were in the hospital, and at least eighty were known to have been exposed. Nome’s epidemic was in full swing. What was worse, one of the diphtheria patients was the daughter of the owner of a roadhouse at Solomon, a small settlement near Nome. The girl had been helping to cook for guests at the roadhouse. The grim fear was that she may have unwittingly spread the disease beyond Nome.
Later that day, Dr. Welch was told that Myles Gonangnan had left Unalakleet. With great relief Welch sent a telegram to the Public Health Service saying that the 300,000 units of serum from Anchorage was expected by noon the following day, February 1. Dr. Welch was unaware that the weather was conspiring against his patients.
The trail between Unalakleet and Shaktoolik is windy even in good weather, but sometimes the winds can blow from the north at more than hurricane force, with temperatures well below zero and chill factors worse than minus one hundred. Winds like that create ground blizzards, white-out conditions in which a sled can flip and men and dogs can freeze trying to find each other.
As the wind rose on the souther side of Norton Sound, snow blew in deeper and deeper drifts. At last Gonangnan had to break trail for his dogs. Breaking trail consisted of walking back and forth across the trail in snowshoes, tamping down the snow until it was firm enough to hold the weight of the dogs. The trail breaking was a slow, laborious effort. In five hours, Gonangnan had made only 12 miles. He stopped at a fishing camp to warm himself and the serum. He knew he was still at least nine hours from Shaktoolik, and had extremely difficult terrain to cross.
Five miles further along the trail were the Blueberry Hills, where the team would have to climb a 1000 foot summit then descend again to the beach. Wind tunnels in this region were brutal enough without the addition of the storm Gonangnan knew was coming. From the fishing village to Shaktoolik there were no shelters, abandoned or otherwise. If the storm hit while he was on this stretch of trail, it would be unpleasant indeed.
The wind was vicious and unrelenting on the way up the Blueberry Hills. By the time the team reached the summit Gonangnan was blinded by whiteout conditions. He had no time to prepare when the team suddenly began its steep descent toward the dunes along the sound. He held on and held his breath for the next three miles, and made it safely down to the beach only to find that the wind was blowing at gale force and and the wind chill was at least -70 degrees. He rode the sled for another four hours, arriving at Shaktoolik at 3:00 p.m.
There was no sign of Leonhard Seppala. Where was the famous musher?
Next: Seppala, Togo, and Balto
Newspapers had picked up the story of the epidemic early. As the tone of the telegrams between Nome and the outside world became more urgent, radio began to carry the story to an even broader audience. Winter storms swept across the continent as Nome waited for the serum, and people enduring zero degree weather on the East Coast were amazed at the determination and hardiness of the dog sleds driving through temperatures more than 50 degrees colder. The entire nation was transfixed by its radios, chewing its fingernails in hopes that the men and dogs could brave the blizzards and hurricane force winds of the Alaskan winter storms, cross an untrustworthy seasonal ice pack, and deliver the serum to the exhausted doctor and nurses as the number of victims reportedly rose with each passing hour.
On January 28, the exhausted and frostbitten Wild Bill Shannon handed the package over to a 20 year old Athabaskan musher named Edgar Kallands at Tolovana. Kallands made his five hour, 31 mile run to Manley Hot Springs under essentially the same conditions that had nearly done Shannon in. The temperature was -56 Farhenheit. When Kallands arrived in Manley Hot Springs, his gloves, with his hands inside, had frozen to the handlebar of the sled. “The roadhouse owner had to pour boiling water over the birchwood bar to pry him loose,” the Associated Press reported.
At Manley Hot Springs, the precious cargo was handed to Dan Green, who took it another 28 miles to Fish Lake, where another Athabaskan driver, Johnny Folger, took possession of it and got it to Tanana, another 26 miles closer to Nome. At each stop, just as the Anchorage doctor had instructed, the serum was warmed for fifteen minutes. From Tanana, Sam Joseph, also an Athabaskan Indian, took the serum another 34 miles to Kallands, the settlement named for the family of young Edgar Kallands. Titus Nikolai then transported the package 24 miles to Nine Mile Cabin, where he gave it to Dave Corning. Corning took it another 30 miles to Kokrines, then Harry Pitka took it the next 30 miles to Ruby. At Ruby, Bill McCarty took over and drove 28 miles to Whiskey Creek, where Edgar Nollner waited. Nollner delivered the package to his brother George at Galena, another 24 miles closer to Nome.
George Nollner took the serum 18 miles to Bishop Mountain. He arrived at 3:00 a.m. on Friday, January 30. He and his friend Charlie Evans, the next driver in the relay, sat in the relative warmth of the cabin. Like everyone else along the way, they were worried that the deep cold and the infrequent thawing of the serum would render it useless. The temperature at Bishop Mountain was -62 degrees Fahrenheit, and Evans had thirty miles to go to Nulato, the halfway point, where Leonhard Seppala expected to take possession of the precious serum and return to Nome.
Evans ran into trouble as he approached the convergence of the Koyukuk and Yukon rivers. Water had broken through the ice and the trail was covered with dangerous overflow. Overflow is caused when because of the pressure beneath the solid surface of ice, water breaks through in a gush, then continues seeping. Sheets of extremely slick, glacier-like ice result from the water flowing over the ice. An ice fog also develops at about -50, when the relatively warmer water vapor from the overflow turns to tiny ice crystals in the air. The ice fog Evans encountered was as high as his waist. He could no longer even see his dogs, much less the trail.
Eventually, a breeze began to blow that dissipated some of the ice fog. This was a mixed blessing, though, because with the breeze came a worse wind chill. Evans couldn’t get off the sled to warm himself with exercise. If he did, and the ice fog thickened again, he’d be lost, and the dogs would have gone on without him. Less than ten miles from Nulato, the unthinkable happened. Evans had two lead dogs he had borrowed for the run. First one collapsed and had to be loaded onto the sled, then the other collapsed. Evans hitched himself to the sled and led the team the rest of the way to Nulato. When he arrived about 10:00 a.m., both lead dogs were dead.
The serum had arrived at the halfway point in three days, the shortest time that distance had ever been traveled. Leonhard Seppala had expected to meet the serum in Nulato, but the Territorial governor had other ideas. On that Friday, January 30, ten days after Dr. Welch had confirmed diphtheria among Nome’s population, the death toll stood at five. Getting the serum to Nome as fast as possible was paramount.
Leonhard Seppala, who held the records for the fastest runs by dog sled, had set out from Nome on January 26 planning to travel a total of 630 miles. Traveling that distance without rest would be impossible and time was of the essence. Alaska’s territorial governor made the decision to add more drivers and dogs to the number making the relay. The idea was that the fresher the teams were, the faster they’d get the serum to Nome. All in all 20 drivers and their teams of dogs would be participating in the relay.
Seppala had already set out on the first 315 mile leg of his journey, though, and he was still the best one to take the serum across the pack ice of Norton Sound. Driving across the frozen sound would shave a full day off the time it would take to get the serum to Nome. There was no way to get word to Seppala, though, that the plan had changed. As drivers were called to participate in the relay they were told to keep a look out for Seppala and to hand the serum over to him when they saw him.
Next: Crossing the open ice of Norton Sound; and the canine heroes Togo and Balto
Leonhard Seppala and His Lead Dog, Togo
Getting the diphtheria antitoxin to Nome the fastest way possible was paramount. The lives of scores of people, if not the whole town, depended on it.
The original plan for dog sleds was for two teams to meet in the middle. One team would set out from the end of the railroad at Nenana, and the other would set out from Nome. They would meet in the middle, at Nulato, and the Nome team would return with the serum.
The logical choice for the team to make the round trip between Nome and the halfway point was Leonhard Seppala and his team of Siberian Huskies, led by Togo. Togo was 12 years old, which was somewhat elderly, but he had been Seppala’s lead dog for tens of thousands of miles across the Alaskan Interior. Seppala himself held records for races like the All-Alaska Sweepstakes. He had trusted Togo with his life more than once.
Togo had not originally seemed like lead-dog material. In fact, Seppala tried to sell him twice, but Togo kept finding his way back to Seppala’s kennels. When he was just eight months old, Togo had escaped the kennel and followed Seppala. Seppala couldn’t turn back to return Togo, so he let the pup run with the team. Togo finished that trip in the harness next to the lead dog, and Seppala realized that Togo had great potential.
Alaska’s territorial governor was familiar with Seppala’s speed records across the frozen expanse of Northern Alaska’s interior, but thought that the fastest way to get the serum to Nome was by a relay involving more teams – thus, no team would be driving exhausted, the dogs would at their fastest and freshest, and the serum would get to Nome where it was desperately needed that much faster. The governor sent a telegram to the US Postal Inspector in Nenana, who would have the closest official contact with the mushers. The Postal Inspector contacted the Northern Commercial Company, which actually hired the drivers of the dog sleds. The company notified drivers all along the route to be ready for a relay. They wouldn’t be getting paid for this run. It was a mission of mercy.
Twenty teams of men and dogs took part in the relay. Athabaskan Indians (native to the Alaskan interior), Eskimos (native to the Alaskan coasts), and US Postal Service mushers all participated.
Dogs and men are believed to have arrived in Alaska together, walking across the Bering Land Bridge. Although the people native to Alaska hunted other animals, the dog was their only domesticated species. Dog fur kept Eskimos warm, dog meat filled their bellies when there was no other source of food. Dogs were used for hunting, as beasts of burden, and as guides through the confusing white terrain. It is believed that the Eskimos first came up with the idea of hitching dogs to sleds. The Athabaskans of the interior did not use sled dogs until after white men came to Alaska.
Twenty-four hours after the crate of diphtheria antitoxin serum left Anchorage, Alaska, the temperature in Nenana, Alaska, at the end of the railroad, was fifty degrees below zero. Traditionally, when the temperature reached -38 degrees Fahrenheit, so cold that mercury froze in thermometers, neither man nor beast went out. Wild Bill Shannon set out from Nenana with his team of Malamutes in that searing cold for a fifty-two mile run over very rough terrain. Normally the 52 miles between Nenana and Tolovana, where the next team in the relay waited, took two days with an overnight stop in Minto.
The train from Anchorage arrived at 9:00 p.m. January 27, 1925. Despite being cautioned by the Nenana Postal Inspector to wait until morning to start the run to Tovolo, Shannon insisted upon leaving immediately. “People are dying,” he said. His attitude was the attitude of every driver in the relay.
The trail normally used by the dog sleds had been churned up by horses in the days before, so Shannon turned his team to run on the frozen surface of the Tanana River. The air over the river was even colder, and the danger of water breaking through the ice was ever-present. As time wore on, Shannon had a harder time warming his feet and hands. He began losing his focus. Suddenly Blackie, his lead Malamute, swerved, taking the sled in a new direction. Shannon nearly lost his grip on the sled and looked around in surprise at Blackie’s move. He saw a black hole in the ice – an area of open water that the team had narrowly missed. Thanks to Blackie’s canine perceptions and quick thinking, disaster had been averted. It would not be the only time along this relay that the serum was nearly lost. But for the wit and courage of the lead dogs, the serum would never make it to Nome.
The temperature continued to drop through the Arctic night. Shannon felt his extremities freezing and knew he had to take steps to get the blood circulating in his body. So, he took steps. He got off the sled and literally ran alongside the team. This helped for only a short time, and soon Shannon realized he was in real danger of hypothermia. By the time he reached Minto, the halfway point between Nenana and Tolovana, the outside temperature was -62 degrees. Four dogs had bloody muzzles from breathing the icy air, and Shannon’s face was black with frostbite.
After four hours of warming himself by the stove in Minto, Shannon set out for the remaining 22 miles of the run to Tolovana. He had to leave three of his dogs behind because they were too weakened by pulmonary hemorrhaging caused by the cold to continue. A fourth dog looked questionable, but Shannon decided to take him. If necessary, that dog could be unhitched from the team and ride the rest of the way to Tolovana. Shannon made it to Tolovana by 11:00 a.m. on January 28. It was -56 degrees Farhenheit when he turned the precious cargo over to Edgar Kallands, the next driver in the relay.
In Nome that same morning, Leonhard Seppala set out. He had 315 miles to travel to get to the halfway point at Nulato, then 315 miles back to Nome with the serum. On the way he had to traverse the questionable pack ice of Norton Sound. The Sound might be completely frozen or it might have ice floes that would kill him and his team. the shortest distance between Nulato and Nome lay directly across the Sound, though.
In the meantime, the number of confirmed cases of diphtheria in Nome were increasing by the hour. Although both the white and native populations obeyed the quarantine, the strain was extremely virulent and and probably infected the population well before the quarantine had been ordered. The diphtheria bacterium could live for weeks outside its human host on something as benign as a toy. The children of the area had all attended Christmas celebrations and had been in school and church prior to the quarantine.
Nome’s mayor contacted the territorial governor again, begging for relief by airplane. A little more serum, enough to treat perhaps five people, had been located in Juneau and was being sent by rail to Nenana to await the next mail run. It wouldn’t be enough.
Next: more dogs, and a nation holds its collective breath …
Diphtheria has now been largely eradicated in developed countries. In the US, for example, preschool children typically receive multiple doses of the DPT vaccine, which immunizes them against diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough), and tetanus. Children who are not immunized, especially those who are in close proximity to other non-immunized children, are most prone to the disease, even in places where it was previously under control. For example, after the fall of the Soviet Union a lapse in enforcement of the immunization programs resulted in outbreaks in several its former states. In 1924, though, the children of Nome had not been immunized against diphtheria. Indeed, the vaccine had only been successfully tested the previous year for the first time. Antibiotics were not available to treat the disease until after World War II.
Prior to 1891, a child with diphtheria could be expected to die within a few days of falling ill. Diphtheria was a dreadful disease, highly contagious and had a mortality rate of nearly one hundred percent. Children are the most vulnerable targets of this bacterium, although it can infect and kill adults, too. In a single outbreak between 1735 and 1740 diphtheria killed as many as 80% of the children under 10 years of age in some New England towns.
In the 1880s a method of intubation was discovered that prevented victims from suffocating, but this method did not stop the toxic effects of the bacteria. The mortality rate fell to 75%, which was small comfort when the disease attacked a community.
In the 1890s, however, a Prussian physician, Emil von Behring, developed an antitoxin that did not kill the bacteria, but neutralized the toxic poisons that the bacteria releases into the body. The first Nobel Prize in Medicine went to Dr. von Behring for this discovery and the development of this serum therapy for diphtheria. It was this serum Nome so desperately needed.
Six of Nome’s children had died of diphtheria by January 22, 1925, the day the telegram was sent pleading for serum. Two days later, two more children had died, Welch had confirmed diphtheria in 20 children, and 50 more were at risk of contracting the disease because of exposure to sick siblings.
The only ground-based link to the rest of the world during the winter is the Iditarod Trail, an established mail route used by the mushers and their teams of dogs. The trail stretches 938 miles from Seward on the southern coast of Alaska, across several mountain ranges and the vast tundra of the Alaskan interior before reaching Nome, situated on an icy port just two degrees south of the Arctic Circle. Because the cockpits of airplanes were open in 1925, the only way mail and supplies could get to Nome was the dog sled.
Nome, Alaska, sits at the top of the world. In January, the coldest month of the year, temperatures hover in single digits much of the time. In late January 1925, though, a series of winter storms were blasting across northern Alaska, pushing temperatures 30, 40 and 50 degrees below zero. It was through these strong winds and driving snows, and through the perpetual twilight of the Arctic winter, that the dogs and their mushers would have to transport the serum.
It was decided that the serum would travel by train to Nenana, as far as the tracks could take it. A teams of dogs would meet the train and take the serum to Nulato, approximately half the distance between Nenana and Nome. Leonhard Seppala, a Norwegian musher based in Nome, would take delivery of the serum and transport it back to Nome. Seppala and his dogs were famous for having won races across the Alaskan interior, and it seemed logical that he should hurry the serum to Nome.
Now that there was a plan for transporting the serum, Dr. Welch waited to hear that sufficient serum had been located and could be sent to Nome. In the meantime, as more children and adults developed the gray membrane of diphtheria, Dr. Welch began administering the expired serum that he had on hand. Possibly the confirmed case that worried Dr. Welch the most was that of Nome’s school superintendent, who was also a teacher. Every child in the Nome area would have been exposed to diphtheria through him. Dr. Welch hoped that the million units of serum he had requested would be enough to treat the entire population.
News finally came that 1.1 million units of the serum had been located at hospitals along the west coast of the US, but it would take until January 31 for the serum to arrive in Seattle to begin the trek to Nome. The serum was gathered and began its trek north. Having confirmed diphtheria on January 20, Dr. Welch knew that if no serum arrived until well into February, it would be too late for many of the children of Nome.
A few days later, 300,000 units of serum were located at a railway hospital in Anchorage. It wasn’t enough to save the town, but it was a start. Anchorage’s supply of serum would reach Nome long before the serum being sent from Seattle. The serum was packed in as much cushioning as possible to protect it from the jarring of the sled. The doctor in Anchorage pinned a note to the blanket surrounding the crate of serum instructing the mushers to warm the serum for fifteen minutes at each stop along the trail. He delivered the crate to the railroad and sent it north to Nenana. The serum would arrive in Nenana on January 27, a week after little Billy Barnett had died of diphtheria.
Next: the dogs…..
It’s almost August in Arkansas. That means it’s hot and the air is so heavy and stands so still I can lift a chunk of it in one hand and cut it with a knife.
How can someone who hates hot weather keep cool? She gets creative. In addition to tall glasses of sweet iced tea, sun dresses, and air conditioning cranked so low you could hang meat from my ceiling, I decided to pull out an old favorite: a book about dog sledding that I read a few years ago. There’s nothing like the thought of the Iditarod to put ice in one’s blood, now is there?
This isn’t a book review, although if you want to read more about the serum run the book I read is an excellent choice.
Pull up your chairs and settle in. Let me tell you a story about what really, truly happened one long wintry night in Alaska – where winter nights last for months.
Map of the January 1925 Serum Run along the Iditaraod Trail from The Cruelest Miles
Prior to reading The Cruelest Miles, a fabulous book by Gay Salisbury and Laney Salisbury about the legendary inspiration for the annual Iditarod dog sled race, my own knowledge about the Serum Run came from the news reports of the Iditarod, most of which I ignored, and my son’s old videotape of the animated feature, Balto, which I watched and listened to ad nauseum when he was a little guy. Although I suspected that the children’s movie had taken liberties with the facts, I was compelled to buy the book because of it as much as by the chance to read another vignette from American history. And yes, the movie did take generous liberties with the facts. Apparently, so did the creators of the statue of Balto that sits at the Children’s Zoo in Central Park in New York City.
The 674 mile trek was endured by brave Alaskan dog-sledders to stop the Nome diphtheria outbreak in the dead of winter, 1925. The Salisburys’ book is altogether readable and informative not only about the desperate race against the disease, but also about dog-sledding, Alaskan topography and climate, the personalities and temperaments of the sled dogs themselves, and of the score of determined men who accepted the challenge to risk their own lives to save a town of dying children at the top of the world almost 100 years ago.
Suspense gripped the entire world during each leg of the desperate race to get the diphtheria anti-toxin to Nome in time to save the town. The book intersperses fascinating facts and asides which leave the reader hungry for more, but not impatient with the interruptions of the dramatic unfolding of events. The story has great flavor because of the fullness of its telling. As each team of dauntless dogs is hitched to their sled, the anti-toxin’s epic journey is punctuated with the unfolding crisis back in Nome.
When an Eskimo family brought one of their four children to him in the fall of 1925, Nome’s local doctor, Curtis Welch, did not immediately suspect diphtheria, nor did he realize that he was seeing an epidemic in its infancy. He believed at first that he was dealing with tonsillitis, inflammation of the tonsils and throat caused by a virus or bacteria. None of the other children in the family were ill, and the parents reported no other instances of sore throats back in their village. Since diphtheria is highly contagious, it was unlikely that only one child would be affected, and in the decades he had been practicing medicine in Alaska’s northwest, no cases of diphtheria had been diagnosed. The Eskimo child died the next morning, though. Although Welch first concluded the cause of death to be from tonsillitis, which was rare. After the cases of diphtheria began making themselves known, though, Welch changed the death certificate to reflect diphtheria as the child’s cause of death.
That fall and winter Welch noticed an unusually high frequency of tonsillitis and sore throats. On Christmas Eve, he saw a seven-year-old girl with a severely sore throat. Her Eskimo mother would not permit him to examine her fully without the child’s Norwegian father present, and the father had left the area on business. The little girl died four days later. This was now the second death from tonsillitis. Deaths from tonsillitis did occur, but even in days before antibiotics they were extremely rare. When news came that four other native children had died after suffering from sore throats, Welch began to suspect that something was amiss.
Diphtheria is an airborne bacteria that thrives in the moist membranes of the throat and nose and releases a powerful toxin that makes its victims tired and apathetic. In two to five days, other, more deadly symptoms would appear: a slight fever and red ulcers at the back of the throat and in the mouth. As the bacteria multiplied and more of the toxin was released, the ulcers thickened and expanded, forming a tough, crusty, almost leathery membrane made up of dead cells, blood clots, and dead skin. The membrane colonized ever larger portions of the mouth and the throat, until it had nowhere left to go and advanced down the windpipe, slowly suffocating the victim. [The Cruelest Miles, p. 36]
On January 20, a three year old boy, Billy Barnett, displayed the characteristic gray membrane of diphtheria. Dr. Welch was no longer just guessing. Since the diphtheria antitoxin his hospital had on hand had expired, and the fresh antitoxin he had ordered during the summer of 1924 did not arrive before the Bering Sea froze completely that fall, Dr. Welch had no choice but to watch the tiny boy die. Then the day after Billy Barnett’s death, an Eskimo girl with obvious diphtheria died.
Dr. Welch was aware of the significance of the problem. During the influenza pandemic of 1918, the native population had attempted to flee the disease and instead spread it further. If a panic occurred, the disease would not be limited just to Nome’s population of about 1500. Diphtheria is highly contagious and the bacteria was capable of living for weeks outside a human host. Panicked flight would guarantee the spread of the epidemic faster and farther, and containing it, especially during northwest Alaska’s brutal winter, would be impossible.
The town council met and were informed of the dire circumstances. Nome had been devastated by the flu pandemic six years before, losing more than half its population. Of 300 orphans created by the flu pandemic in Alaska, 90 of them were in Nome. The men were well aware of the seriousness of the situation.
The decision was made to quarantine the town and to prohibit any group gatherings. Children, the ones most likely to be affected by the disease, would not be permitted to leave their homes at all. Two urgent telegraphs were sent. One went to the US Public Health Service in Washington, DC. The other was an all-points bulletin for the entire of Alaska.
Nome’s medical care team was quickly overwhelmed by sick children exhibiting the same symptoms. Not only was a deadly epidemic spreading rapidly through the town and neighboring villages, but Dr. Welch’s medical facility, the best in the region, was cut off from the rest of the world by pack ice and the harsh arctic winter. While this might be good inasmuch as a quarantine was concerned, no one would survive the epidemic to tell about it unless a delivery of antitoxin got to Nome fast.
Keep in mind, now: it’s the dead of winter two degrees below the arctic circle. The sea is frozen. There was no rail service within 700 miles of Nome. Even today there are no roads in or out of Nome, and in 1925 truck transport over such a distance, without roads, was completely out of the question.The only available airplane was a World War I model with an open cockpit – this was 1925 – which would have been almost certain suicide for the pilot in the dead of the North Alaskan winter.
The only way to get the serum to Nome was by dog sled, if serum could even be found.
To be continued…