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Black Measles Miracle: How I Survived Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever

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Kathakali Chatterjee wrote this article.

It was a summer vacation 30 years ago or so that I was enjoying with my Grandpa and Grandma in their house when I was in third grade.  I got a mild fever one day.

Day 2: I was having a very high fever, with severe cough and vomiting, the house-physician (an MD himself) came and prescribed some medicine.

Day 3: I was fully covered with red rash all over which resembled measles, house physician came again, detected as “measles” indeed and prescribed accordingly.

Day 4: My entire body turned black as the rash changed its color along with severe fever, nausea, cough and headache; I stopped eating solid-food, the house-physician came back and called one of his senior colleagues for consultation, prescribed some tests and changed the medicines.

Day 5: Other symptoms persisted, fever touched 105 F, I stopped drinking, doctors prescribed an immediate hospitalization – the nearest smaller one recommended the bigger-one in the city restricted for infectious disease only, stating their lack of expertise in handling such a serious case. As my grandpa asked all his clients to look for a good child-specialist,  three of them came and changed medicines after consultation.

Day 6: Every symptom persisted, I had a seizure and was unconscious for couple of times that day. My pulse and blood pressure was so low that the doctors didn’t want to take the risk to move me – they suspected it was Meningitis with some weird allergy/ infection and started intravenous drip at home.

Day 7: The tip of my fingers, toes, tongue, lips and gums turned blue. I spent the whole day almost half conscious; in the evening I opened my eyes once and asked if the light was on because I couldn’t see anything.

Day 8: My grandpa, dissatisfied with my worsening condition and not accepting the ever-changing diagnoses, continued calling all his clients for a different doctor. One client called his father — who was a professor in a famous medical college — and described my case.  The new doctor came running as he suspected I might have “Black Measles” — or “Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever” — as it has been known since 1896. The moment he stepped in the room he prescribed a all new medicines without even touching me and told everybody, “I hope I’m not too late. I will try my level best, let’s pray to God.”

He gave me seven shots over the next 12 hrs.; he spent the night at my grandpa’s home and the next morning declared my life was out of danger, but he was wary about gangrene starting in my fingertips, toes, tip of the tongue, lips and gums.  He was not sure about the condition of those areas and he couldn’t confirm my recovery in one piece before 10 days.

As an aftermath of the disease I was supposed to end up with a deformed figure, or I was supposed to lose my eyesight or my hearing.

I was fortunate enough to come out relatively unscathed — except a few restrictions to be followed for next couple of years, I only had a “fire grilled” look for a year or so — as if I had been burnt severely.  It was because of the rash.

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is a severe tick borne disease first found in 1896 in Idaho. It was originally called “Black Measles” because of its rash which eventually turned the skin black in the late stages of illness.

I am clueless how I was infected by this killer disease sitting in India, but usually it is transmitted by the bite of an infected tick. My doctor suspected I got it from other animals as I was a passionate animal lover (I still am!) and used to nurse and feed stray puppies and kittens.

As the report shows, the delay in diagnosis increases the mortality rate in RMSF, if treated within first five days it stays within 5%, whereas after five days it can go up to 30% and higher. Proper treatment has to be started immediately, if suspected, without waiting for test results.

The doctor who treated me later confessed he had a chance to treat three patients like me till that time.

I was the only one that survived.

In the other cases, though diagnosed rightly, he reached them too late and couldn’t do anything to help them. The reason he was familiar with this disease, and recognized it so quickly in me, was because he served in the Indian Army as a doctor — and his two other patients happened to be army officers.

I am grateful to my grandfather, who, with a steely resolve, continued the search for the right medical practitioner who could diagnose the disease and provide the right treatment even when everybody around him lost hope.

As the first granddaughter, I used to get a special attention from him; I was the only one for whom he took the time to have a photo like this and I cherish it even now and share it with you today:

I am also grateful to my doctor who gave me a second life from black death.

My correct treatment started on the day eight of my illness, and my survival became some kind of medical miracle that happened in our family. I was saved in the pre-internet/pre-computer era in India, where finding a doctor who would be familiar with this disease was almost next to impossible.

As a kid, I was not aware of the seriousness of the Black Measles aftermath. I was irritated as I had to stay home continuously for a year.  I had to give up all kind of sports, music classes, and any other strenuous work; my entire lifestyle changed because of this, which definitely didn’t make me happy.

But I religiously followed my good doctor’s rules, even though they were were too regimented and too hard to stick to.

The greatest misery was not being able meet my friends and not being able to touch my dog for a year — a four-year-old, robust German Shepherd, named Pop.  We looked longingly at each other without sharing a single touch.

A couple of my close friends who visited me got scared seeing my burnt look, so from next time onwards, it was only their parents who came and meet me and that disappointed me even more.

In that very month of my first infection, I lost one of my closest male cousins in a road accident.  He was my age.  No one shed a single tear in front of me — not even his parents. It was my doctor’s advice not to disclose any shocking news to me.  I admire their courage in their sorrow.  It must have been impossible for them to see me dying and then living again as they lost a son forever.

I still remember hammering everyone with questions about my beloved cousin when they came to see me after I overcame the initial crisis, “Why didn’t he come to see me with you? He didn’t even call me once even if he knew I was so sick! Why can’t I call him now? How come he could be so busy with school?”

I never felt so miserable in my life when I later learned of his death.

I was miserable not just because I lost one of my best friends, but I felt pathetic remembering my merciless queries about him to his parents who lost their kid only a couple of days ago.

I know “apologizing” now won’t suffice; the only solace I can offer is my questioning was not intended to harm.

I owe my “second life” to many and, without their support — and I include Pop’s puppy love — I would not be alive today to write this article.  To all of them, I again say “thank you” for so selflessly and lovingly saving me from Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.  I am a Black Measles survivor because of their faith in me.

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9 Comments

This is an incredibly touching story Katha! What mountains had to be moved to save your young life!

I am so glad your grandfather did not give up on you.

What was his job? Who were the clients he was calling to find help for you?

This article will go a long way in helping a lot of people. You have described a direct and distinct personal experience that moves far beyond emotion and memory and into reportage. That is a hard line to draw, let alone, follow — and you have done it all magnificently in a single package!

 

Thanks for the grand editing, fine tuning and publishing the article David!

My grandpa owned a construction company; he was in real estate construction, also used to build bridges, small dams/ barrages, roads etc.
He had a very wide belt of network because of this.

As my mother was his eldest daughter and I was the first granddaughter – he was not ready to lose this battle so easily.

I guess the disease can be detected easily in today’s date and the mortality rate is lower – but right diagnosis is they key to fight this illness.

Thanks again for your time!

What a great story, Katha! I bet you have lots of wonderful stories about your grandpa! I appreciate his effort to save you without any hesitation or loss of focus. He refused to give up on you!

Did your grandpa hand down his construction business to others in your family? Is it still in operation today?

What a harrowing tale. We have to be very grateful to your grandfather for his brilliant analysis and quick thinking.

When one of my Aunts was born she was immediately pronounced dead. My grandmother on my mother’s side quickly took her and put her in cold and then warm water, back and forth until my aunt started coughing and was well, amazingly. The doctors were astonished.

Hi Katha,

What a truly traumatic experience. And after all that, I can’t imagine what it must have been like to not be able to meet your friends or even pet your dog for a year.

We can only thank your grandfather and that one doctor who knew what it was.

Did you get to read books during that time?

Hi David,

Yes, sure – he refused to quit…

That’s why I could write this!

My grandpa gradually discontinued the business as none of my two uncles were interested to take it forward – both pursued their own interest.

Hi Gordon,

Wow!

What a great instance of common sense!

Your grandma could have lost your aunt if she somehow lost his cool!

Hi Dananjay,

Traumatic – sure!

I guess I could do follow that strict regime because I was only 9 years old and I wanted to get well.

Yes, I could read…that’s what I did at that time!

See http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~iadubuqu/misc/measles.html

for the history of a relative of one of my ancestors.

I found both this page and the black measles death in Cascade, while Googling for black measles.

Of course it is hard to be sure those five young people died of Black measles, but the doctors thought so at the time.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Kathakali Chatterjee published on September 8, 2008 6:59 PM.

The Greening of an American Revolution was the previous entry in this blog.

The Integrity of the Provenance of Ideas: Archimedes and His Burning Mirror is the next entry in this blog.

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Recent Comments

  • piegrande.myopenid.com: See http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~iadubuqu/misc/measles.html for the history of a relative of oneread more
  • Kathakali Chatterjee: Hi Dananjay, Traumatic – sure! I guess I could doread more
  • Kathakali Chatterjee: Hi Gordon, Wow! What a great instance of common sense!read more
  • Kathakali Chatterjee: Hi David, Yes, sure – he refused to quit… That’sread more
  • Dananjay Anandan: Hi Katha, What a truly traumatic experience. And after allread more
  • Gordon Davidescu: What a harrowing tale. We have to be very gratefulread more
  • David W. Boles: What a great story, Katha! I bet you have lotsread more
  • Kathakali Chatterjee: Thanks for the grand editing, fine tuning and publishing theread more
  • David W. Boles: This is an incredibly touching story Katha! What mountains hadread more

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