1989 Measles at Principia Upper School: Elizabeth’s Story

The following is by Elizabeth, an Ex-Christian Scientist Group contributor, and was originally published as a guest post at Kindism.org on February 1, 2015. It is reprinted with permission, and has been slightly modified for The Ex-Christian Scientist.

Did Principia hide conditions from authorities during the fall 1989 Upper School measles outbreak? What were your experiences with Christian Science nursing while at Prin during the measles outbreak? How did they diagnose it, since they’re trained to see disease and contagion as unreal?

This measles epidemic hit at the beginning of my first year at Principia Upper School, in fall of 1989.  I was fifteen, and it was the first time I had attended a boarding school or been away from my family. The student population was almost entirely unvaccinated due to Christian Science beliefs. The first quarter, I was paired with another sophomore named A___. She was a most unusual combination of kind, unconcerned with appearances, and popular. And she was totally into Christian Science, or appeared to be on the outside. A tranquil understanding of the philosophy, is how I would describe it, although it sounds strange to say it that way now as ex-Christian Scientist, but that is how I remember perceiving her. A___ tells me, “I’m not going to get sick, you’re not going to get sick.” That kind of worked, and I remember thinking, “ok, of course we’re not going to get sick.”

Then one Sunday after church, A___ laid down and didn’t get back up. She just laid there with her eyes closed, skin blotching up, listening to Christian Science tapes. I was scared. Still, nobody said anything, but frequently housemoms–the women employed by Principia to live in the dorms with us, one per wing, and act as our guardians, would walk by and look in the door at A___ without comment to either of us. Eventually a housemom came and took A___ away. The dorm got really quiet. Lots of kids came down with it the same weekend that A___ did. I’m happy to presume I felt this way for my own reasons, but I definitely felt that I was expected not to get it, in the same way I would be expected not to sneak off campus or expected not to skip my homework.

The housemoms never said ‘measles’, only the kids spoke of it: “some kids have measles”, “this one has it now”, or “so and so’s roommate was gone when she came back from practice.” But no one in the administration talked about it. They would just tell you reassuringly that they were “taking good care of” your roommate (anyone who got spots disappeared shortly thereafter). The housemoms did not say anything about your symptoms, they would just appear at your bedside after you’d been down for the count for a few hours to a day, and they’d say, “Come with me, honey. Is there anything you want to bring?” There was no communication from the administration otherwise.

As the epidemic started up, they put students who showed measles symptoms in Campus House, which was a separate residence on campus for students sick enough to need care from a Christian Science nurse. That filled up quickly with a combination of students who had measles symptoms, as well as kids in there for other reasons. They were not segregated. Next, they started putting sick kids in the middle school quarters of each dorm. There were no middle school boarders at the time and those attached quarters had been locked and empty. Soon they were full.

At that point, they expanded the quarantined area to include, in each dorm, the entire wing leading to the middle school quarters. This is a couple dozen rooms per dorm we’re talking, on top of all the rest. They relocated the remaining non-afflicted students living in those wings to other, now empty beds, belonging to students who had been moved into quarantine. It was just like, “take your clothes and shoes and go live in this other kid’s room, we’re putting a measles-ridden student in your bed/room now.” They had a big sheet nailed over the doorway to the ‘quarantined’ wing of the dorm. And in the girls dorm anyway, that was the wing straight in front of you when you entered– the view from the windowed housemom station, the communication hub of the dorm. It was very strange to see things in this state of affairs after growing up in a first-world country.

The campus was quarantined. No day students were allowed on campus and no boarders allowed off, but this was not enacted until the school was instructed to by health authorities. There was a ‘quarantined’ tape across the school’s front driveway/entrance and it was on the local news. We sat and watched the news until the housemoms caught us.

A day or two after A___ fell ill, they came for me. I really was shocked to have gotten sick. Nobody said anything, or said I had measles. They just brought me to a room in the middle school quarters. It felt unreal. Everybody else there was sicker than me, so I just made my deductions about what was coming by looking at them, “okay, looks like I’m gonna have a heavy cold, be covered in rough red bumps and lumps that itch, and have glassy eyes and stare at the wall and drink milkshakes.”

God, how those women resented making us those milkshakes. You know who is the absolute worst group of people in the entire world to have care for a bunch of sick children? Christian Scientists. They were feeding us milkshakes with raw eggs snuck into in them because they thought it was a good source of extra calories, I guess. But isn’t that a terrible idea? To feed uncooked, possibly salmonella-carrying eggs to children whose immune systems are fighting off the measles with no medical help? That seems like a terrible idea to me.

There was so much inexplicable conflict and tension over feeding us. For the most part, we couldn’t eat real food because the insides of our throats were sore from the cold symptoms and coated with measles pustules and we couldn’t swallow. My thoughts regarding this tension were: aren’t you actually getting off the hook here, because we’re not asking you to cook us anything? But then I guess if we could eat real food, they could utilize the cafeteria services, and wouldn’t have to do anything at all except sit around judging us for being sick. In any case, I don’t care what you give me to suck through a straw, because I am half dead. I don’t want your milkshake that’s served with resentment. If a milkshake is such a pain in the ass then just pour me a glass of milk, who cares. You’re the nut jobs who are panicking about getting enough calories into us while simultaneously pretending we’re not almost dying of measles.

It was like being cared for by twelve resentful stepparents or something. It was all local Christian Science nurses and practitioners and local Christian Science mothers/wives. They did almost nothing for us. We didn’t get bathed because we couldn’t stand, and they never suggested that we do so with help. I think I went about eight days without bathing. They didn’t even wash our hair. Mine was oily from the roots out about four inches.

There were no thermometers anywhere on campus, although the sick all had raging fevers. There were no medications or medicated products of any kind offered. I would be staggering up and down the hall to the bathroom, clearly in need of assistance, in full view of the kitchen where they all congregated, and they pretended not to see. The Christian Science nurses and other helpers didn’t go down to the rooms much, where the sicker kids were. Instead, they hung out in the living room with the less sick and read Christian Science literature out loud, etc. (we were not allowed to watch anything on television that was deemed a distraction from our healing process). Observing this healthier crowd in the living room was what had given me my initial, and as it turned out, extremely optimistic perception of what having measles was going to be like. If someone started coughing uncontrollably in one of the rooms the women would look at each other knowingly and sort of roll their eyes and sigh like, “what an incompetent. I guess one of us has to go sit with them and read to them.”

Callousness, apathy and neglect are highly inappropriate qualities and behaviors in a Christian Science caregiver or any caregiver of the sick, shocking even; but adherents of the religion have found a way to re-label the lack of empathy for another’s suffering which comes along with CS practice, and normalize it inside their own community: they call it “denying Error.” Just tell yourself that the patient must work harder to make their own demonstration, that they are responsible for their own illness, and then you can behave abominably in the company of suffering children–even when they are watching you ignore their suffering and the suffering of their classmates. Teachers would come by and visit sometimes, which was a bright spot, and regularly I would notice a Christian Science nurse or one of the other congregated Christian Scientists peeping in my door. But this didn’t offer much, other than a sense that someone would probably notice within a few minutes if I got to where I couldn’t breathe at all or I fell or something.

The school administration ‘strongly encouraged’ our families to use (and pay) local practitioners instead of our family practitioners, which even back then in my almost eternal naïveté I knew was a bad idea, motivated by a desire to fund the local practitioners who were going to be asked to help out with the milkshakes and the ignoring and such. So, I didn’t even have communication with my practitioner-since-birth, not that I really felt that attached to her as you can imagine. Instead, I was assigned this cold, local practitioner who tired of my through-the-night phone calls when I got a horrible ear infection near the end of my measles. She was like, “Isn’t there someone there who can help you?” and I was like (some shy fifteen-year-old’s version of), “NO of course there is no one here I can find to help me! Why else do you think I would call you four times between 2:00 and 4:00 AM in panicked agony when you clearly don’t even LIKE me?”

I wish I had a photo of myself–eyes hopelessly glued shut with pus at all times, red measles so dense and scaly they only died out around the eyes where the skin turned deathly white. I remember thinking I looked like one of the performers in makeup for the Broadway show CATS, which was popular at the time–like a leopard–and then the crazy-looking dirty hair sticking out in all directions around my face. But the fever-induced hallucinations were the worst. They came any time I had to do anything for myself or try to reason at all. The strongest impression I retained from the whole experience was once when I was trying to alternately walk and crawl down the hall to the bathroom and the hallway was growing in length like that scene from the end of the movie Poltergeist. I remember it as having taken about five minutes for me to progress down the hall to the bathroom. A few years later, when we had middle school boarders at the school again (that started back up in fall 1991 when I was a senior), I walked down to the now unlocked wing, and was startled to realize that the room I had stayed in was only three doors down from the bathroom.

I also remember standing in my dark little dorm room and staring at myself in the mirror, though I had been instructed not to look at ‘the material picture’, seeing myself swaying slightly, and thinking, “How can I be this sick, all of us this sick, and everyone is acting normal? They’re not even being NICE to us!” And I was shocked that my parents didn’t fly out. Most other kids had at least one parent or another visit at some point. Or maybe not most, I don’t know. They did discourage parents from coming, no surprise there. My parents took the ‘out’.

So, I had been quarantined with the rest of the sickos for a while now, and my symptoms had greatly worsened. I hadn’t breathed through my nose in days, and it had now gotten to where I couldn’t breathe through my mouth either because I was literally drowning in mucus. It also happened that I had extremely chapped and cracked lips which were covered in dried blood, but I was unaware of that because I was delirious with fever and also because the state of my lips was very low on my priority list. To the appearance-obsessed Christian Scientist crowd taking care of us, perhaps my bloody lips were the most offensive symptom I was presenting.

Anyway, in the absence of any sort of real caregiving, I determined that a great way to stay alive would be to crawl to the bathroom, wet a washcloth with hot water, and hold it to my mouth and breathe through it so that it would melt the mucus enough that I could cough some up and swallow some down and be able to breathe for maybe ten minutes. So I did this repeatedly and no one seemed to notice until this one lady (whom I will refer to as Megabitch to protect her identity, and also because she was a megabitch) decided to ‘help’. She found me lying under the sinks in the bathroom, took my life-giving washcloth away, and said, “honey, that’s not going to help your lips,” and guided me back to my room.

Well, I had no idea what had just happened. It made no sense to me, but I was very sick and confused and I kind of realized that. There was nothing else to do but crawl back to the bathroom again once the choking started back up. I settled back in bed with my temporarily hot washcloth and she appeared again, wordlessly snatched it away and left without a glance, or she would have seen me desperately trying to explain how much I needed the washcloth and what I had to go through to get it since no help was forthcoming. All this lady could see was chapped lips. She was actually pretending I was not dying of pneumonia in front of her.

The next time she flounced into my room to snatch away my washcloth (I wondered where this vigilant oversight come from all of a sudden), I gathered my wits and made a desperate attempt to communicate with her to please not take away my washcloth, and to explain to her why I needed it, but the wrong words came out. My fever-addled brain was picking nonsense words. I heard them and I knew they were not the words I meant to say but I couldn’t fix it. I started to cry. I was so thirsty. I couldn’t get enough air, I hadn’t for hours now. She leaned down over me, looking straight into my eyes with the sanctimonious perfume of CS-ery just wafting off of her, and said, “You don’t need to rely on material objects for comfort! How about some Vaseline?” How does a reasoning person utter that sentence and not hear how completely insane it is?

When she went for my washcloth this time, I clung to it and kicked her right in the shins. That’s why you should not deny fever-reducing drugs to fifteen year olds (or anyone). I was so delirious. I felt I was fighting for my life. In retrospect, I’m pretty sure I actually was fighting for my life. But I was an obedient and easily intimidated kid, and I had never behaved like that with an authority figure.

The absolute nadir of my measles adventure came a few days later. I had been staying in the same room in the middle school quarters from the time I was originally removed from my normal assigned dorm room. I got sick near the height of the epidemic; the last to get sick were in the makeshift dorm wings. As the first to get sick (mostly at Campus House and a few in the middle school quarter) began to recover, Principia was hot hot hot to get those makeshift sick wings returned to normal dormitory use (the ones with the sheets hanging in the archways), because there was absolutely no way that was kosher in terms of meeting the conditions of the quarantine. With that in mind, they divided us up into either Very Sick or Almost Dying, so that they could move the Almost Dying kids over to Campus House where they’d be in a separate building that was actually intended for caring for sick students, and they could then consolidate the Very Sick kids all back into the Middle School quarters of each dorm, where there was an actual door they could lock and put the quarantine sign on. So it’s not that this was a bad idea.

They told me to get my stuff together and they were going to drive me over to Campus House. Folks, I do not know why this was my breaking point, but it was. I mean this fever I had was FANTASTIC–unquestionably it was in the 103-106 degree range because I was hallucinating and convulsing and it had gone on for days, with no medication or hydration. Anyway, I lost my damn mind. I cried hysterically. I refused to go to Campus House. “I’m getting better! I’m fine! I feel great!” I tried to say. I had absolutely no voice, of course, okay? Not even a whisper. Nothing. Just a horrible, wet, racking cough punctuating everything.

I broke away from my caregiver’s grasp, locked myself in the nurse’s station and began desperately calling each of my parents in turn, collect, because I thought that I could tell my parents to tell Prin not to move me to Campus House. The first time, the operator couldn’t hear me. It took several attempts before I successfully communicated with one. But even when the operator put the call through, my parents couldn’t hear me either and hung up. Start over. Try other parent. Same problem. Through all this, there is a crowd of Christian Science nurses and housemoms knocking on the door trying to reason with me. High drama. Finally I lucked out with a compassionate (and especially acute-of-hearing) phone operator who attempted to slightly explain the phone call, and Mom figured it out. “Elizabeth?? Is that you??” She listened to me freaking out unintelligibly for a while, and then convinced me that I should calm down and go to Campus House. So I did.

The first exchange I had upon arriving at Campus House was with a certain Christian Science Teacher’s wife who was helping out during the epidemic. She asked if I “should really be eating that Popsicle, dear?” I was overweight and so shocked at her remark that I did not have the presence of mind to point out that (1) none of them were tracking or communicating to each other what any of us were eating, so really? Really, lady? And (2) I had measles in my throat. That’s how much measles I had! All I had eaten for the last ten days was popsicles and milkshakes! And nothing. Mostly nothing. Also, surely she was not suggesting that these material popsicles could influence my weight? After all, if they were suggesting that, then this entire measles epidemic is a complete fallacy! I mean, they’d basically be torturing children under a bullsh*t premise! Crazy!

In closing, although it is also a compliment, and I want to emphasize how horribly the measles thing was handled–I loved Prin. I had a great time. I have lots of fond memories, and other than this instance and a few other ‘WTF’ conversational exchanges with administration, I have no complaints. I do not have a ‘Prin sucked’ attitude. This is someone who had a largely positive Principia experience saying that the measles epidemic was a fiasco, and that Christian Scientists actually have no business caring for the very ill (and particularly those who are under-aged), unless they are there only for spiritual support and are working in conjunction with actual nurses who know what the hell they are doing, and how to treat the sick with a modicum of compassion. Principia mismanaged it, and the Christian Science nursing staff and local support team mistreated and neglected us. Really badly.

My roommate A___ made it through the measles epidemic, but died shortly after graduation. She came down with a respiratory illness while she was studying in Europe, and she didn’t go to the doctor. Her flatmates found her unresponsive and brought her in, and she died in the hospital. I’ve pondered this over the years, because many of us had lasting effects from the measles. I have somewhat chronic strep throat due to scarring in my throat from the measles. Several of my friends reported that they had chronic chest coughs well into their college years (4-6 years on).