Saturday, August 29, 2015

The acorn becomes an oak : October 16th 1940

Adults of a certain age were all quite small when they first learned the acute difference between those two very similar sounding medical words that adults like to use : antiseptic and antibiotic.

For when we scratched our knee falling off our trike, Mom washed it, put an orange antiseptic that stung like heck and then gave us a kiss and a cookie.

We had long forgotten the spill before the orange washed off and the scratch healed.

But then one dread-filled summer's afternoon, the whole house was extremely tense as neighbours filed in. whispering low.

"Spinal Meningitis".

Suddenly old Dr Mattison, who never ever made housecalls, came speeding up the drive on two wheels and ran up the steps two at a time, dragging his black bag.

Without as much as even a curt hello, he drew a big needle out of his bag and plunged it deep into little sister and held his thumb full down until it emptied.

Then, after a profound release of pent up air, he casually tapped Mom on the shoulder and in an unnaturally loud voice said , "Marg, where's your manners, how about a cuppa ?"

No one but no one ever dared call Mom 'Marg' and she looked momentarily shocked,  but then she shook all over, gave off a relieved laugh and scurried off to the kitchen.

And for the first and only time in your life, you saw Dad burst into tears, balled like a baby, as Doctor Mattison patted baby sister's on the head repeatedly and said, "you'll be alright" until the ambulance arrived.

That is the difference an antibiotic makes.

But just as even a mighty oak started as a tiny acorn, so too the most famous of all antibiotics, penicillin, started out as a harmless antiseptic rather than a mighty life-saving antibiotic.

For the first twelve years of its existence as a medicine, its prolonged childhood of the soul, penicillin was only used occasionally, dabbed as an antiseptic on external infections, with usually modest results.

But seventy five years this Fall, on October 16th 1940, at NYC's famous Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Centre, Penicillin finally climbed out of short pants and into long pants as it was injected for the very first time in a dying patient with the intention of saving his life.

That patient, Charles Aronson, was a young man dying of then invariably fatal SBE, the form of heart valve disease caused by earlier bouts of Rheumatic Fever.

That pioneering dose of penicillin, ushering in our present Age of Antibiotics, must of helped because unexpectedly Charles lived and returned to a useful working life.

An in that instant, an acorn became an oak....

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