A Breath of Life  by Melanie Schertz

A Breath of Life by Melanie Schertz

This past weekend, I received a treasured gift.  One of my father’s cousins was cleaning out her father’s house, when she came across a photo album.  Her father and my grandma were brother and sister.  The cousin looked through the photo album and separating them out for the families they should go to.  She and I are friends on Facebook, so she asked if I wished for the photos of my family members.  I was pleased and thanked her for her kindness.

The photos arrived in the mail Friday evening.  Saturday, in the morning, I knew the treasure she had sent to me.  There was a copy of my grandparents’ wedding photo, several photos of my great grandparents, and some of my dad from when he was a little boy.

In the pile, there was a photo of my dad when he was around three, and he was with a baby.  As his younger sister was six years his junior, I knew it wasn’t her.  Then realization kicked in.  Dad was born in 1939.  He had a sister born in 1941.  She had been born with what my grandmother referred to as an open spine.  After 9 weeks of life, she died.  The photo was the first one that my family had ever seen of her.  There was another photo of her by herself.  So, I spent lots of time on the phone with my mother and my younger brother (they live in Washington).  I was scanning photos sending them up to my brother, who then showed them to Mom.  We received confirmation from my grandma’s only living sibling (thanks to social media, and her daughter showing the photo to her).

In learning more about the condition, spina bifida, it was surprising.  If Aunt Nancy had been born just 10 years later, she might have had a chance to live a bit longer.  According to several sources, most born with the problem developed meningitis and hydrocephalous, and most died from infections, as antibiotics weren’t used in that time frame. Something we take for granted in our current time frame, for there are many types of antibiotics readily available in the United States.

Why am I speaking this?  It made me look at the miracles that have come about, even in just my lifetime. Personally, I have asthma, congestive heart failure, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, and many other conditions.  My life would be completely different, if I was still living, if I were living in Jane Austen life time.



For example, there was an inhaler invented in 1778, by a Doctor John Mudge, which was used by him to inhale opium vapour to treat coughs.  It was a pewter tankard, unlike the pressurized inhaler we currently use, which were invented in 1955.   There was a steam spray inhaler developed in 1860’s by Doctor Siegle, which began the use of nebulizer therapy.  In China, herbs were given to people with asthma.  The herbs contained a natural form of ephedrine which was used as beta-agonist.

The word asthma comes from the Greek verb aazein, which means to pant.  The term asthma appeared for the first time in Greek literature in Homer’s Iliad.  I am pleased that I didn’t have to take treatment in the age of 130-200 AD, for the treatment given to people was wine with owl’s blood. YUCK!

Hippocrates, ancient Chinese, ancient Egyptians, ancient Greeks, and more knew that asthma was a real disease, yet, in the beginning of the 20th century, asthma was thought to be a psychosomatic disease, known during the 1930’s to 1950’s as one of the holy seven psychosomatic illnesses.  This undermined true treatments for the disease. They believed that the illness could be cured with “talk therapy”.  The belief was that a child who was wheezing was only suppressing a cry for his or her mother.  Other psychoanalysts recommended treatment for depression.





As for the congestive heart failure, there is evidence found, when examining 3,500 year old Egyptian mummies, of heart disease. Pharaoh Merenptah, had been plagued by atherosclerosis. Out of the 16 mummies studied, 9 of them showed evidence of the disease.  It is now believed to be a result of the use of lots of salt to preserve food.  In the 1800’s, many in the medical profession were still bleeding people, believing that too much blood in one area of the body would cause the humors to be out of balance.  Though there was evidence that King Charles I had his physician, William Harvey, discover that blood moves from the right ventricle of the heart, through the lung, through the aorta, then the peripheral vessels, the returning to the lung, it was not widely accepted.  Instead, many believed the blood did not circulate.

In the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s cardiologist William Osler worked extensively on agina, declaring it a syndrome, rather than a disease of its own.

The 1960’s saw many improvements in health care.  Not only antibiotics, and treatments for babies such as my aunt, but in the treatment for asthma, which was finally recognized as an inflammatory disease, and medications to treat the inflammation were finally being used.





This is just one of the MANY conditions that were a death sentence in the early 1800’s.  Personally, I am grateful for the advances, especially conditions that take away children before they have had a chance to live.  And I look forward to seeing what advances they make in the coming years.

5 Responses to A Breath of Life by Melanie Schertz

  1. The poor owls! 🙂

    I think about modern conveniences and innovations a lot when I write. We’re so lucky we can travel swiftly and in relative safety. We live in a world where keeping up with the basic necessities of life (food, being clothed) doesn’t take up the majority of our time. Also, women have rights they didn’t have, which cannot be overlooked. I’m very happy for it. It would be beyond amazing to visit the 1800s, or any past time, but I really wouldn’t want to stay 🙂

  2. This was fascinating, Melanie. I had a similar moment of dawning awareness when I was doing our genealogy. I found that two of our grandfather’s cousins died of diphtheria when they were young children, within a month of each other. Suddenly I realized–my grandfather was named for one of those two cousins! I had always wondered where his name originated, and I was haunted by the fact that our children today never get diphtheria. These children died in the late 1890’s, which really wasn’t all that long ago.

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