Community//

My Mother Was Quarantined With Scarlet Fever: Here’s What She Taught Me About Resilience

Her experience with isolation has helped me overcome the anxiety and frustration of COVID-19.

Artur Debat/ Getty Images
Artur Debat/ Getty Images

Last week my wife and I put together a package to send to my 83-year old mother, who lives in Indiana. She loves puzzles. Over the years, we have sent her many puzzles. This time, it appears that puzzles had become a popular pastime during the epidemic. They were back-ordered for months.

There is no precedent to the current COVID-19 pandemic in our life time. This is one reason it is so difficult to make sense of the outbreak. We lack a social and psychological reference point. Yet, throughout my life, I have drawn on my mother’s isolation from scarlet fever nearly 30 years ago. This was in the late 1940s, when she was about 10. Before antibiotics were widely available, the impact of scarlet fever could be severe. Even today, scattered outbreaks of scarlet fever appear, and a fear exists among medical professionals that the bacteria is increasingly resistant to antibiotics.

There are differences between scarlet fever and COVID-19. Scarlet fever is a bacterial infection, while COVID-19 is a virus. Scarlet fever mostly impacted children. Another difference lies in how people were isolated. In the scarlet fever epidemic, only those who were diagnosed seemed to be quarantined, not the entire society. At 10 years old, my mother was pulled from her elementary school and placed in a back room in her house. She was not allowed to see her family, and in particular, was kept away from her father who was considered an essential worker in the oil refineries that surrounded their neighborhood. Food was left outside her bedroom door. She was sequestered alone for over six weeks.

This was before the internet and television. To her recollection, she spent her days reading, doing art projects, listening to soap operas on the radio, and completing puzzles.

The social scars left by scarlet fever could be severe. I have read that children crossed the street rather than walk by the homes of other children diagnosed with scarlet fever. Once she returned to school, my mother was not allowed to walk the three miles home because it was thought to put too much strain on the lungs. Instead, she walked a much shorter distance to her grandmother’s house, and waited for her father to pick her up at the end of his workday.

Here are three lessons that I have learned from her about resilience in times of quarantine.

First, the events shape you, but do not define you. The extraordinary events such as the coronavirus will leave you changed, but overtime, the events will not define you as a person. Like my mother’s experience, the current isolation will shape each of us in some way. It will shape us for the better if we choose to use this time to learn new things, experience new outlets, and express our own creativity. The days of isolation will help you understand your personal strengths, and these are the strengths that will help you when the difficult times pass.

Second, we can learn and find joy in new activities that can lead to lifelong enjoyment. Would my mother’s love of puzzles, reading, and trashy TV have blossomed had she not had this situation occur? How did this situation shape her desire to step up and out, and trust herself in challenging times? My mother became the first person in her family to move out and complete college. She had two children, and was a teacher for over 30 years. The lesson is to discover new interests and cultivate old talents.

Third, you can use today’s isolation to find new ways to connect to others. When she was finally out of isolation, and recovering, my mother spent time with her grandmother, sharing their interest in radio soap operas. Prof. Edward H. Powley at the Naval Postgraduate School studies resilience, and has found that from shared experiences during disaster arises the opportunity for shared resilience. Even though we may be distant, you can use your time apart to bring you closer to people you care about. My mother found, in her isolation, a way to connect with her grandmother through their shared love of radio. Today’s isolation is a great opportunity to watch a new show or use a new app, especially one suggested by someone of a different generation. My mother will likely recommend that you watch reruns of NCIS.

For most of us, the experience of isolation will pass. Our current frustrations, anxieties, and disappointments will serve as reminders to be grateful for what we do have. We will learn to appreciate new things. Many of us will find enjoyment in simpler pastimes and find new ways to connect. It’s time to pull out the puzzles.

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