Around 1952, Wye, Rose and I at the same time had come down with typhoid fever. While my eight-year-old big sister and two-year-old baby sister had a mild case of the fever, I almost died with a more serious case. Mine was so severe that the fever burned all my blood and I had to have more. But the fever swiftly consumed that blood too. My blood had dropped so low the doctors at the University Hospital in Little Rock, Arkansas had difficulty finding veins. And because they need those veins to give me blood, my life was threatened. The doctors searched. But the effort of finding any veins in my arms or legs was long-lived. Finally, in a desperate attempt to save my life, one surgeon suggested cutting into the ankles of my feet to find veins to supply blood to my little feeble, four-year-old frame. It worked. But the fever greedily drank that blood too. And it kept on drinking it, as fast as the physicians could pump it into me.
Rose had gotten better two weeks later and the doctors released her from the hospital, leaving Wye and I still confined to the facility.
Some days I felt better. Some I didn’t. One day I was feeling better, I was on my knees in bed playing with a little black plastic toy horse. The bed had baby-bed-like railings to keep me from falling out asleep or awoke. I was pretending my toy horse was galloping along the sheets when it slipped from my hand and fell to the floor. I looked at it a long time, helpless to retrieve it, but thought that was short-lived when a tall, young black man in a white uniform entered the room with a dusting broom.
“I want—my horse,” I said, pointing at the toy, as the man started sweeping the floor. I asked for the toy several times, but the orderly neither swept nor picked the toy up, just glanced at me, sweeping around the toy. It was as if he never heard me ask for it. My toy was still lying on the floor when the man left the room with his dusting broom.
Wye, just across the hall from me, often slipped into my room and visited me. She wasn’t suppose too, but Wye removed me from my hospital bed and held me in her arms, rocking me, humming a child’s play song to me, as if I was her baby doll instead of her baby brother.
Finally, Wye, a pretty little girl with a head full of thick, long black hair that ranged pass her waistline, was released from the hospital too, thus leaving me alone and gloomy in critical condition in a place I longed to leave also; but my death-threatening condition kept me there, confined to my hospital bed.
Days later, the fever still consumed my blood. The fever did not burn all the blood I lost. Many times, the nurse entered my room and lifted me from a pool of blood soaking my bed sheets, passed from my bowels.
The doctors continued feeding my veins blood through the slits the surgeons cut above my ankles. But, as little as my body was, the physicians just couldn’t supply enough blood into me to satisfy the appetite of the deadly, hungry typhoid fever. I was fading fast; my life was ebbing right before their eyes. Giving up on me, the doctors reluctantly summoned Mama and Daddy to Little Rock, telling them and all else to hurry, if they wanted to see me alive. The doctors had done all they could do.
The rest was up to God.
With two of her four sisters, Aunt Lucille Hogan and Aunt Georgia Johnson and their husbands, Uncle Elmer “Frent” Hogan and Uncle George Johnson Sr., accompanying her, Mama arrived in Little Rock as soon as possible. Daddy wasn’t with them; he was at work on the farm in Casscoe.
While Mama, her sisters and brothers-in-law stood over my sickbed, staring at me in near-awe, a lone nurse, old and wrinkled in blue dress, white hood and apron, appeared behind them. Mama, feeling watched, looked around and was the only one in the room to see the old nurse standing there with hands joined before her, seemingly crying, mourning my death. And I wasn’t even dead yet.
"That boy has the ‘old-timed’ typhoid fever,” the old nurse said softly to Mama, almost whispering it, “the kind that killed many, many people an’ soldiers back in the ‘old days’. You tell the doctors that.”
Mama turned her eyes away from the nurse for only a second to glance at me, and then put them back on the . . .
The old nurse had mysteriously vanished.
“Did y’all see that nurse?” Mama exclaimed to her sisters.
“What nurse you talkin’ bout, Rosa Lee?” Aunt Lucille asked thoughtfully, looking around the room, not seeing anyone.
“The nurse that was just in here,” Mama said. “Y’all didn’t see her?”
Aunt Lucille and Aunt Georgia just looked at Mama, and thinking Mama delirious at my near-death condition, merely shrugged the question off, feeling their sister’s gloominess.
A physician entered the room, a young nurse clad all in white—bonnet, shoes, dress, stockings—behind him; the older nurse who had been in the room earlier had clad differently—in old style garb.
“Where’d that nurse go?” Mama asked the physician, as he checked my pulse and the nurse checked my temperature. There were two bottles of blood swinging from skinny medal poles beside my hospital bed. Long, clear, skinny tubes with needles at the end stuck in my ankles ran from the bottom of those bottles slowly dripped blood into my thin frame.
“What nurse, ma’am?” the doctor said, not looking at Mama.
“That old nurse,” Mama said, “who was in here just while ago in the blue dress and white apron. She told me to tell y’all my baby don’t have that typhoid fever my daughters had. She said what he got is that old-timed typhoid fever.”
The physician, nurse, Mama’s sisters and brothers-in-law looked dumbfounded to Mama. The physician knew there was no such nurse in the hospital, but didn’t tell Mama that. Mama’s spirits seemed up. And he just couldn’t bring them down by telling her no nurse on the floor fitted that description.
Mama’s word did spark his memories: He had heard of the old-timed typhoid fever that Confederate veterans brought back from the bowels of the Civil War in 1865 that had merely started an epidemic before doctors of that day brought the disease under control.
As Aunt Lucille and Aunt Georgia had done a few minutes ago, the physician looked strangely to Mama, and then, without a word, left the room, his nurse behind him. When he returned a short time later, two more doctors were with him. His nurse, carrying fresh bottles of blood, came in shortly afterwards. The physician kindly asked Mama and her sisters to leave the room, saying it would be best if they just went on home that he would get in touch with them later about my condition.