Boarding School and Rheumatic Fever

Many missionary kids (MKs) of a certain age spent time away from home in boarding schools. For some MKs, boarding school was an enriching and fun experience, for others it was painful and lonely, and for others it was some combination of the two. For me it was a mixed bag. Some boarding schools were humanely though strictly administered, some were administered by individuals who should not have been in the business of taking care of children, and some were run by caring houseparents who genuinely had the best interests of the children at heart. Again, my experience was mixed, tilting in favor of the “humanely though strictly administered.”

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Standing outside Coghlan in 2003

For the first year of my parents’ second missionary term, my mother home-schooled me again. But then in January of the year I turned nine, I was sent to boarding school in Bulawayo, about 60 miles from Mtshabezi Mission, where we were then living. I entered Coghlan, an elementary school for white girls run by the colonial British government, as a Standard II student (approximately fourth grade). When I started at Coghlan, I knew only one other girl in the whole school—Donna Climenhaga (Wenger), a fellow MK about three years older than me and in her last year at Coghlan. While she was kind to me, social protocol and the school’s pecking order prohibited me from hanging out much with her and her friends, the “big girls.” I have this mental image in my mind of the first evening at school when all the girls were gathered together on the lawn outside the main hostel building. I was lonely, homesick, scared and painfully shy, and there was Donna across the lawn enjoying being back together with her friends after the long Christmas break. I had to find my own way. The first morning I was reprimanded for the way I made my bed. The rule was that we had to use “hospital corners,” but I had never learned how. I had also never learned how to eat with a knife and fork, British-style, but I quickly paid attention to how everyone else did it so I could avoid more reprimands. Both skills have come in handy over the years.

What stands out most from that first year in boarding school, however, is when I got sick two weeks into the second term. I had what I thought was a cold with severe sore throat. I felt rotten, but I didn’t want to tell anyone for fear of being sent to the infirmary, which from my point of view was a fate worse than death. One evening after we returned to the hostel from an afternoon activity and were standing outside the dining hall waiting to file in for dinner, one of the house mothers noticed that I was showing clear signs of being sick. In reality, I was probably burning up with fever! Sure enough, she took me to the dreaded infirmary, where a nurse cared for me, helped me take a bath, and applied a mustard plaster to my sore throat. After my bath, I tried to convince her I felt better and pleaded to go back to my dorm room. The nurse refused, and she was right. By the next morning, my throat was better but my joints were sore and I could barely feed myself because my wrists hurt so badly. Later that day or the next, an ambulance came to transport me to Bulawayo’s general hospital. I distinctly remember being wheeled out to the ambulance on a stretcher while the other girls watched.

During my first night in the hospital, I heard some nurses talking about “that little girl” who just came in. I knew they must be talking about me. They said I had rheumatic fever, which scared me as I lay all alone in my bed. Unlike most nine-year-olds who probably never have heard of rheumatic fever, I had. At that very time my older MK friend, Donna, was ill at home at Matopo Mission with rheumatic fever. In fact, we had visited her on our way from Mtshabezi to Bulawayo when my parents brought me back to school. I was sure I caught the disease from her. I found out later that rheumatic fever is not contagious, and can develop from a strep throat. The joint pains I experienced in my wrists and legs were also a symptom of rheumatic fever.

My parents, in the meantime, were still out on the mission station. Actually, my father wasn’t even there, but had gone into the bush to visit the small primary schools he supervised. My mother had to send a messenger out to find him and tell him to come home because his daughter was in the hospital. (No cell phones or e-mail then!) When my father returned to Mtshabezi, they both made the trip to Bulawayo to be with me. After 10 days in the hospital, I was permitted to go home with my parents, but only because Virginia Kauffman, the missionary doctor, was onsite and could monitor my condition. I was confined to bed for weeks. Dr. Kauffman drew blood every week to check my progress, and gradually she allowed me to get out of bed for longer and longer periods of time each day. The first few times I was allowed out of bed, I could barely walk because my muscles had atrophied from having been inactive for so long.

While I was bedfast, I read and reread many books, did puzzles, and played games, especially Scrabble. I played Scrabble with my parents and other missionaries, and I often played alone managing two rows of letter tiles. My nine-year-old fascination with words that made me a good Scrabble player as a child has served me well ever since. My mother often said she was glad I was the one who got sick, rather than my younger brother Rich. I was a good patient, loved to read, and could entertain myself. On the other hand, my mother thought Rich, then an active four-year-old, would have been the patient from hell (although she wouldn’t have put it that way!).

I was well enough to go back to school for the third term, although I was not allowed to participate in any gym or sports activities as a precaution against further heart damage. However, in mid-term I had a relapse and was confined to bed again. This time I wasn’t hospitalized and recuperated at home at the mission station. I never relapsed again, but I was restricted from physical education and sports for about three years, and I took penicillin as a prophylactic until I was 18. I also had my tonsils removed when I was 12 to help prevent a recurrence of strep throat, and I was left with a heart murmur for several years which has long since disappeared.

Thinking about this illness more than 50 years later, I am struck by a couple things: 1) Medical knowledge and care have come a long way since then. Who uses mustard plasters anymore? And in what current medical universe is anyone confined to bed for weeks at a time for something like rheumatic fever? 2) As a mother and grandmother, I grieve not only for the little girl all alone in the hospital with no family to comfort her, but also for her parents who were compelled by the necessities of missionary life to send their young children away to school where they couldn’t be with them when they needed them most. While I survived my boarding school experiences well enough, I am glad that missionaries today are usually not expected to send their children away to school.

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8 thoughts on “Boarding School and Rheumatic Fever

  1. OH, yes. We were both there. I actually had a far less traumatic bout of rheumatic fever. Yes, it develops following a strep infection–and it is possible that either you acquire the strep bacteria from me, or we both acquired it from a common source at boarding school.
    My disease onset was while I was home on holiday. I have no recollection of a sore throat, but I told my parents my one side felt “funny.” I also developed “St. Vitus’ dance”–a spasticity in one side of my body (some might say, I never recovered…) which made my left hand suddenly jerk, and likewise my left leg. I bumped into things. My parents first thought I had polio–another dread disease of the time and far more debilitating. When Dr. Kauffman treated me, she too prescribed bedrest. I was only in bed for 6 weeks, during which time Mother was pregnant with Denise, so Rhoda Lenhert took care of me. I remember mostly reading Jack & Jill magazine, and playing with Daryl who would sit on my bed. I also “taught” him not to lisp during that time. I too took penicillin until I was 18, but–unlike you–had no residual heart murmur.
    As for boarding school, I have almost no memories of Coghlan. I do have memories of Eveline–and of reprimands there, some of which featured taunts by classmates scoffing at me as a “rich American.” Quite a shock for a missionary child who was NEVER rich, in money at least.
    Childhood is a rich territory to explore, fraught with sweet and sad memories.

    • My dad’s autobiography says I was in bed for three months, but I don’t think I was actually bedfast that long. I think that the short forays out of bed happened before the three-month mark. I was out of school all but those first two weeks of the second term, so that would have been almost three months

  2. I too remember those years. I agree with much or all of your observations about Boarding School &/etc. But it was the “done thing” then. As a “Mish Kid” myself decades earlier I was not subjected to that, fortunately for me. As for the rheumatic fever: first Donna, then you, then Donald Wingert, all about the same time! I wonder what his memories of that period of his life would be. Yesterday I said I remembered you from before you were born. I meant in the sense that your parents and we were in the same missionary party flying from New York City to Leopoldville in December 1946. Uncle David

    • David, I also think that Anita Musser (Culp) had rheumatic fever, although that would have been a few years later. I always found it Interesting that several of us MKs had the same illness.

  3. Wow, as a parent I felt deeply for your parents not being able to be with you in the hospital. I also felt for that 9 year old little girl. As you know my daughter attended boarding school but as a day student. Many of the students were from Europe and Asia. I have often wondered who parents can send their children away to live. But also understand that it is the “done” thing.

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  5. Harriet, Several things I could comment on from your post: your comment about people who aren’t cut out for caring for children. It is this way in the foster care system also. Hopefully, it has changed (though I’m not sure it has), since my days in foster care.
    I have never understood the idea of sending children away to boarding school. Why do we have children if this is what we do? As Christians, weren’t our children to come first after God and husbands?
    I’m sorry for your difficult experiences as a child. I guess we all can look back and see how things could have been different. Thank God that the Good Shepherd was there with us thru the difficult times. I have often asked God why He allowed me to go thru times with no “real family” in my life. But, He has shown me time and again that others are sometimes much worse off and that thru my experiences, I have been able to minister others and am much more compassionate than I might because of those times.

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