I have never thought of myself as an environmentalist or had much sympathy with people who have such heightened fears and trepidations about what seems to me to be just ordinary stuff. The environment is, it seems to me, full of all kinds of strange and toxic material, much of it airborne, no doubt coming from far away places that I can’t even pronounce the names of. Yet here I am. Age 80 plus. Still breathing. Still alive. It seems these fears are overblown. Or are they? In my case I would have to say they are definitely not!
I was raised in Phoenix, Arizona after our family moved there in 1948. It was there at age 6 that I contracted something called Valley Fever, a fungal infection called Coccidiomycosis that mainly affects the lungs. I was treated for this with the best drug available at the time, Chloromycetin. After some time and probably more chest X Rays than any ten people normally have during an entire lifetime, I got better and was well enough to attend school, first grade at Isaac School. Then for some reason just after I had started second grade my left leg began hurting. Just walking on it made it hurt so badly I couldn’t put any weight on it at all. I cried in pain. I recall my dad yelling at me that I had forgotten how to walk. Obviously he was pretty clueless about my condition and what to do about it. Finally my mom talked him into taking me to our family doctor, Dr. J. Allen Ginn, a well known and very prominent physician in Phoenix whose claim to fame was riding his big white horse in local western parades. Dr Ginn took X Rays of my left femur. I recall seeing those X Rays and saying ‘holy shit’ or something that a six year old might say upon seeing a giant egg shaped empty region in his femur. I don’t think I had yet heard the word ‘shit’ before so it would have been something like ‘Oh my God’ or ‘Oh dear.’ Needless to say, Dr Ginn referred me immediately to one of Phoenix’s top orthopedic surgeons, Dr George A. Williamson who immediately sent me to the hospital for reconstructive surgery in my femur on what was believed to be a benign bone cyst, definitely not cancerous in view of the sharp outline of the diseased region. But the surgery, which involved grafting bone from my lower leg to fill the cyst in my femur did not go well at all. It was reported that some kind of blood clot occurred during my surgery leaving extensive tissue damage to my lower leg, even though the actual cyst repair in my femur was fully successful. I was in the hospital for at least two or three months recovering from this surgery. I missed second grade entirely. By the time I was back in school it was third grade.
For the next nearly 4 years Dr Williamson continued treating me, without charge according to my mom, trying to save my lower leg by equipping me with various braces (orthoses) and full length plaster casts so I could get around and attend school using crutches. Finally during the summer of 1954 Dr Williamson decided that my lower leg was never going to heal properly, that the tissue damage was simply too extensive, too irreversible and so he advised that he would need to amputate my lower leg. But despite my strong objections, he decided to amputate trans-femorally, above the knee rather than leaving my knee joint intact. Even then, even though my left knee was not fully functional, I knew that I would be far worse off being an above knee amputee than a below knee one. So the final insult made me an AK amputee for the rest of my life. Until about age 75 I could get around pretty well on a prosthesis. But nowadays that is becoming ever more difficult.
And what, you may ask, does this have to do with the environment? Valley Fever is known epidemiologically to be very prevalent in hot dusty agricultural regions typically found in the Southwestern United States, including California and Arizona where I grew up. Another strong factor in Valley Fever is thought, at least by me, to be the so called swamp coolers typically used to cool homes back in the 1940’s and early 1950’s in those very hot dry regions. It wasn’t until the mid 1950’s or later that we had wide scale usage of refrigerated air conditioning systems in Arizona homes that largely supplanted the use of swamp coolers – at least for people who could afford this more modern technology.
Swamp coolers use excelsior pads kept moist by a connection to the cold water supply of the home. A large fan blows warm air from the house’s return air duct through these pads which air is then cooled by evaporation before being recirculated back through the house’s cooling air vents. These Excelsior pads typically became moldy after a time, requiring them to be periodically replaced. But replacing these pads required not only a trip to the store to buy new pads but getting up on the roof with a ladder to actually replace them. I don’t recall just how diligent my dad was in replacing these pads. I just remember him complaining all the time about the need to do so.
The research I have done on Valley Fever informs me that the disease often affects tissues beyond just the lungs. The medical literature suggests there is a strong connection with bone lesions of the type that I obviously had in 1949. Whether my condition may have been caused or exacerbated by the use of swamp coolers is a matter for conjecture – I haven’t seen any medical literature that makes this specific association, but it does seem highly likely that Coccidiomycosis might find fertile breeding ground in the moldy damp environment of a swamp cooler in regions that are already prone to supporting this fungus. Long prior to the Love Canal episode and the environmental disasters that led to the creation of the EPA and the wide scale awareness of environmental contamination that may be deleterious to human health, I have little doubt that I am an amputee because of an environmental issue that is still, to this day, not even acknowledged, let alone fully understood! Of course it can be argued that I should have had a better surgeon to fix the problem that was caused by the Valley Fever that I never would have contracted in the first place had we moved to a different part of the country than Phoenix, Arizona.