AN APPALLING MEDICAL HISTORY – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My mother was plagued by serious medical problems, literally from birth, into her 50’s. She almost died several times. It made her a real fighter. She never let her physical limitations limit her life and always had a positive attitude.

Infants are rarely born with infections. My mom was born with one — not sure which. Maybe an ear infection. When she was three, she contracted polio. She recovered, but her legs were severely damaged. She had to be put into leg braces, which she wore till the age of 13. She also had to relearn how to walk.

Mom at about two years old

At around age five or six, Mom developed a severe ear infection that required painful and traumatic draining procedures every few days. She eventually needed surgery. She had half her head shaved and had to wear a big white bandage around her head for six months. Not so great for her ego at school.

At age 18, at college, she took a drug commonly used in the 1930’s to stay awake and focused when she needed to pull all-nighters. This was often since she had terrible study habits and an active social life. She developed a side effect of the drug and her white blood cells started to die off. The doctors at her college in Wisconsin told my grandmother to pick Mom up and take her home to die.

Mom at college

My grandmother was not going to give up on her daughter. Instead, she found a doctor who gave my Mom typhoid fever — a highly unorthodox attempt to stimulate her white blood cells to start reproducing again. The bold, risky treatment plan worked, but Mom was an invalid for a year, unable to leave her house.

At 20 and married to the doctor who had saved her life, Mom got pregnant. She delivered a five month stillborn boy after 18 hours of labor. After trying to get pregnant again for the next eight years, she was told she could never have children again. As a side note – my Dad, her second husband after being widowed, was also told that he was sterile. So I was quite an unexpected surprise. In fact, when Mom got pregnant with me, her gynecologist gave her shots to bring on her missed periods. It didn’t even occur to him that she could be pregnant.

After about eight relatively healthy years — except for migraines — Mom got rheumatic fever. She was sick and it affected her heart. She was an invalid for two years this time. She didn’t leave her bedroom for a year or the house for a second year. Her first husband, a physician, jokingly said that she was made of ‘biological junk.’

Mom at around 28 or 29

Before she got sick, Mom had been studying acting along with fellow students like Stella Adler, Karl Malden, Susan Strasberg and Buddy Epson. I believe that Lee Strasberg was one of her teachers. She had caught the eye of a Hollywood producer. He wanted Mom and her fellow student and friend, Judy Tuvim, to go to LA for a screen test. But first they were both told to lose ten pounds for the camera. Mom had just started her diet when she got sick.

Her friend, Judy, went on to become Judy Holliday. She ‘made it big’ and starred in Broadway version of “Born Yesterday” and the musical ‘The Bells Are Ringing,” then again in the Hollywood versions. Unfortunately Judy’s career was cut short. She died at 44 of breast cancer.

Professional Head Shot

Mom was left with scar tissue on her heart, which in those days, meant permanent heart damage. She was told she could no longer act, dance, play tennis or do anything strenuous. She had to lead a more sedentary life from then on. She couldn’t continue in acting so she decided to go back to school, finish college and study psychology — due to the influence of her former therapist and family friend, Abram Kardiner, who was soon to become my father.

Shortly after she started school again, her first husband died of a massive heart attack at the age of 43. She was 29. Three years later, she married my father and had me. When I was five or six and she was 38 or 39 at which time she was diagnosed with  lupus erythematosus, a chronic inflammatory disease and it affected her heart. Again. She was warned had to stay out of the sun and would be extremely sensitive to any kind of systemic infection. Exposure to the sun or to an infection like strep throat could trigger a lupus episode with potentially lethal results.

She had to be careful. She was warned to never take public transportation — especially airplanes — because they were breeding grounds for infections. Difficult since she was living in New York City.

Mom at around 40

When I was nine and she was 42, she developed strep. It activated her Lupus and she went into heart failure. More accurately, her doctor panicked when she got strep and gave her a dose of penicillin, even knowing she was allergic to it. The full body rash she developed was what actually sent her into heart failure. She was rushed to the hospital, where her doctor sat with her all night. He told her he was staying because he didn’t know if she would make it through the night. It was touch and go for a few days, but she pulled through, spirits intact.

In 1972, at the age of 56, she had her final bout with heart failure. Once she recovered, she enjoyed 24-years of relative health. Ironically, in her late 70’s, her heart was thoroughly checked out and all the scarring had disappeared, completely healed. So much for permanent damage. There was also no trace of Lupus. That was extremely unusual because Lupus is a chronic condition that doesn’t just go away by itself. There can be a temporary remission, but this was apparently long-term (permanent?) remission — which was (is) unheard of.

Mom in her 50’s

Mom continued to enjoy her Karmic reward of good health until the age of 81, when she got lung cancer. She fought it fiercely for four years, with great positive energy. Always fashionable, after losing her hair to chemo, she developed a unique style with wigs and hats. She died of a metastasized cancer at the age of 85 with her fighting spirit intact.

The medical community has come a considerable way in treatment, especially for heart related problems. Treatment would be much better today and what was or was not wrong with her heart could be diagnosed more accurately and treated with proper exercise rather than withdrawal. Yet even today, that’s a heavy weight of medical problems to deal with for any life.

13 thoughts on “AN APPALLING MEDICAL HISTORY – BY ELLIN CURLEY

  1. Wow! Your mother was extraordinarily unlucky to have so many health issues in her life but what a fighter! She just didn’t quit did she? I can imagine that she might have had a good career in acting had things turned out differently, she was an attractive young woman.
    On a side note your mention of Judy Holliday sent me hurrying to google to see if there were any Judy Holliday paper dolls. My sister collects vintage and reproduction paper dolls and loves the movie star ones. Sure enough Judy was there so I must ask her if she has them.

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    • Fortunately, Mom never regretted leaving show business and going into psychology. She was so happy with her life with me and my dad, that she never looked back. I have no way of knowing how good an actress she really was. She was beautiful but that’s not enough. You have to have something on stage or on camera that is special. We’ll never know.

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    • I’m so glad this post got to you. It’s obviously very close to my heart. I really believe that if Mom had not been such an incredible fighter with such an incredible life force, she would have died early. Her sprint got her through her medical crises and everything else she had to deal with in life.

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    • She attacked life every day just like she fought off every illness that was thrown at her. She was a force of nature. She didn’t walk into a room – she made an entrance. Everyone immediately knew she was there. It could be overwhelming at times but she was an amazing person. She also attracted people to her like flies. She had real charisma.

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    • She made sure she was the “star” of her own life. Everyone else were secondary players around her – including me! It was hard being in her shadow at times, but she gave me such “joie”! I am grateful to her for countering my natural anxieties and depression and giving me this real zest for life.

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    • My Mom says that the reason she survived was that she was born a fighter. A more passive personality may not have survived everything that was thrown at her. The only problem was that after so many medical crises that Mom overcame, she began to think she was invincible. She got a bit careless and she let some of her later problems get out of control because she refused to deal with them early on. She drove my dad crazy because she didn’t take really good care of herself. She always thought she could get away with not being careful. For example, she didn’t stay out of the sun or stay away from salt as much as she should have. And it caught up with her on several occasions. But, as usual, she overcame everything.

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