One by one, the classes in the upstate New York school lined up to go to the cafeteria, but we were not going to lunch that day. We were going to get vaccinated. Inside the cafeteria lunch tables had been re-arranged into rows of sterile draped counters, topped with stainless steel trays filled with the ready-to-use inoculation needles. Nurses in white bustled about checking lists, preparing inoculations and conversing with the doctor.
It was not the favorite day of the school year for students in those days when the shadow of polio epidemics still lingered, but it was a day that no parent would allow their children to miss.
Obediently, if fearfully, elementary students entered the transformed cafeteria cautiously, fearfully, studying the tables, the nurses and the doctor.
With Dr. Salk’s recent development of the polio vaccine, no one argued about the necessity of receiving the vaccine. Our parents remembered all too well the summer epidemics that had disabled and even taken their friends in past years. They had no interest in keeping us from being vaccinated against polio or any other disease.
As a second grader I did not know all that. I just knew that this year I was to have four shots. Two in each arm.
Solemnly, I stoically made my way down the line. Every year I waited in line for that ominous needle to painfully inject me with whatever vaccination medical protocol dictated I needed that year.
On the other side of the room, mothers held crying pre-schoolers and babies. But big girls in second grade did not get that comfort. No one’s parents came to school for shot day. Moms signed any necessary paperwork and their children lined up efficiently for the shots.
Teachers and the school nurse were left to deal with any fears or tears.
I watched as one needle after another entered my classmates’ arms. Faces squinched against the pain, and they walked away rubbing their arms.
When it was my turn, I solemnly walked up, watched the white clad nurse study the paperwork and then reach into four trays.
First the smallpox vaccine. Thanks to massive, worldwide inoculation programs, the disease has now disappeared. But back then it still lingered, so I winced as the nurse pricked my upper arm leaving a circle of points that eventually scabbed over, fell off and left a distinctive scar that said “smallpox vaccination received.”
I stolidly watched as the nurse held my arm three more times and three times a long, pointed needle slipped into one of my arms. Surely it was not as huge or as impressive as my eight-year-old memory dictates, but no one could convince me otherwise.
I walked back to my classroom where in view of the day’s trauma, my teacher, Mrs. Gladys Hunt, had planned a relaxed afternoon. One of the girls had brought a long mural of a country scene to color. It stretched across several desks, including mine. I sat down to color. The next thing I knew I was whirling like Dorothy going to Oz.
I woke up on the floor with my teacher bending over me.
I had made the infamous list of kids who fainted on shot day and earned a trip to the nurse’s room with time to lay on the cot. Laying there I curiously studied the small, medical room reserved for the school nurse, her records of our vaccinations, illnesses and a cot or two for the occasionally ill child.
Eventually, she declared me able to stand up and make my way back to the room on my own, so I left with no further fuss or bother. During the school-wide inoculations, no one had time to coddle little kids just because they had to get a shot. We should consider ourselves fortunate that for one day the cafeteria became a medical clinic and kept us safe from the anguish of the epidemics of the past.
The next day everything returned to normal. The drapes disappeared and only the bragging tales of those who took their shots without fainting lingered as we made our way in a line to the cafeteria for lunch.