Anyone who has ever had occasion to walk through an old cemetery has known the heartrending experience of pausing in front of the grave of an infant or small child. Often the child’s grave is near those of the parents. Often there is more than one such grave near the parents’ graves.
A couple of weeks ago I had a very personal version of this experience when I attended a memorial service for a cousin whose ashes were being laid to rest in the family plot in central Massachusetts. Our grandparents, John and Daisy Dahart, were the patriarch and matriarch of the family. Their graves were surrounded by the graves of several of their children. and now by those of some of their grandchildren as well, including most recently my cousin's.
One old grave bore the name of my Aunt Ruth Amelia Dahart Hall, John and Daisy’s oldest child, who died tragically in a fire at the age of 27, long before I was born. But mysteriously, there was another name on the stone as well, Laverne Dahart, and the haunting words “10 months.”
Who exactly was Laverne Dahart? Not Ruth’s child, of that I was certain. Guessing she one of the two Dahart children who had died in early childhood, I followed up when I got home and through the miracle of the internet confirmed that Laverne Evelyn had indeed been born to John and Daisy Dahart on March 10, 1915, almost exactly two years after the birth of my mother in 1913. Although according to the gravestone Laverne had died at ten months, in fact her death certificate indicates that she was even younger, just six months and seventeen days at the time of her death on September 27, 1915. The doctor who signed it indicated that he had been attending her since September 20, only a week before she died; the course of her final illness had been breathtakingly rapid.
The cause of death was listed as “ileo colitis,” but based on what is currently known it was almost certainly a rotavirus infection, the most common cause of intractable diarrhea and dehydration in children under five. Although rotavirus infections are usually quite treatable, especially in developed countries where rehydration therapy is available and relatively high standards of cleanliness can be maintained, until recently some 2.7 million cases per year occurred in the US, of which 60,000 were serious enough to require hospitalization. Worldwide, over 450,000 children under the age of five still die from rotavirus annually.
Daisy and John had twelve children who lived to adulthood, but anyone who thinks that might have assuaged their grief at the death of their tiny daughter has never been a parent. Likewise, Laverne’s older siblings must have been badly shaken by the loss of a child who just a few days earlier had been sitting among them at the dinner table, propped up in her high chair. Did they help with her care? Did she amuse them with her antics? Was she crawling and getting into mischief? One of my sisters was born two years after I was and I actually remember a few of my first impressions - how little she was, and especially her tiny feet. Did my mother remember anything about Laverne?
I’ll probably never know how Laverne and Ruth came to share a common grave despite having died ten years apart. I can only surmise that an informal marker on Laverne’s grave was replaced with a more permanent stone when it was decided that Ruth would be buried there as well.
What I do know is that since the introduction of rotavirus vaccination in the US ten years ago, the incidence and severity of rotavirus infections has declined dramatically. Although I never met my grandmother Daisy, I feel certain she would have given anything in her possession or done anything in her power to save her infant daughter. The opportunity to do so is now available to all parents except for the few in whose children this demonstrably safe vaccine is contraindicated.
I am launching this blog as a way of doing my bit to help counter a cruel hoax that has opened a veritable Pandora’s box by undermining confidence in vaccination, in the medical profession, and in governmental agencies dedicated to protecting and promoting the public health. I am launching it in the hope that no parents will ever know the pain of having unwittingly exposed their children to rotavirus, to which my grandmother’s infant daughter succumbed; or to Haemophilus meningitis, which threatened my own daughter’s life in 1974; or to any of the other terrifying diseases that can now be prevented by vaccination.