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Measles & My Sister

Emmi S. Herman is a writer and children’s book author who lives in Searingtown, New York. She wrote this piece in response to American Red Cross President and CEO Gail McGovern’s Op-Ed, Measles Vaccinations: Saving Millions of Lives.


The measles robbed the landscape of our wonder years, broke in like a burglar and stole a normal sibling relationship right from under our feet.


At the end of February 1960, my sister, a precocious, healthy child was halfway through the fourth grade in Rockland County when she contracted measles from one of her classmates who lived right down the street from us. His case was among the approximately 999 uncomplicated cases reported prior to the 1963 measles vaccination program in the U.S. For every 1,000 cases of measles, one would develop into a life-long disability. My sister’s case was that one. On March 1, she was diagnosed with measles encephalitis.

I was only six years old, but the gravity of her illness wasn’t lost on me (and today, the very mention of the word measles resonates into the deepest part of my being). My sister had been sick in bed with a high fever for a couple of days when the doctor was called to our home. As the pediatrician told my parents that she needed to be hospitalized, my happy-go-lucky, fearless mother fainted right before my eyes. I felt invisible to the swirl of confusion around me and lost inside my own home. When the ambulance arrived, I watched quietly. One of the EMS workers tossed his unfinished cigarette into our modern suburban toilet and gave me a complicit wink. The rules I had been taught, the family unit I knew, suddenly and without warning, were flushed down the toilet like the cigarette.

The ambulance whisked my sister away to the local hospital, where doctors offered no hope. She slipped into a coma and the prognosis was grim. “Pretend she was hit by a car” was one callous recommendation my mother received from a treating doctor. My mother thought otherwise. She stayed by my sister’s side around the clock. I went to school and was bounced from one neighbor to another until my father came to get me. I suppose he tried to work. He had to work. The medical bills started to pile up. Plus there was the upkeep of our new suburban split level, which stood half-empty, aching for family ruckus. Instead, it got the measles encephalitis whisper.

The modest white-shingled house with pink-painted shutters was purchased in November of 1959. With the assistance of the GI Bill, my dad, a World War II army combat vet finally afforded his $19,840 dream. Less than four months later, all was shattered, as his first-born lay comatose due to an unpreventable disease. The storybook beginning was ripped away and everything that happened in 1960 shaped our family’s path going forward. Every single day I wonder what would our lives, and more importantly, my sister’s life, be today if the measles vaccination was available at that time? What if she never suffered from the measles? Would we have a close and stable relationship? Would it be like my two daughters’ loving relationship, histrionics and all? The measles robbed the landscape of our wonder years, broke in like a burglar and stole a normal sibling relationship right from under our feet.

And then a miracle happened. After five weeks of my mother’s vigil, my sister came out of the coma. Hospitals rules were not child-friendly and throughout her stay, I was not allowed to visit. So as soon as she was able, my parents arranged to get my sister to the window so we could see each other. I stood in the vast parking lot and looked up. She was smiling and waving with great ferocity. When I replay that scene in my mind, the wild-looking wave personified her fight to survive and the strength she would need to endure the battlefield of life that lay ahead.

Time moves slowly when you’re six. I don’t remember my sister’s homecoming but it was sometime around Easter because I wanted a pet rabbit. My aunt tried to appease my capricious request. “You could get a toy rabbit now, or, if you wait until your sister comes home from the hospital you could get a real one.”

“My sister is never coming home,“ I blurted out, the verity of the statement echoed loudly. Out of the mouth of babes.

At first, everything seemed normal. My mother was home. My sister went back to school. But her behavior and personality changed as a result of the encephalitis and it presented issues that had to be dealt with. She struggled with learning new concepts in subjects that she had once mastered. At home, she fought over minutiae. My parents didn’t know what to do; the teachers offered sympathy but little support. My sister became a complicated medical case in relatively uncomplicated times. The ill-equipped school system of Regents and Non Regents classes—and nothing in between—allowed my sister to fall through the cracks.

Then my sister “fell” while she was walking home from school. That’s what I heard. In reality, she suffered a grand mal seizure. It was the first of many. Complications from measles encephalitis began to rear its ugly head and lay a path rife with stumbling blocks. After much trial and error, lifelong medications mostly controlled the seizures. But no medication could repair the damage caused by the insidious disease.

Measles encephalitis left my sister permanently brain injured. Throughout her life, she has struggled with higher-level learning skills, awkward social behavior, anxiety, denial and paranoia. My sister’s cognitive and personality changes swelled as the fickle preteen and teenage years took hold. She was the poster child for childhood bullying long before the phenomenon grew media wings. Unlike today, there were few places to turn for answers or social support. My parents knew of no other case of measles encephalitis at the time.

Trips to an eerie place called Letchworth Village was recommended for brainwave tests. Wet electroencephalogram using conductive paste became routine for my sister. She bravely accepted the EEG machine with aplomb. The purpose was for management of my sister’s condition. The hope was for successful rehabilitation. The reality was defeat. She would say that her brain felt as if a part of it was missing and asked me to check her skull for indentations. I would assure her that there were none. These were chilling, sad journeys. We were characters out of a macabre novel and my sister was the central heroine. Fifty-five years since that wild-looking wave from the hospital window, and a myriad cast of inscrutable characters, she still is.

Five Tips to Avoid Common Winter Injuries

Tips in this blog post are originally from Andrew MacPherson, MD
Member, American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council

Photo - Expert Skiiers Only (2) (1)

Are you hitting the slopes this weekend? A dedicated runner? An all-around adventure-seeker? Just in case you’re distracted by all the fun winter activities and safety isn’t #1 on your list, here are some top tips for preventing common winter injuries.

1. Runners. You have it extra tough trying to stay warm and dry without getting bogged down. Whether you are a casual jogger or elite marathoner, when you run in winter weather wear layered lightweight clothing; it keeps you warmer than a single heavy coat. Moisture-wicking layers can keep you dry and moving when the temperature drops.

2. Skis and Skates. Winter sports mean skiing, snowboarding, skating or ice hockey, and enthusiasts have a range of proper safety equipment designed for protection. But it only works if you wear it, so never skimp on recommended gear – especially helmets and goggles.

3. Off-road. If you prefer your activities off the beaten track, always think obstacles: snow-covered trees and rocks can really ruin your day. Outdoor ice skaters should be sure their lake is frozen safely solid by consulting local official sources. Most importantly, let someone know where you’ll be and when to expect you back for that cup of hot chocolate.

4. Brrrrrr. When you work up that outdoor sweat, it’s easy to forget that Jack Frost is still ready to bite. Know the signs of frostbite – numbness, flushed gray, white, blue or yellow skin discoloration or a waxy feeling – and get inside and get help. If you are feeling confused, dizzy, exhausted or experience severe shivering, those are signs of hypothermia and it’s time get medical attention pronto.

5. Sunblock. Just because it is cold doesn’t mean it isn’t sunny! Sunlight can reflect off the snow and getting a sunburn can be faster than on the beach. Wear a good activity-proof sunblock whenever you are active outside.

Still have questions? The Red Cross has a great, FREE First Aid app that covers all the basics.

See Andrew’s original post (with a fun throwback Olympic quiz!).

Our Home Fires Preparedness Campaign is expanding…to Kenya

By Abi Weaver, Global Technology Project Director, American Red Cross

Last weekend, volunteers in Omaha walked door-to-door, helping families install and test smoke alarms as part of the American Red Cross Home Fire Preparedness Campaign,  which aims to reduce deaths and injuries caused by home fires by 25% in five years.  More than 8,400 miles away, Kenya Red Cross volunteers may soon be providing a similar lifesaving service in Nairobi’s slums.


It’s challenging to estimate how many slum fires Kenya experiences each year because so many go unreported. But just a quick scroll through the Kenya Red Cross Twitter stream and you’ll notice they regularly occur because people are cooking with open flames indoors, burning trash, overextending faulty wires or trying to keep warm. Rapid and haphazard community development has also forced homes dangerously close together, and once they start, fires spread easily throughout the settlement.


On top of this, the density of Nairobi’s slums makes evacuations chaotic and dangerous. Pathways between homes are narrow and often blocked. Imagine a large-scale labyrinth with limited visibility and dozens of obstacles in your way. Getting out of your home when a fire starts and to a safe location within two minutes, as firefighters recommend, is nearly impossible.

Earlier this year, I spent some time with residents of three settlements in Nairobi to better understand the fire risk and help find innovative solutions to this overwhelming problem.

When fires occur, residents shout, ring bells, honk horns, crank sirens and use social media to alert others. Some residents risk their lives to suppress the fire using blankets and buckets, others douse their unaffected homes with water to stop the spread.

Most people didn’t know who to call to help stop fires. And professional firefighters, if they are even available, have a difficult time finding and getting to homes. Within minutes, hundreds of residents can be left devastated and homeless.

Very few have insurance. And after a fire, forced eviction or rent increases are common. Many end up leaving their communities and families are separated for prolonged periods of time.

Despite the sobering realities of the slums, it was easy to stay optimistic. The creativity and entrepreneurial spirit of the local residents was without equal, and together, we identified an emerging technology tool to complement the Kenya Red Cross’ current risk reduction programs—low cost fire sensors that are networked to each other.

An Emerging Technology Solution

In the future, they could detect a fire early, distinguishing between smoke and flames, and sound alarms across the network via SMS and broadcast to alert nearby homeowners. They could also directly notify professional firefighters (or an informal brigade of citizen volunteers) and provide GPS data for the location of the fire.


Almost immediately, we took our enthusiasm and requirements to a group of students at Texas A&M University, and we asked them to help design a custom prototype for the fire sensors, inspired by those developed in South Africa. During an initial design session, they also thought of ways the he at sensors could help reduce the number of false alarms caused by smoke detectors in the US.


On March 6, the Aggies will head back to the lab for second design session and help move us one more step toward this dream. We have a lot of work ahead of us before we can claim victory, but we have a great need propelling us forward.

Want to learn more about this innovation initiative and the other emerging technology projects planned in 2015? Visit www.tech4resilience.blogspot.com for regular updates on our progress and read our Vision for the Humanitarian Use of Emerging Technology for Emerging Needs.


Puppy Preparedness: 9 Tips to Keep Your Pets Warm and Safe This Winter

A version of this was originally written by Matthew Hurst, the  American Red Cross Greater NY Region blog

Raise your hand if you knew last Friday was Love Your Pet Day. Now, raise your hand if it was so cold out you used your cat as a foot warmer and your dog as an extra blanket to celebrate this amazing day? If you’re anywhere in the eastern half of the country, you’ve weathered a winter filled with frigid temps and snow storms.

You know how to bundle up and keep your home heated safely, but what can you do to protect and prepare your pets during the winter? Here are a few simple tips to keep them safe:

1. Bring your pets inside! It’s cold out there, and what’s bad for us is also bad for man’s best friend.



2. Be careful around space heaters! Space heaters pose many risks. Not only can they burn your pet, your pet can also knock them over and start a fire.3. Be mindful of the paws! Salt and other chemicals used to melt snow and ice can irritate a pet’s paws. Wipe their paws with a damp towel before your pet licks them and irritates their mouth.

4. If pets cannot come indoors, keep them warm  in a dry, draft-free space large enough to allow them to sit and lie down, but small enough to keep them warm.
5. Dress your dog in style for winter weather and make sure they are wearing a collar or ID tag with their name and your cell phone number.
6. These days, there’s an app for everything, including keeping your dog safe. Download the Red Cross Pet First Aid app for iOS and Android smartphones
pet first aid
7. Love may be the best medicine, but if your doggy gets meds from the vet, be sure to keep some in supply in case you get snowed in this winter.


8. Be ready by keeping a preparedness kit for your pets all year long. It should include food,water, and any medications for your pets. A chew toy would also be a nice gesture.
9. And in case of an emergency evacuation, never leave your pet behind in the cold. Remember, if it’s not safe enough for you, it’s not safe enough for your pet. 
Want to learn more about how to keep your pets safe and healthy? Sign up for a Pet First Aid courseYou like these photos? Check out the full series here. Thanks to our friends at Good Dog Therapy for sharing! 

Measles Vaccinations: Saving Millions of Lives Worldwide

By Gail McGovern, President and CEO the American Red Cross 

The unfolding outbreak of measles across the country has focused attention on whether parents should get their children vaccinated against measles and other diseases. This is a question the Red Cross answers approximately 100 million times a year around the world with life-saving vaccinations.

Mothers and children wait in line to be vaccinated in Cotonou, Benin after being informed of the campaign by Red Cross house-to-house mobilizers. American Red Cross/Javier Acebal.

Mothers and children wait in line to be vaccinated in Cotonou, Benin after being informed of the campaign by Red Cross house-to-house mobilizers. American Red Cross/Javier Acebal.

Measles is one of the most contagious diseases ever known. When one person has measles, 90 percent of the people they come into close contact with will become infected, if they are not already immune. Fortunately, since the 1960’s we have had the means to vaccinate people against measles to help immunize them. Despite the availability of an inexpensive measles vaccine, in the year 2000 over

562,000 children died worldwide from measles complications each year. Measles weakens the immune system and opens the door to secondary health problems, such as pneumonia, blindness, deafness, and brain damage.

In 2001, the American Red Cross, UNICEF, CDC, WHO, and the United Nations Foundation formed a partnership—the Measles & Rubella Initiative (M&RI)—and decided to do something that has turned into one of the most successful public health stories in our lifetimes. Supported by generous donors, the Red Cross and its M&RI partners have vaccinated over 1.8 billion children outside the U.S. against measles. More than 15.6 million needless deaths and countless cases of blindness, deafness, and brain damage caused by measles have been averted since launching the initiative. Still, despite reducing global measles deaths by 75% since 2000, today an average of 400 children die each day from a disease that can be prevented by a vaccine that costs about $1 and most of these children are younger than five years old. Our efforts to fight measles are continuing and we now are able to see the possibility of eliminating measles by 2020. In all of Mankind’s history, only one disease affecting humans – smallpox – has been eradicated. Now, we are within reach of banishing a second killer disease to the history books.

The current outbreak demonstrates that when people are not vaccinated, measles returns. To the parents who choose not to vaccinate their children because of philosophical reasons, the Red Cross echoes the plea made by our medical, political and scientific leaders: Please get your children vaccinated. Not only might it save the life of your child or prevent blindness and other terrible effects of measles, it will help protect children in your community who are too young to be vaccinated or cannot get vaccinated for medical reasons.

Around the world, the Red Cross and our partners are working with mothers and fathers to educate them that measles vaccinations are life-saving and safe. In the last 15 years, the parents of over 1.8 billion children have decided to get their children vaccinated against measles and over 15.6 million children are alive today because of their parents’ decision.

For more information or to donate, visit www.measlesrubellainitiative.org.

Gene Welsch’s Story: A Smoke Detector Save

Home fire survivors come in all shapes and sizes. From families like the Smiths, who were saved when 5-year-old Matthew heard a smoke detector, to Gene Welsch, a 72-year-old in South Dakota.

Welsch had new smoke detectors installed in his home this summer by the local fire department, after hearing about the Red Cross campaign in his area. In January, as Welsch was relaxing in his bedroom, his television screen went blue and the smoke detector began sounding an alarm. He escaped with his life, but nothing else.

“I don’t know how to say thank you,” Welsch said as he got emotional. “That [smoke detector] saved my life.”

#GiveWhatFireTakes is a call to help home fire survivors who have lost everything regain something — from a blanket in the immediate aftermath of a home fire, to comfort kits and lodging as the first steps to rebuilding.

Read the rest of Welsch’s story on redcross.org, and help #GiveWhatFireTakes.


Tips for Bitterly Cold Temps and Winter Storms

As many of us face a bitterly cold weekend, take some time to make sure you, your home, your neighbors and your pets are all taken care of as winter marches on.


  • Wear layers of clothing to stay warm, along with a hat, mittens and waterproof, insulated boots.
  • Watch out for hypothermia and frostbite. Hypothermia symptoms include confusion, dizziness, exhaustion and severe shivering. Frostbite symptoms include numbness, flushed gray, white, blue or yellow skin discoloration, numbness, or waxy feeling skin.


  • Avoid frozen pipes – run water, even at a trickle, to help prevent them from freezing. 
  • Never use a stove or oven to heat your home. If using a space heater, place it on a level, hard surface and keep children and anything flammable at least three feet away.
  • Turn off space heaters and make sure fireplace embers are out before leaving the room or going to bed. If using a fireplace, use a glass or metal fire screen large enough to catch sparks and rolling logs.
  • Never use a generator indoors, even in a garage, carport, basement or crawlspace. Fumes from the generator can be deadly.


  • Don’t forget your pets – bring them indoors. If they can’t come inside, make sure they have enough shelter to keep them warm and that they can get to unfrozen water.
  • Check on your neighbors, especially elderly people living alone, people with disabilities and children.


  • If your car breaks down, do not try to walk to safety. Tie a bright cloth to the antenna. Start the car and use the heater for about 10 minutes every hour, making sure the exhaust pipe is clear. Keep one window away from the wind slightly open.

Here are some great reminders as you prepare for freezing temperatures and winter storms:

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Download the American Red Cross First Aid App for quick, expert advice on what to do in case of an emergency. This free app is available in your app store. See all Red Cross apps at redcross.org/mobileapps.

Clarence Barton’s Funny Valentine, Part II

Heads up, it’s Valentine’s Day!

You might be:

  1. Showering your significant other with chocolates and flowers.
  2. Curling up on the couch with your gal pal watching Love Actually. Hugh Grant’s dance performance to “Jump” is nothing short of the best thing ever.
  3. Spending quality bromance time watching The Notebook – don’t lie, you know it pulls at your heart strings every time.

Whatever it may be, Clarence Barton has you covered again with some bad, yet clever, pick up lines inspired by his passion of being an everyday hero and promoting safety – fire safety in this case.

If you can’t get enough of Clarence Barton’s bad Valentine’s Day pick up lines, check out last year’s collection.

Feeling inspired too? Take part in #GiveWhatFireTakes and make a donation today.

Argi Raises More Than $1.9 Million


Thanks to the overwhelming generosity of World of Warcraft players around the world who purchased the Argi pet, we’ve raised a total of more than 1.9 million USD to support the ongoing Ebola relief efforts in Africa by the Red Cross. In December, we announced that for every Argi purchased by December 31, 2014, 100% of the adoption fee would be going to assist in aiding in the fight against this deadly disease — and the community embraced this cute little intergalactic nibbler, helping out a great cause in the process. Thanks again to everyone who helped make a difference.

What’s in Your Car?: A Winter Emergency Kit Review

Growing up in Georgia, the occasional snow/ice storm was a treat. It meant no school and time to play outside, sit inside and catch up on movies and TV shows or sleep. Fast forward to adult life and living in Washington, D.C., I’ve found snow days aren’t the way they used to be. When I moved here, I realized people in fact still function when snow/ice happens because of an abundance of salt trucks and snowplows.

It wasn’t until I started working at the Red Cross that I realized I need to be prepared. Prepared in my home, my workplace and yes, even in my car. I realized when I commuted on roads in wintery conditions, it was silly (and sort of stupid) to not have a winter weather kit in my car. So now, for the times when I do have to head into work, I’ve taken measures to make sure I have everything I need. Like, who knew you needed cat litter or sand in your car to make sure you can get out of a slick spot? Not this Georgia girl!


For those that say, “Nah, I don’t need that! I’ve got a snow scraper and four-wheel drive!” I’ve got news for you — think again! Make sure you at the very least have these things in the back of your car to keep you safe during winter months:

  1. Cell phone car charger
  2. Flashlight with extra batteries
  3. Blanket and/or emergency Mylar blanket
  4. Fleece hat, gloves, scarf
  5. Sand or cat litter
  6. Ice scraper and snow brush
  7. First aid kit
  8. Hand-crank weather radio

Car kit, completed!


Once you have your car kit assembled, there are some extra handy tips to help take winter preparedness to the next level. Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council member Jim Judge has two additional tips in a new article:

  • Keep emergency car kit in your back seat, so you can access it if your trunk freezes closed.
  • Put batteries in backward to conserve battery power (and then, of course, remember to switch them back when you need to use it).

For a complete list of other ideas for your car kit, check out this handy emergency kit list.