Little Girl Lost June 5, 2024

 Little Girl Lost

A Story of Medical Misunderstanding  

 circa 1949

I am told that everyone who knew me called me Shirley Temple because I was such a happy, precocious child…

Until I came down with a mysterious illness in 1949. I was just 4 when I spent 3 months in Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia.

photo of CHOP in the 1930’s

My parents, like all parents back then, trusted doctors implicitly. Horrified but silent, my parents were forced to look on as I was poked and prodded.

I still hold a terrifying image of me riding a conveyer from one testing station to another, begging them to stop!

To me, the tests were torture. To the doctors, I was a “bug”they had to find … and eradicate!

l cried every night, hard tears, buckets of shiny pellets. 

I threw my dinner tray to the floor, but I couldn’t hear the clang. 

 My screams were the only sounds in the hospital corridors.

I screamed for my mother when they wouldn’t let her stay with me after four p.m. I screamed so hard that I soiled my clothing. I was humiliated when I was put in diapers every night. I hadn’t worn diapers since I turned one!

Mother said I was screaming when she stepped on the elevator at 4 p.m. and off again at 8 a.m.  She suffered as much as I did.

One day, a doctor came to me with his sugar-coated tongue, sweet and cajoling, “Wouldn’t you like to have your own little room, Lainie … you will have your own little Christmas tree?”

After that, my parents could not hold my hand, hug me, love me. They stood at the doorway, dressed in robes and masks. I couldn’t even see my mother’s hair … or smell it. 

I didn’t want their ugly old tree anyway. I was Jewish. Why didn’t they know that children don’t have Christmas trees???

Three months of solitary confinement. That was the sentence for being a sick four-year-old in 1949. 

 I must have been a very bad child: my parents didn’t want me anymore!

Meanwhile, health inspectors tore my grandfather’s farm apart and shut it down, placing it in solitary confinement, too. They inspected every cow, every silo, every hay bale, every manure pile, every chicken coop, every beehive on the farm. 

They were looking for Typhus or Typhoid, or something horrible. Of course, they never found anything, but they nearly bankrupted my grandparents. The milk spoiled, the crops failed, as I, too, was failing.


With soaring nightly fevers, approaching 105-106, I was plunged into ice baths. My parents stood at the door, crying.

If there was kindness and warmth in that cold place, and surely there must have been, I don’t remember.

The cause of my illness was never found, it went, just as it had come … mysteriously. 

The doctors told my parents how lucky that I hadn’t suffered brain damage, but my russet curls straightened and turned to drab brown, my blue eyes became crossed, and little Shirley Temple died. 

The child that left the hospital was a sad little thing. There was no sparkle, no laughter. 

My parents searched and searched for her, but she was lost. They longed for her over that  that year, and finally mourned her passing. 

me with my brother and my dad

The sad little girl became a misunderstood adolescent and remained that way.

We were a family in wreckage. The emotional trauma changed me, changed my parents, nearly destroyed our relationship.

Wait, a happy ending is coming!

The first change came when I was compelled, by a very wise woman, to enter the classroom at twenty to do the requisite student teaching. At long last, nearly a lifetime later, the lost became found, and the broken became whole.

An epiphany came to me not many years later. I realized that the medical profession had not only let me down, but my parents as well!

So, we sat down together one prolonged weekend to reconstruct the lost years. They came to understand what I had come to understand … we’d all been victims of a system that, at that time, had not recognized the needs of parents, or the needs of children. A lot of healing and forgiveness followed.

However, note that it was not the medical profession that helped us find our way. They’d long since forgotten the family they’d left behind.

Note: That was then, not now. Thankfully!

I’m listening if you have a story of medical indifference to share!


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