I was born and raised in a New England town where cultural diversity was a matter of whether you were Irish Catholic or Polish Catholic. So people sometimes ask me why I took an interest in Africa and became an advocate for global health.
I usually credit my 7th-Grade teacher for showing me a bigger world. Mr. Pullen grew up in a mixed-race family in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and through his stories about growing up on a farm south of Bulawayo, I became hooked on Africa. So I mowed lawns for three summers to finance a trip to Zimbabwe when I was 18.
Lately, I have also started to understand how much my Mom influenced my choices. Sarah Barry grew up in relative comfort during the Great Depression. Her father was a train dispatcher for the Boston & Maine Railroad and her mother was a teacher. Sarah was a good student, and she was the first in her family to go to college.
But Mom never took anything for granted. I think that’s because she learned important lessons at an early age. One is that life isn’t fair. The other is that life is precious.
Mom learned that life isn’t fair from her Uncle George. When he was two, George contracted polio. Like President Franklin Roosevelt, he wore braces on his legs and walked with crutches.
In the absence of functioning legs, George exercised his mind. He became a librarian. He bought a Model A with a hand-operated brake and accelerator. And he doted on his adoring niece.
Through Uncle George, Mom learned that people can overcome life’s challenges with a little help and a lot of determination.
And Mom learned that life is precious as a teenager in the 1940s. One day, the students at her school were marched to the gym to have their lungs X-rayed. A week later, Mom was called to the nurse’s office, told that she had tuberculosis (TB), and admitted to a state hospital. Antibiotics were still new, and Mom thought her life was over.
She was released a few weeks later when someone discovered that her X-ray had been mislabeled. In a scene straight out of a novel, Mom was discharged and one of her classmates took her place.
Sarah Barry never forgot how lucky she was, and she always made sure that her children were bundled up in the winter, that our vaccinations were up to date, and that our cuts and scratches were cleaned and bandaged. She grew up when health wasn’t something that people could take for granted, and she taught her children to see good health as a gift.
Mom passed away a year ago having lived a long and healthy life. I wanted to share her story on World TB Day to thank her for the values she taught me.