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For want of an aspirin, a battle could be lost

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Linda's Lines

By Linda Ireland

 Like millions of other baby boomers, I’m on a daily aspirin regimen.

An aspirin a day keeps away all kinds of things, they tell me … heart attacks, stroke, colon cancer.

There is an increased risk of serious bleeding while taking aspirin. My physician thinks – in my case – the benefit offsets the risk.

Aspirin – that miracle drug – has been around a very long time. Forms of the painkiller – a chemical found in the bark of willow trees – has been used for centuries, beginning in ancient Greece, according to History.com.

Aspirin, as we know it, was patented in 1899 by Bayer & Co., a German company with ties to Nazism. This didn’t go over well with some countries and the company had some financial problems. In World War II, the company experimented on victims in concentration camps. That also didn’t go over well.

As time went by, its background was mostly forgotten. And today, aspirin is the most common drug in medicine cabinets.

With that said – believe it or not – this is a Memorial Day column. 

While I was talking with U.S. Navy veteran John T. Meers a couple of weeks ago, he shared a few stories about his service during World War II.

We ended up talking about aspirin.

Mr. Meers enlisted at the ripe old age of 17. He was the youngest and smallest – weighing in at a whopping 110 pounds – sailor on his ship in the South Pacific.

He picked up rheumatic fever during the tour and was in the hospital for more than a year. He was unconscious much of the time.

They treated him with aspirin. He was dubious about the benefit and volunteered, along with 27 other men, to try a new, experimental drug – penicillin. He doesn’t know how many of the others survived.

Penicillin was “discovered” before the turn of the century but wasn’t in mass production until 1943 – just in time to save several thousand lives of those injured in, or who became ill, during the war.

My dad, Donald Gene Powell, had a similar story about aspirin during World War II. 

He, too, was a young man, fresh off the farm, when he enlisted in the Navy. He missed most of the fighting – but managed to become deathly ill anyway.

He developed tonsillitis while on a ship. The only thing he was offered was aspirin. Dad, who could be incredibly hardheaded, threw them overboard in disgust. He apparently did not consider it to be “real” medicine – but it was all they had.

He lay on his bunk, shivering under a blanket and burning up with fever. When his crewmates took turns at watch, they put an extra blanket on him. 

He always claimed he “coughed up” his tonsils while on that ship. And he always recalled how kind the other sailors were while he was ill.

I had never heard another “aspirin in wartime” story until I spoke with Mr. Meers.

While researching, I came across the following on the Internet: Standard List Of Medical Supplies Issued to U.S. Merchant Ships During World War II; Operations Regulation No; 67 (Revised) March 1, 1944.

Here is a partial list of necessary medical supplies carried on ships:

 The publication “Ship’s Medicine Chest and First Aid at Sea”; aspirin (for headache, colds, sore throat, grippe and fever); rubbing alcohol; ascorbic acid (to prevent scurvy); bandages and gauze; bismuth (for diarrhea and heartburn); boric acid (for inflamed eyes); calamine lotion (for rashes); castor oil (as laxative); cough syrup; crutches; ephedrine sulphate tablets (for asthma or hay fever); codeine sulphate (painkiller); oil of cloves (for toothache); oil of wintergreen (for relief of rheumatic pain); sulphur ointment (for burns); opium (for coughs and bronchitis); and personal insecticide (for body lice).

Penicillin was allowed on ships only if they carried a ship’s surgeon or a hospital corpsman who graduated from the Hospital Corps School.

During World War II, thousands of young servicemen succumbed to disease or infection, according to the Military Medical History website. They suffered or died because they were far from home and did not have proper care. Today, they would see a quick cure or, at very least, have their symptoms alleviated.

Through our history, so many have been lost to war or its fallout. They are all worthy of the same respect – no matter how they fell.

Remember to thank our veterans – and those currently enlisted – for their willingness to fight for us, despite the cost.

Above all, we must realize that no arsenal, or no weapon in the arsenals of the world, is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women. It is a weapon our adversaries in today’s world do not have.

Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan