A History of Tuberculosis in Modern Buenos Aires
In 1955 Elda G. was ten years old and lived in a Buenos Aires neighborhood
with her parents, who were Italian immigrants and practically illiterate. One
winter day she felt a sharp pain in her back, near her right lung. A week later
she was convinced she had “caught” tuberculosis. Even though she had no
fever, blood sputum, or violent cough, Elda was sure she had tuberculosis and
was dying. She was stricken with fear. She dwelled on the stories her parents
had told her about a relative who had died of tuberculosis ten years before
Elda was born. Between the stories and her back pain, Elda created images and
sensations that were, for a time, the focus of her inner world. In the end, Elda’s
fear of death was stronger than her efforts to hide or secretly manage her dis-
tressing feelings. When her mother found out about her fears, she prayed (or
at least she told Elda she did) that “God would move the disease to my body
and that her “suffering [would] end soon. If someone has to die, let it be me.”
Her mother’s reaction worsened Elda’s fears; the possibility of her mother get-
ting sick on her account frightened her more than having the disease herself.
She began to obsess about whether her mother was losing weight or manifest-
ing other symptoms.
A couple of months later, after a visit to the doctor revealed that nothing
was wrong with her, Elda’s lung pain ceased. “Now, four decades later, I can’t
tell whether the story was true, or just the workings of a child’s imagination,”
she says.1
During Elda’s childhood, tuberculosis was no longer the major cause of
death it had once been; the enigmatic aura that had surrounded the disease
for seven or eight decades had vanished. Though it was an unshakable part of
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