I was born and raised in Smithers, a small, isolated town of about 5,000 people in central British Columbia. I lived in an old bungalow with my parents and three older brothers. It was a typical, quiet little town where everyone knew each other, and everyone had an intrinsic sense of care and respect for each other. I lived a relatively normal life until 2007, when the recession came.
Canada wasn’t impacted as severely as the US, but British Columbia was hit quite hard. Thus, my fragile, little town obviously felt the wrath, too. Lots of people started moving from Smithers in hopes of finding new and more sustainable jobs in bigger cities like Vancouver and Victoria. I loved my town so this was a bit disheartening to witness as a sheltered and naive 15-year-old. My parents simply explained to me that people were just eager to leave our then dying town for the sake of survival. Several of our neighbours even left without uttering a single goodbye, desperate to leave, shamelessly vanishing into thin air. At one point, someone we knew would move away almost every week. My parents adamantly chose to stay, unable to embrace the idea of leaving our way of life.
My parents made a humble living from their crafts store, the only one in Smithers. We mainly carried things like scrapbooking supplies, chisels, canvases and paintbrushes, but we sold our specialty deer antler jewelry as well. My dad was a large, burly man and had always been fond of hunting deer since his youth. My mother was very thin and soft-spoken, his counterpart, a virtuoso of making earrings and necklaces out of their antlers.
Supporting a bustling family of six must’ve been so hard for my parents. It seemed as though they were always out and working. Sometimes they’d never even tell us where they were going because they didn’t want us to worry about it and just wanted us to finish school. Our struggling crafts store was just hanging on tight enough to let us keep the house, so my parents would gallantly keep the store stocked enough to keep it going. My dad even stopped hunting as much to focus more on the shop and keeping our old house fixed up. Before we’d just get our neighbour Old Mr. Thornton, a retired handyman, to help out, but even he had since moved away. Between the costs of our house and keeping the shop afloat, we had no extra money for auxiliaries like new bikes, video games, or computers.
Our battle with money only continued to worsen. About eight months into the recession when I was 16, we let a couple of our store clerks go to cut down on expenses, so my brothers and I started working shifts there. Feeling too uncomfortable to ask for money to spend on things I didn’t exactly need, I was down to four t-shirts and three pairs of pants that still fit me. Before the recession, my mother would cook a different meal for every day of the week and we always had variety of different meats, fruits and vegetables to choose from. Eventually, we only had enough for deer meat stew with carrots and onions. Every. Single. Night. But no one complained. Everyone’s health worsened a bit as you would expect it to during times of emotional and physical turmoil. I would constantly have arm pain, headaches and would sometimes even find my hands twitching while stocking the shelves at the shop. It felt like I never had the energy or patience to do anything anymore. Living was absolutely exhausting, maddening. At one point, I would often catch my mom and eldest brothers, Jack and Troy, in random fits of laughter for no apparent reason. I could sense that the inescapable pressures of survival were starting to cause them to lose it, too.
The worst of our struggles continued for about a year-and-a-half more until I turned 17, graduated high school with honours and, by a stroke of luck, received a partial scholarship to UBC for health sciences, the rest paid for with student loans. I decided to make hay while sun shines, packed my bags and hastily moved to beautiful Vancouver that summer.
My world temporarily fell apart after my dad died of a mysterious neurological disorder when I was two years into my undergrad. It was probably from all the stress, I thought. I was utterly devastated and am still, to this day, trying to heal. But I was determined to finish making a life for myself so that I could perhaps go back to Smithers one day to pay homage to my loving mother, the woman that had done so much to help support my brothers and I through the most difficult of times. My brothers all still live in Smithers to help out my mom whenever they can, but now with families of their own. It may sound selfish but I just didn’t want to even remotely be reminded of the pains I felt during the recession for as long as I could, so I haven’t gone back to Smithers in the entire six years that I’ve been at UBC. The semester’s ending in April, after which I’m finally going back for summer to see everyone. I need to.
I’m now in my second year of medical school at UBC and have an immunology professor who likes to give us a random, neat “fact of the day” every class about something medicine-related. Yesterday he started off his fact by listing symptoms to see if anyone could identify the corresponding disease.
“Symptoms include arm and leg pain, increasing problems with coordination, headaches, difficulty swallowing, pathologic bursts of laughter, and body tremors. Hint: it isn’t commonly observed… anyone?”
I laughed to myself, remembering my family and I experiencing all of these symptoms back in Smithers when we were living on little-to-nothing. What disease could we possibly have had?
A girl raised her hand, “Parkinson’s?”
“Similar symptoms but not quite. Remember, this one is relatively rare. Think Papua New Guinea or 1930’s Russia…”
“Oh,” a boy shot out. “That sounds like Kuru!”
“That’s correct,” the professor said.
Kuru? I’d never heard of it before.
Dr. Oliver explained, “Kuru is a type of TSE caused by a prion found in human tissue. It’s mainly endemic to tribal regions of modern day Papua New Guinea, but has been observed in other extreme cases throughout history. It deteriorates you both physiologically and neurologically, eventually leading to death, and is caused the constant consumption of human flesh.”
I inhaled sharply and felt a large lump rise to the top of my throat. And that’s when I put the pieces of the puzzle together, petrified: our neighbours constantly moving away from town, the seemingly innocent, but constant muscle pains and spasms that plagued my family, the fits of laughter, my dad’s sudden death, that same stew we’d eat every night…
I stopped in the middle of my train of thought:
The fucking stew.
That wasn’t deer meat in it.