Tuesday, January 29, 2013

On Sickness

Like everything else, being sick seemed much simpler when I was a child.

When I was a kid, "the flu" meant I had a fever, headache, felt weak and had the chills.  Once diagnosed, I'd camp out on the couch in the family room with a blanket and my big bed pillow.  My mom would set up a TV tray in front of the couch with all of my supplies: tissues, drinking glass, books, medicine, and if it was a stomach flu, the "throw-up bowl," an old clear plastic sherbet container.  

I would stay home from school and watch TV, read, nap, eat chicken soup and crackers, and stare at the ugly patterns in our old 70's couch and moan. 

Staring at those patterns probably didn't help my nausea.

I never went to the doctor for the flu.  All that was required to heal was rest and soup. Despite the physical pain, it was actually kind of fun to get a day off from school and get pampered by my mom.  The rule was that you couldn't go to school within 24 hours of having a fever, so the best days where when the fever was winding down but I still got to stay home.

And then there was "a cold."  This just meant that my nose ran, I sneezed a lot, and I used about 100 tissues blowing it.  My nostrils would get sore and red and eventually scab up from all the friction from the tissues.  But I never missed school for a mere "cold."   


So I'm confused about all this talk in the news about flu shots.  How the flu season is really bad this year and health policy experts are worried there won't be enough vaccines.  I've never in my life received a flu shot.  How can this thing that I remember as a kid that seemed only mildly inconvenient be so dangerous?  (And it got me out of school!)  People die from it?  Really?

As an adult I don't get sick much.  I probably only get a cold or flu once a every two years or so. 

Last week I came down with something.  It started with flu-like symptoms: a scratchy throat, a light head, weakness, chills.  My nose ran and my head hurt.  What was this?  It had some characteristics of the flu and some of a common cold.  Was it a cold/flu hybrid?  With all this news about how nasty The Flu is, I didn't think I had it.  (One co-worker said she was laid out for a week with The Flu, and it was so bad she prayed for death.)      

I went to work for the first day, but by the second day I woke up feeling pretty crappy and took the day off.  On the third day I felt like I needed to go in to work, but only stayed for half a day and then went home early.  I clearly had something, and now in retrospect, a week later, I'm pretty sure it was just a cold.  A nasty aggressive cold.

I never stayed home from school/work with a cold before, but the world of sickness seems to have changed. Colds have become meaner and nastier, and The Flu is life-threatening.  What's the world coming to? says the grouchy old man.
I still don't know if all those "flu"s I had as a kid are the same thing that people warn against today.  Has the Flu gotten a lot worse?  Or was my life really in peril all those times I stared at our ugly couch?  Or was "the flu" just a catch-all phrase my mom used for any kind of sickness I got as a child that was severe enough to keep me home from school?  I understand the biology of infection, and how once you get a virus, your body fights it off and develops and immunity to it, so you can never get that strain again.  So each sickness you get is a new (sometimes tougher) strain.  Or something like that.

Maybe the real problem is the difference between how we talk about illness and the actual biology of what's happening.  The most frustrating thing about my recent illness might be that I don't know what to call it.  I had a thing.  It's gone now. 

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