Friday, January 29, 2010

Musing on the Common Cold

Yesterday, I woke up with a sore throat from drainage. For much of my life, this was the first step down a long, dark road: days of sore throat, coated tongue, congestion, raw nose, that dried-out feeling, muscles feeling continuously scrunched up, achey joints, culminating in a chest full of gunk and bronchitis that would lay me out for a week, minimum, and the specter of full-on pneumonia.

Yeah, more than you wanted to know. I haven't had bronchitis since 1998 when I stopped eating meat (I don't think it's the meat per se; I think it's the increased consumption of fresh food, especially vegetables) but the memories are too vivid not to invoke the protocols - the strongest decongestants and expectorants I can legally obtain, lots of juice, tea with honey, lots of lying around reading mysteries and ghost stories. Since it's so long since my last bronchitis attack, I'm going to take a big chance and drive up to Austin tonight to attend an SCBWI convention instead of wallowing in bed. After all, it's already paid for, and I'll be crashing at a friend's house. I'll have someone to take care of me if necessary.

As a historical and prehistorical researcher, whenever my body assails me in this way I can't help reflecting on how I would have lived through illness in the earlier time periods that interest me, and this makes me so, so grateful to have been born in the late 20th century! If I had been born even 20 years earlier, there's a a good chance I wouldn't have survived infancy, and I might well have been a sickly deaf orphan if I had. The infant mortality rate worldwide was still 116 per thousand in 1960, the year before I was born; my race, class, and country of origin cushioned me from that risk.

Penicillin was discovered in 1928, but did not become available as a drug until 1943. I took a lot of penicillin in my youth. I had my tonsils out when I was three, because that was the earliest the doctors would operate on me. To the best of my knowledge, I had tonsillitis constantly the entire time I was two - Mom would get a two-week prescription and symptoms would abate till I used up the prescription. Modern medicine came to my rescue again when I got an inner ear infection at the age of six; my mother was in a sanitarium for tuberculosis that same year; and a few years later my sister had yellow fever. And, oh yes, we had an epidemic of mumps in our house at one point. My brother got it on one side, then I got it on both, then my sister got it on both, then my brother got it on the remaining side. We kids never caught measles, rubella, TB, or any of the poxes, thanks to vaccination programs.

We now have strains of TB and many other diseases that are resistant to antibiotics, and I know that they are overprescribed; but when I think how different my life would have been without them, had I had a life at all, I can't agree with people who think we'd be better off had they never been developed. It's easy to despise what you've never done without.

And consider the day to day reality of my bronchitis-prevention regimen. At the first sign of the dreaded sore throat, I mobilize my forces. Drugs are the least of my allies on these occasions. Consider life as a poor sick person without Vicks Vaporub to hydrate the raw skin around my nostrils and dry out the sinuses within! What if I had to squeeze my own juice and make my own soup from scratch on an open hearth? Since the doctor told me to go low-sodium I have to make my own soup from scratch anyway; but I like to keep a Mason jar of vegetable broth, made from the odds and ends of veggies I use during the week, in the fridge anyway. The Mason jar was patented in 1858; the first ice factory in Texas opened in San Antonio in 1866; before that, here in the south, you could preserve what you salted or dried. Also, I can cook and heat the house with nice clean smokeless gas, instead of a wood, coal, or dried cow chip fire releasing smoke to sting my eyes and further irritate my nose and lungs.

Consider the common facial tissue. So flimsy, so frail. You use it a time or two, crumple it up, and throw it away. No one ever has to handle it again (assuming you don't miss the wastebasket), and it carries its load of germs and grossness quietly off to a landfill. Yeah, we have too many landfills; yeah, tissue irritates the nose. I use handkerchieves when I can. They're easier on the nose. Did anybody anywhere ever have enough handkerchieves on hand to get me through one day of a cold? I doubt it. They would have had to be washed every night, until very recently indeed in water heated on top of that smokey fire or stove, and dried in the same place if the sun wasn't out, and probably needed again before they were dry. (The same would have been true for diapers. Since I have no children, I can get away without thinking about that too closely.)

Readers of 11,000 Years Lost will recognize this preoccupation of mine as the origin of the episode in which all the women and children in the group catch cold at the same time, huddling together in the rockshelter, infecting each other. If I'd really wanted to gross the reader out, I could have given them stomach flu. With no indoor plumbing. Count your blessings!

I could go on, but it's time to rest some more and you get the idea.

I want to time travel, but I don't want to live in the past. I'd die there.

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