Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009


Filed under: illness,Mark,Patrick — alison @ 07:27

I’ve been sick since March 11th. (I know this because we left on our trip March 10th and that’s when Mark gave me his sore throat.) Mark has been sick since the end of February. Since we got back from our trip at the end of March I’ve been spending my weekends sleeping in bed and getting better, then getting worse again during the work week. Except last weekend we both got sicker and I got fed up. 

  • My father’s remedy, which has been given to him by wise women in Montreal (our pediatrician in the 1970s), Nigeria, China, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh:
    A bowl of steaming hot water;
    Twigs of the wise woman’s favourite plant;
    Lean your head over the bowl and breathe.
  • The steam is the important part. Each wise woman has her own twigs and the technique works well in every country anyway. The western MD left out the twigs entirely. The twigs make you feel like you’re doing something medicinal and they make the house smell nice. Eucalyptus is common. 

Mark and I spent the weekend steaming ourselves. It may have helped. I used a little eucalyptus oil in the water, which was probably a bad thing because it stung our eyes and we spent less time breathing steam than we would have otherwise. Twigs would have been better, but so would unadulterated steam. 

I hauled Mark in to see his doctor on Monday. It was a walk-in clinic so I was hoping to be seen too, but no such luck. I don’t have a file there and they weren’t going to open one.

  • Mark’s doctor’s remedy: 
    1 cortisone nasal spray;
    1 cortisone inhaler;
    Plenty of sleep;
    Regular hand-washing.
  • He also got prescriptions for a chest x-ray and an antibiotic, the latter to be filled only if the former shows pneumonia.

So far he’s still coughing a lot and doesn’t feel much better, but he did sleep through the night last night for the first time in a while. 

I went in to work after my failed attempt at a clinic visit but was sent home for coughing too much. I was planning to stay anyway (I don’t always have to work face-to-face with people, and working alone in my little cubicle is not much less restful than sitting around at home) but changed my mind when I got whole-body aches. Crap. The flu. I didn’t get a shot this year.

I went to my clinic yesterday. Mark dropped me off and swiped a face mask to wear going to his x-ray clinic.

I was seen first by a nurse, who didn’t introduce herself as such. I started to realise she wasn’t a doctor when she started asking me questions and writing down the answers without looking at me. Doctors look at you because they’re trying to figure you out. When she asked me what medications I was taking and she’d never heard of them — I had to spell them out — I knew for sure she wasn’t a doctor. She did a swab for a quick strep test (negative) and sighed, said I’d need to see a doctor and took me to another exam room where I was seen by a medical student.

Yaay! I love being seen by medical students. I get to participate in their training and it’s fun to compare what they do with what a doctor does. The medical student carefully went through a standard checklist of questions and turned up notable but irrelevant facts about my poop. She enjoyed listening to my heart, though it had no connection to my cough, just because I have an interesting murmur/arrhythmia. We reviewed my history related to my heart purely for the sake of education. Then she went away to present to the doctor.

When they came back together, the doctor quickly identified that I’d had asthma as a teenager and that my whole-body aches had started only the day before and were therefore from a new virus and not relevant to my complaint of six weeks of coughing. He also made a connection between my heart murmur and my recurrent colds and coughs: I must not use stimulant cold medicines! They are bad for my heart! I assured him that I do not use stimulant cold medicines: they make me feel like crap. (I had always assumed they made everyone feel like crap, but that other people found that more tolerable than their cold symptoms. Now I know that they really do make me feel worse than they do other people.) It was quite cool to compare a newbie and an experienced professional asking questions about an everyday, very banal complaint. They were both smart and nice, but one was better at it. 

  • My doctor’s remedy:
    2 asthma inhalers, one cortisone to be used for two weeks to a month, and one bronchodilator to be used for four days or as necessary.
  • I should keep them around and use them again next winter when I get sick again and keep coughing long after I should be better, because it’s probably just irritation at that point.  

Anyway, this post is not because I think anyone’s interested in the details of my cough or poop. It’s because I’m interested in the way different people approach similar problems.

My father didn’t ask questions to try to figure out exactly what was causing our misery: he didn’t need to. He could hear us both hacking away and shared the remedy that he uses successfully to ease his own distress when he is hacking away.

The doctors asked fairly pointed questions and took measurements to determine exactly what was wrong. Mark was determined to have a virus and post-nasal drip and given the appropriate remedies to ease his distress; I was determined to have a virus and asthma and given the appropriate remedies to ease mine. For both of us that means cortisone inhalers.

Question: what is the relative efficacy of steam with eucalyptus twigs vs cortisone inhalers? I know from experience that steam has a greater risk, because my sister ended up in the hospital for six days with second-degree burns after tipping a bowl of boiling water into her lap trying to steam her sinuses. And I can bring inhalers to work but I can’t steam my head at work. So even if they were equally effective there would still be reasons to use inhalers. But… is there a fundamental difference between my father’s remedy and the doctors’?

The other question is more philosophical. Going to the doctor gives me peace of mind, and that’s really what I went for. Not the inhalers. Now we know for [pretty] sure we don’t have chronic infections. Mark will know for sure that he doesn’t have pneumonia (but will be able to treat it if he does). This peace of mind is important to me. I want to be told specifically what the problem is and what the scope of it is. I don’t want the uncertainty of thinking we possibly have something worse than usual or worrying about what we’re doing wrong that is dragging things out so long. Without access to doctors, would we be steaming away and not fretting about it? Either steaming helps or it doesn’t. Either we get better soon or we don’t. Would the peace of mind issue become a non-issue?

I suspect it wouldn’t. I don’t think the idea that we become fatalistic when denied information is really borne out by experience. I think we can look around and see that people are pretty free about inventing information when they don’t have it, and give themselves peace of mind that way. I think the exercise of seeking out information when we don’t have it instead of making up an answer is probably at least as valuable as the answer itself, at least in the situation of persistent respiratory thingies in otherwise healthy adults.

Then there’s judgement about when knowledge is necessary to peace of mind at all. Up to what point do we tolerate not knowing, before we either try to find out or make up an answer? What does it say about me that my intolerance for not having descriptions of the exact causes of our coughs sent me to the doctor when I have a perfectly good home remedy that appears no less specific than the pharmaceutical one?

Besides that I felt like crap, of course.


  1. Steaming helps! Keep at it, with or without additions of herbs, twigs etc. Peace of mind is good but I think we all can know intuitively how sick we are if we listen to our body and believe what it’s saying. That being said, if you get the chills and shakes, it could be pneumonia. I had pneumonia this fall, community accquired, according to the doctor, and I hope you don’t get it. I was six weeks recovering completely, and still feel the effects on occasion.

    Comment by Terri — Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009 @ 19:16

  2. Unfortunately, I have much first hand experience with infections. Long story.

    Short story, steam and drinking hot fluids helps enormously. I continuously sip hot fluids from an insulated mug while I am awake.

    If you have fluid in your lungs from asthma or infection, it also helps to have someone thump your back. Lie in bed on your stomach, w/ your head hanging off the side of the bed. Have someone thump your back firmly (but not hard enough to bruise you). You will start coughing nearly right away; globs will come up in the next hour or so.

    Comment by Grace — Saturday, April 25th, 2009 @ 09:48

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