Listen to Your Body (then Call Me in the Morning)
One of the benefits of ‘retirement’ (I always think of that word as having ‘quotes’ around it because I don’t really think of myself as being ‘retired’; I left my teaching job to write full time, but because I was on ‘the other side of 55’, I automatically began receiving monthly pension cheques, which, apparently, makes me officially ‘retired’) is that I don’t get sick as often, or as severely, as I used to. There could, of course, be any number of reasons for this – one being that I’m no longer exposed to thousands of people a day (particularly twenty-something students who don’t seem to understand the importance of keeping their germs to themselves); another is that I’ve built up a resistance to many of the transmittable diseases that circulate at this time of year. Personally, though, I believe it’s because I’ve finally learned to pay attention to my own body now that the ‘noise’ of my previous life has been eliminated (or at least, seriously reduced).
I don’t think I was a particularly sickly child. I have a photo of my sister looking after me when I had chicken pox at age 3, and I remember having the odd cold and at least one rather serious ear infection when I was very young. I also recall a bout of bronchitis that required a dose of antibiotics and finding out that I was severely allergic to penicillin (that wasn’t fun), but I don’t think I was any ‘sicker’ than any other child my age at the time (and my early report cards seem to bear that out).
In the 1950s, the doctor would make a ‘house call’ if you couldn’t get to his office (few mothers had access to cars – mine didn’t even drive – so it was next to impossible to bundle up a sick child [plus various brothers and/or sisters] to make the trek to the doctor’s office; there were no walk in clinics, and the Emergency Room at the hospital was exactly that – an EMERGENCY room – not a place to go when you just ‘ didn’t feel well’). I remember the doctor (Dr. Sparling; later Dr. Brickley) coming to the house with his big black bag and taking my temperature (with a glass enclosed mercury thermometer), looking in my ears, and listening to my chest before generally telling my mother to ‘keep her in bed, give her two baby Aspirin and call me in the morning’ (NOTE: ‘baby Aspirin’ were pink chewable ASA tablets that came in a plastic bottle with a ‘child proof’ cap; my mother used to refer to them as ‘baby Bayer®’ because that’s who manufactured them; for years I thought she was saying ‘baby bear’ and I honestly thought the pills – or whatever was in them – had something to do with big furry woodland creatures).
We usually bought our medicinal products (Aspirin® for headaches, Baby Aspirin® for the kids, Anacin® – ASA with caffeine mixed in – for really bad pain, a sickly sweet cough medicine that was probably the forerunner of the infamous Buckley’s® product [‘it tastes awful but it works’], Absorbine® horse liniment [a smelly green liquid that came in a brown bottle] for aching legs, Dr. Chase’s ointment [a thick white paste that came in a round yellow tin) for cuts, scrapes and burns, prescriptions when needed) from Brian’s Pharmacy (it was on the main street, only three blocks from our house; the only other drugstore in town was the Rexall Drugstore several blocks further west and we generally only went there to have milkshakes and sundaes at their soda fountain).
Through my teens and into my twenties and thirties (and forties) I probably managed to ‘catch’ pretty much every cold and flu that went around (partly because I was working in enclosed office spaces and/or classrooms where the air was recirculated and the windows didn’t open and hundreds or thousands of people were gathered day in and day out; I also wasn’t fond of robust outdoor activities and/or exercise, so I didn’t get a lot of fresh air into my system).
It wasn’t unusual for these viral ailments to gradually ‘worsen’ (usually because I didn’t stay home and/or in bed to recover because there was work to be done and/or classes to be taught and/or children to take care of, etc. etc. etc.) and move down into my upper respiratory region where they’d turn into ‘bacterial infections’ like bronchitis, tracheitis, and laryngitis (my kids’ favourite, since it meant I couldn’t talk!) I’d then end up off work for several days, swilling tea and chicken soup and taking whatever antibiotic they’d developed to replace penicillin until I was ‘well enough’ to head back to work again. For years, I had these sorts of illnesses two or three times a year (more when the kids were little – it seemed someone was always bringing something home from work/school and it would go through everyone in the house and last for weeks); I thought this was ‘normal’.
Fast forward several years (and maybe I’m tempting fate here by saying this) and I haven’t been ‘seriously’ sick since the fall of 2009 (when the infamous H1N1 virus swept the nation). I’m still ‘exposed’ to people (and germs) on a fairly regular basis – my husband still teaches (although he’s learned to put tests and other papers in a plastic bag, spray them Lysol® and let them sit for 24 hours before marking them), I spend time at the mall and the grocery store and the Library (where there are lots and lots of surfaces that other people have touched and potentially sneezed on), and I still don’t engage in a lot of vigorous outdoor activities, but I’ve learned to take a different (more pro-active) approach to airborne illnesses. Yes, I wash my hands as soon as I get home from wherever it is I’ve been, and I try to keep them away from my face in the meantime, but the biggest change is that I’ve learned how to ‘listen’ to my own body and to respond quickly to any new aches or pains, sniffles or sneezes, headaches or tickles in my throat (or any other signs that ‘something’ is attacking my system) and take action immediately (I’m a firm believer in the power of Echinacea and Vitamin C, bed rest and plenty of fluids; with this approach I can usually thwart a virus within 48 hours).
Pre-emptive (or preventative) medicine isn’t anything new; it’s really just common sense. Unfortunately it’s difficult to practice when there are thousands of other things to listen and respond to on a daily basis (i.e., while living a ‘normal’ life). But it’s one of those miraculous things that I’ve finally learned (and benefit from) now that I’m on … the other side of 55.