Coming down with a
pain in the arse nasty cold/sore throat the last few days has only served to remind me how vulnerable I have always been to such sicknesses. My mother would of course attribute this to my being “an eight-month baby”, since that is her reason for any of my ailments or issues in life, but I know better, it’s just my constitution.
Despite an obsessive use of antibacterial hand-sanitizers, daily intake of multi-vitamins, garlic capsules and eating a rather healthy diet low in fats and sugars, I find myself ‘under the weather’. This has been my lot many times in my personal history.
I was lucky to be one of those children who did not have too many stomach flus. I had a few bouts, but they weren’t often and I am grateful for that since dry heaves are anything but fun. I recall one occasion when my cat, Atocha loyally followed me to and from the bathroom as I hung over the toilet and even lay beside me when I sought out the coolness of the linoleum floor.
I had a few ear-aches in my very early days which were excruciating, but then I think most babies and toddlers get those, but it was only as I got older that my two persistent health issues became apparent.
In Grade Nine, I remember I was reading Mary Stewart’s book, “Nine Coaches Waiting” for my English class with Mrs. Egan. Mrs. E appeared to be about 85 years old, but in retrospect she was probably only a frumpy 60. This was in my Catholic Girls’ school and such a book was about as exciting as we could hope for – with the romance of a chateau, a governess and the suspense of a dark secret. I loved it!
About this time, I developed a fever. No, it wasn’t the hot scenes in the book; it was a legitimate hot-headed temperature’s-rising kind of fever and with it, came a red, raw sore throat. Even the book could not hold me captive as the fever raged, and pretty soon my parents decided I needed a doctor (since I never put a good book down unless I was really ill).
Amazingly (although it was the 1970s), the doctor came to my house and right into the pink and white striped room with the twin beds with the red bedspreads. Somewhere under a collection of stuffed toys, he found me whimpering in a pool of sweat. He stuck a tongue depressor in my mouth, and after lifting up my nightgown (I think I had graduated from undershirts by that time, but my boobies were nothing to write home about), he placed the cold stethoscope on my back to listen to my lungs, I guess.
My tongue was strawberry-coloured, but turned white when depressed, my sore throat flecked with white spots and I had a rampant rash on my chest, in my armpits and behind my ears. The doctor’s diagnosis was Scarlet Fever and Strep Throat. I had never known anybody who’d had such an archaic illness other than me. One time Bobby, in my class had “Whooping Cough” which was funny because he called it “Hooping cough”, but that was as unusual as it got, until I got the Fever.
A course of penicillin put me right, but I had a real problem with swallowing medicine, especially pills. When I was small, Mom used to come at me with a spoonful of some tonic called Maltevol 12. It had the consistency of motor oil and tasted like molasses mixed with fish in a base of sherry wine. Ugh!
When I was a teenager, my dad suddenly went on a health kick, taking multi-vitamins called Paramettes. He insisted that I take one everyday too. No Flintstones chewables for me. No! I had to swallow the red horse-pills. I gagged every time and soon I was taking them with applesauce or tablespoons of jam, but I got to dread each morning when that pill was waiting for me on the plate beside my glass of orange juice and I really hated my dad for forcing me to take them. Eventually, he gave up, but I had a phobia of pill-taking for years afterward and when the penicillin for strep was prescribed, I had to crush the pills between two spoons and take them with chocolate milk to get them down.
I was home from school for quite a while with my special sickness and I did manage to finish the book. I was to become very familiar with various types of penicillin over the years.
My other weakness was my stomach. In school, I was a perfectionist and put a great deal of pressure on myself to perform well. When it came exam time, I did succeed, but when it was over I began to experience terrible stomach pains. A searing knife in the gut is what it felt like and usually it would hit in the middle of the night. So I’d be sleeping soundly, seemingly relaxed after taking a test and doing okay and then suddenly I’d wake up feeling like somebody had just stabbed me in the stomach.
Back to the doc I went. His verdict? Nervous stomach. Okay, that made sense, but what to do about it? The answer was a pill (isn’t it always?) that calmed the stomach. Only problem was, it really didn’t do the job and even half a pill could render me like a drunken fool. In fact, I once took a pill and went out dancing in a Toronto club known to regulars as Domino’s, had a couple of drinks and nearly ended up in a heap on the dance floor. My boyfriend at the time – and another friend – drove me home (didn’t take advantage), although they just kind of opened my front door, popped me inside and drove away. Nice.
As time went on, life-stresses increased. University exams for university — which are far more tension-inducing than high school’s ever were — made the stomach issue worse. Furthermore, my favourite foods, like spicy spaghetti sauces seriously aggravated my condition. What was my doctor’s answer? An even stronger pill. This was after I had the loveliest of diagnostic tests, the barium x-ray. If you’ve never had a barium x-ray, consider yourself very fortunate indeed. You know when Tom Sawyer used to whitewash the fence for Aunt Polly? Picture that whitewash in a big plastic cup. Now tip it up to your lips and drink it all down. Mmmm! Tasty.
Somebody discovered that barium in the stomach shows up on an x-ray. I’d like to meet that guy in a dark alley, too bad, he’s probably dead. The results of the test showed that I had an ulcer. I was 21 years old. Ranitidine (prescription Zantac) became my best friend. I lived on it for over 13 years.
First year university was a real learning experience on many levels. There was, of course, learning from books. Then there was that other great school, the “School of Social Learning” a. k. a. “partying”. Sometimes social learning supersedes book-learning. Sometimes, when a pitcher of long island iced tea is involved on a Friday night at the campus pub, that happens. In my first year of university, both types of learning were put on hold.
After my first end-of term exams I had a whole month off school. Time to regroup, as they say — read some assigned novels to get a head start on Term Two, and time for family and Christmas and food and friends. Only problem was, I got hit with a super-colossal whammy – the flu. This was no ordinary flu, this was a knock ‘em down, drag ‘em out, put you in bed for a week with a semi-comatose head kind of flu. I was on penicillin again, this time I took it with Strawberry Quik (the cartoon rabbit on the label captured my dazed look to a tee). To this day, I cannot even smell the stuff without gagging.
I spent the entire Christmas holidays in bed. I was so out of it, I couldn’t even read. I listened to the radio on my bedside table because in those days our television was the size and weight of a dishwasher and I was too drugged to drag myself out to the couch in the living room. I know that people called to find out how I was and I even spoke to them, but I was like a dementia patient, as soon as I hung up the phone, I forgot who I’d talked to and sometimes that I’d been on the phone at all. While all my friends were out partying the holidays away, I was in a stupor under the red bedspread in my sad little pink and white striped room with the big-eyed art. I recovered just in time for the first day back to classes. Yipee.
My stomach didn’t get any better though, it was a roller-coaster of bland diets like buttered toast, boiled eggs, pasta with a bit of parmesan and water to wash it down. Contrary to what was originally thought, milk didn’t actually improve one’s stomach, it aggravated it because of lactic acid. What I really enjoyed eating was curried noodles with green peppers and onions, or pasta sauce with red chili flakes, and alcoholic drinks or at least a can of coke, for Pete’s sake. I could do none of these things without violent repercussions from within.
Sometimes I had to weigh the odds: was it worth the severe gut-wrenching pain in the wee hours for that plate of Kung Pao Chicken and the glass of Merlot? Often, the dangerous dish would win out, but in the end, I’d be the loser – cursing myself and writhing in pain. How did I spell relief? It sure wasn’t Tums or Maalox, or Mylanta. I tried them all, but none of them worked, only the prescription would take the pain away. Back to the Ranitidine I would frantically go, snapping open the bottle and greedily tossing back a couple in the hope of relief.
This seesaw went on for years. Between the rigours of dating, getting a degree, family trials and just plain living, I spent the better part of it medicated. It wasn’t until after I was married that I found a saviour of sorts.
We had moved from the big city to a small town and just found a new doctor. We were hoping to have a family and I needed a check up. My first visit with him proved enlightening on two levels. First of all, when he learned I had been on Ranitidine for so many years he said, “Do you know that this drug can affect your fertility?” I took that fairly calmly, all things considered. It’s not like I had any choice, the pain was intolerable and the medication worked to relieve it.
When the doctor learned about my stomach issues he told me about another doctor in a nearby city who was doing trials of a new treatment to cure stomach ulcers. He wondered if I’d like to be a “guinea pig”. I figured I had nothing to lose, so I went to see Doctor Chang.
I was a bit nervous because he told me he would first have to do a scope of my stomach to determine if I was a candidate for the treatment. He would be looking for the presence of the Helicobacter Pylori bacteria which they were trying to link to recurring stomach ulcers. Apparently, Australian researchers had discovered the H-Pylori bacteria and were now treating it with a combination of bismuth and some other drug with great results. I was encouraged, but not anxious for the scope.
First, I would have to have blood-work (which I loathe) and then later, in the doctor’s office, I would be put under anaesthetic and a long tube inserted through my mouth and way down into my stomach. I must admit, Barium x-rays were looking pretty good at that point.
I was willing to overcome my fear in the hope of some permanent relief, so the day came when I was in a room, in a sort of dentist-chair and the doc put me under and put the tube down and had a look around. Eureka! There it was, good ol’ H-Pylori. He was in there all the time, causing me grief whenever I gave in and had something fried, or put pepper on my dinner.
The very good news was that Doctor Chang was prepared to give me a 1 week course of the treatment for free, since I was a trial subject. I got my new prescriptions and headed home.
To say that week was hell would be severely undercutting the reality. I had migraines, stomach upset, nausea and I “looked like the wrath of God” as my mom likes to say. It was hell, but when it was over the H Pylori was dead and gone.
Another scope proved that the treatment had worked and I could now go and live my life pain-free, and eat anything I wanted. I gave my doctor a batch of homemade peanut butter-chocolate chip muffins (much to his delight) and we were even.
I have had no trouble since that day 14 years ago. I can eat what I want and drink what I want and I use pepper on just about everything, even pizza! If occasionally I get an upset stomach, a couple of Tums or a dose of Pepto Bismol does the trick.
(If you, or anyone you know suffer from stomach problems like I had, please talk to your doctor about H-Pylori bacteria. The treatment is much simpler now and the relief is worth it.)
As for strep throats, I still get sore, raw ones, but so far I’ve not seen any tell-tale white dots on my tonsils and the only fever I get is a hormonal rage that happens at about 9:30 every night.
I guess relatively speaking in the medical journals, I’ve gotten off lightly thus far. I’m trying to keep it that way.