The Art of Being Sick

Almost daily, I get messages like this one: “What can I take for a cold?”

My answer is usually in the negative. The more time I have or the needier the request seems, the more I might elaborate, but the bottom line is that I don’t recommend anything for “fighting a cold”. In fact, I recommend surrendering to it.

Why take an antipyretic like acetaminophen/paracetamol, when such drugs have been proven to prolong viral illnesses? Why take antihistamines or decongestants when they thicken mucus and increase the risk of developing a sinus infection? Why take a cough suppressant if there is sputum to be eliminated? Why hide the symptoms of a contagious illness only so you can go to work and infect others?

My weekend of preliminary symptoms came into full bloom when the alarm went off at ten past five this morning. Coffee with sugar and half-and-half never felt so good going down my throat, even though I could barely taste anything. I coughed so hard that the cat, who usually sharpens her claws on my chest in the morning, decided to keep her distance.

A text message to my office manager and out to the barn with warm water and grain for the horse and the goats, then I was back in bed.

I read The New York Times on my iPad and paused after reading the article about the blood pressure medication Benicar (olmesartan) causing a celiac-like diarrhea. Isn’t that what Mr. Waddell is on, the man who stopped his stomach pill, omeprazole, to no avail? And I had been trying to tell him to give up beer, since that was the only thing I could blame his symptoms on. I resisted the temptation to log into our electronic medical record system to check his medication list; I can do that when I get back to the office in a day or two.

I dozed for an hour or so, then I made amends with the cat. I managed to sign the grandchildren’s Valentine’s Day cards before it was time to let the barn animals out in the pale February sunshine.

I reflected on the last time I was sick. That time I had a mysterious and rather unnerving illness that made me a little concerned I might have something serious. Only my profound fatigue and suppressed brain activity kept me from actually worrying about it. This time, everything is utterly familiar, and I have simply settled in for a few days of submission; my life has to slow down, and there is really nothing I can do about it.

The day inches on. I sleep, read and cough. I hear my wife fixing supper downstairs. She is playing Mozart. But why “Requiem”?

6 Responses to “The Art of Being Sick”

  1. 1 Nellie February 18, 2014 at 1:51 am

    Such a wonderful post. Great medical advice offered with so little fanfare it almost slips by. I love your blog so much – thank you.

  2. 2 Troy Fuller February 18, 2014 at 5:40 am

    I hope you get to feeling better, soon, doctor. I’m heading to medical school in five months and hope to one day reflect the wisdom you share on this blog! Thank you!

  3. 3 Teri February 19, 2014 at 4:20 am

    Ditto to both comments above. Your wife’s sense of humor may match yours – at least thanks for that laugh!

  4. 4 vanslix February 23, 2014 at 12:20 am

    My outpatient peds month is probably half of this. Viral URI, go home and rest, come back if it’s not better in about a week. Next.

  5. 5 steveofcaley March 3, 2014 at 11:05 pm

    Jolly good. Not everything that is medical therefore merits treatment. The common cold is a small war story played out on many fronts. The body handles it well. I was surprised when a friend of mine asked me for a ride to her doctor’s office. The cold seemed – well, a cold – and her doctor thought so, too. A prescription for ondansetron, which I rarely use, and that was it. It’s no sign of weakness simply to empathize, but the pad beckons.

  6. 6 SteveofCaley May 21, 2014 at 2:53 am

    “Illness is the night side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” Susan Sonntag

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Osler said “Listen to your patient, he is telling you the diagnosis”. Duvefelt says “Listen to your patient, he is telling you what kind of doctor he needs you to be”.


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