You know that feeling you get? The one when you are sitting on an airplane, train, or other enclosed space, and the person near you is coughing almost nonstop. The one you get when you are sitting in the doctors office, see someone sneeze into their hand, then notice how they touch everything. The one when you’re embraced in a tight hug, and you remember how the person has been sniffling and blowing their nose during your whole visit. The one you get when someone says their kid has had a terrible stomach bug and now their stomach isn’t feeling quite right and they sure hope they didn’t catch it.
No one wants to catch an infection. I’d say prior to being chronically ill, those situations gave me a feeling of mild dread. I’d think “Oh no, I hope I don’t have to deal with being sick for the next week.” I’d wash my hands, avoid touching my face, and use other preventative measures, but I didn’t really worry about being around sick people. If I caught said routine illness, I thought, “bummer” and that was about it.
It’s a whole different ballgame when you are chronically ill. You don’t see a sick person as only having the potential to give you the sniffles for a week or so like you did when you were healthy. You see the potential for the quality of your life and plans for the next month to go down the drain. You see hospital visits. You see weeks of a worsening of your “normal” symptoms because your body will be all discombobulated. You see more viruses than the one you are about to catch. Your immune system already is weak, the virus will weaken it more for a good month as it tries to fend if off, making you extra susceptible for quite some time. You see all of the progress you have recently made with your chronic illness, slipping away. Heck, you see your ability to just stay the same level of chronically ill slip away. You see weeks of it taking intense effort to participate in life, even at the minimal level you’ve become used to.
It is like every ill person you encounter isn’t just carrying around a virus, unbeknownst to them, they are also carrying around a Dementor who preys on the chronically ill. In case you don’t know, a dementor is a creature from the Harry Potter series and “…are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them…”
I know, that explanation was dramatic, but it is all very much true! A cold can still easily set me back for a full month. Any situation where I become dehydrated for a prolonged period of time triggers the worst POTS attack imaginable. Since my visits to Dallas, certain symptoms have gotten a bit better. However, I still live each day feeling how you feel when you come down with a virus. A lot of times, it takes me several days to realize I’ve caught a stomach bug, cold, flu, or strep, because I think it is just my normal symptoms flaring as they tend to do sometimes. Imagine having two different types of flu at the same time. Yuck, right? I like to avoid feeling like that as much as I can.
I appreciate when people warn me they’ve been sick and say they’re not going to hug me just to be safe. I used to laugh at them and say I didn’t care and hug them anyway because I’m a hugger. I love them and their hugs, I really do, but I also really love not spending 3 weeks in bed or requiring hospital visits. I appreciate when my Mom says she’s going to skip cooking for me because she has a cold (even though I think she should skip cooking for me because she is RESTING). People who avoid going out as much as possible while you’re contagious, thank you! Those of you who say you were going to come visit, but you think you’re coming down with something so we should reschedule, thank you!
You people who sneeze/cough into your hand, I know you probably don’t know any better, so I’m going to tell you. Sneeze into your elbow or down your shirt so you don’t spread your germs to every thing you touch until you wash your hands. Sneezing or coughing into your hands may actually be worse in terms of spreading germs than not covering your mouth at all. For more on coughing/sneezing etiquette, click here or here.
After being around someone who is ill, I don’t go home and obsess over whether or not I will catch come down with an infection, but there are some steps I take any time I have been around someone who is sick or somewhere sick people go (doctor/hospital) to lessen my chances of getting ill. I also have a 4 year old around fairly often who goes to daycare, so she brings plenty of germs into our house. I’ll share my tricks in case they help someone…
- Anytime I go out of the house, when I get home, I wash my hands first thing. If I am around a sick person, I wash my hands often and each time I come into contact with anything that potentially has germs on it. I know this possibly sounds nutty, but if a cold could make you sick for a month, you’d do it too! By the way, washing your hands is much more effective than just using a hand sanitizer. They are not interchangeable.
- I use a saline nasal rinse (or 2) to get anything that has made its way into my sinuses out of there upon arriving home. If someone in the house is sick, I do a few rinses a day.
- I use zinc lozenges
- I drink plenty of fluids to help my body flush out anything trying to colonize in my sinus cavities.
- I get plenty of sleep to support my immune system.
- I carry my own pen. Do you know how many people have touched that pen you use at checkout registers? Ick! Again, if you aren’t chronically ill, this probably seems OCD, but just think of all the people with germy hands who have touched that pen!
- In healthcare facilities, I cover my hand with my shirt to push elevator buttons or push them with the back of my hand. My Mom began beating this habit into me since before I was tall enough to reach the buttons.
- If I just can’t resist hugging a sick person, I hold my breath as I lean in and hug. LOL. Again, I know this sounds crazy, but if you’re ever chronically ill, maybe you’ll understand.
- Anything a sick person drinks out of or eats with in my home is put in scalding hot water.
- I avoid close contact with sick people as much as is feasible.
So, did I mention…. since I have become chronically ill, I fear catching routine illnesses? Oh, you got that? Okay. Well, yesterday, I met something scarier than the dementor all you sick people carry around with you that is threatening to latch on to me for the next month. Yesterday was the start of our weekend with E (stepdaughter, age 4) and she was recovering from a stomach bug. When Jake picked her up, she was really upset and still hadn’t kept down food. I asked Jake to bring her over to my parent’s house (they live in the same town as E does) where I am staying for the weekend to recover from Thanksgiving because I wanted to see her before they headed to our house. I knew if I caught the bug, it’d be a disaster, but my love and concern for her was at least a million times stronger than my aversion to being ill.
When I saw them pull up, I couldn’t even wait in the house. I went out in the yard to greet them, took her into my arms and down to the rocking chair, she snuggled in, and within a few minutes, she was asleep. Jake offered to take her out of my arms and lay her on the couch but I said no way. The instinct to be there for her, to comfort her, to try and nurse her to health was so intensely strong. Despite the fact Jake is fully capable of taking care of Emma on his own, I knew there was no way I was going to be able to send them to our house and not go along without losing my mind. Jake was game to proceed however I wanted. It may be illogical since she just had a 48 hour stomach bug she needed to wait out… but I was prepared to be sick for a month if it meant her feeling more comfortable while we waited for it to pass.
The extremes parents will go to for their children apparently extends to stepparents too! They ended up staying the night here since my parents didn’t mind having a sick kid in the house (my Mom is a teacher and brings home plenty of germs), and it saved poor E from having to spend a half hour in the car. We hung out in the family room while she slept off and on, both jumping up anytime she moved. By the end of the evening, she’d slept several hours, kept some popcicles down, and was looking quite a bit better. While earlier in the day, she didn’t react to us both being so attentive, by the end of the night, she was clearly enjoying being queen for the day.
I followed my usual viral infection avoidance steps, minus holding my breath for the hours I hugged her since breathing is very much a necessity! I covered the couch she was on with a blanket so her germs didn’t get on the couch and to make it easier to clean up if she got sick on the couch. When I was little, we called this a “sick bed”. At the end of the night, I took off the clothing I’d been wearing and we washed it. All of the blankets she used were washed.
This morning, she woke up feeling great and went to her Grandma’s house for the day/night as planned. Some people weren’t thrilled with my decision to put myself at risk for catching a stomach bug and ruining my holiday season. Others completely understood my instinctual need to be present with my baby. The important thing is, everyone respected my decision. I also am left wondering how my parents do it… having a sick kid 365 days a year.