Tuesday, March 23, 2010

the lost art of caring for the sick

One of the womanly skills I think we've lost since the advent of vaccinations is the art of caring for the sick.

Some of my happiest childhood memories are of times I was ill. We had a special bell, a lady with wide skirts, that sat on the bed-side table, ready to call Mum. Propped up in bed, we'd play with special toys from a box that came out only when we were sick. While convalescing, it was a treat to emerge from the bedroom, lie on the couch and watch TV. Mum always seemed to know what to do: a glass thermometer tucked under the tongue (no digital thermometers back then!), special foods, a cool cloth on the forehead, carefully tucked sheets, a soothing hand.

Our 9 year old son, Ben, has been very sick. He's missed nearly half of his first school term. He has a relentless bone-shaking cough that lasts all day and far into the night. I've tried every remedy, old and new, from sage and thyme tea to cough suppressants. On one memorable occasion I hunted through the internet and produced a warm drink of honey, ginger and turmeric! It's been an anxious and exhausting time, listening to that awful cough and feeling so terribly helpless.

On our third doctor's visit, the doctor gave a possible diagnosis: whooping cough. I also had whooping cough as a child, even though I was immunised. So you'd think I'd recognise it, except that in Ben's case, there's no "whoop" in his cough. Apparently this is common in the days of vaccinations.

What's really struck me while Ben has been sick is how much better I could be at caring for him. I offer Ben a warm drink then forget it, distracted by the clothes that need folding. I run around ferrying kids to school and myself to Bible study, and fire off the occasional "How are you, honey?". In these days of ready-to-watch DVDs, there's little need for special games and stories (and Ben's had little energy for them). I used to keep a box of toys in the cupboard for times of illness, but my children were so rarely sick that the toys came out for everyday play.

I wonder if we're losing an entire skill set: the art of nursing the sick. My friend Jenny suggested I read the chapter on caring for the sick in Edith Shaeffer's What is a Family?. It's like a window into another time. She talks about things I have no experience with, like sponge baths, bedpans, and alcohol rubs. She's writing in an era when you could expect every child to be home for months with illnesses like measles, mumps or yes, whooping cough. Today, this kind of illness comes as a shock.

And there's the rub: it's unusual for children to be seriously ill these days. It's one of the blessings of modern medicine, but it also means I don't know what to do. I'm not great at neatly folded sheets, beautifully arranged trays of food, and comforting home treatments. I'm better at wrinkled sheets, a mug of lemon and honey, and a cuddle. I've done my best, but I've got a huge amount to learn.

So I'd love to hear your ideas. What do you remember about being ill as a child? How do you care for sick people in your family? How do you entertain sick children? How do you make illness memorable, not just for its discomfort, but for comforting care?

images are from Holtsman, freeparking and theirhistory at flickr


Anonymous said...

No helpful advice as to caring for the sick; I'm right where you are in feeling hopeless at it. I can say some things about WC as three of us had it last year, thankfully not too badly.

He may very well go down with WC symptoms any time he gets a cold for the next 6 months to a year. Not sure if you can do anything about that but it's good to be prepared. It won't be as bad, though.

Vitamin C in large doses might help. It seemed to help me a lot and I think it helped one of my daughters. Take moderately large doses for a week or so. With the usual provisos and precautions.

Asthma medication might help the symtoms. It did for an adult friend who had it very badly at the same time.

She also told me she was sore in unexpected places and her skin was more sensitive in some spots.

Think building up stuff like extra protein and more rests etc And a convalescence period might well be necessary.

Oh, and homeopathic Mag. Phos. might do something but then again it might not.


I'll check back and if you have any questions feel free to ask!

Jean said...

Thanks, Pam, I really appreciate your advice re whooping cough! I'll have to try vitamin C. We've been making lots of juice with C in it so that might be helping.

Glad to know I'm not the only one who feels inept! :)


Nicole said...

Sorry to hear he's been sick.

We've had a bad term health wise...it can wear you down after a while can't it? Hope he is a lot better soon!

Meredith said...

Sorry to hear about poor Ben. I hope he picks up soon. You'll be glad the holidays are near by.

This is slightly off topic and not answering your good questions at the end of the post, but I was struck by your paragraph of caring for Ben in a distracted fashion. I read your post after coming to the end of an afternoon and most of the night without electricity following the famous Perth storm.

During that time we were really reduced to the basics. I had to plan a very careful dinner that I cooked by candle light. And we just sat around the dinner table after eating because there was no electricity for tv, computer, cd players and no light for reading, playing with toys etc etc and no phone calls to make because there was too much lightning about the place. For one evening was life very simple and straight forward. I was focussed on one task at a time, doing what I could by candle light, with the end of getting the family fed, bathed and eventually into bed.

All our gadgets and gizmos provide us with all sorts of things to do that, while good, distract us from the basics. And I wonder if part of the lost art of caring for the sick is a microcosm of the lost of attending to the basics generally, brought about by a lot of fun but distracting timesaving and entertainment devices.

Just a thought.

Fiona M said...

I agree with your post - I'm very grateful my children are healthy but we have lost an art in our "moving on".

When we have to have a quiet couple of days, my children love old photos - looking at albums, making albums or scrapbooks, or (if you don't mind them being cut) making collages.

Thanks for all your hard work on your blog. I enjoy reading it.


Jean said...

Thanks Nicole, Meredith and Fiona for your encouraging words, helpful observations and good ideas. You are always a great support to me.

Meredith, I think you're right. What a wonderful description of an evening minus electricity!

Fiona, thanks for an excellent suggestion.

Anonymous said...

Jean, I just read something weird that's supposed to help stop coughing- don't know if it will help WC as it is in a class all by itself but you probably don't have anything to lose...

Cut up a few onions and leave them near the patient. That's it. If it's going to work, it will work quickly. You can put them in a ziplock bag to store and shake them up before using them again another time.

If it works, let me know!

Then there's the old Vicks rub on the feet trick. But that didn't work for us with WC.


Jean said...

Hi Pam!

Yes, we tried Vicks on the feet. As you say, not very effective against whooping cough.

I've never heard of the onion thing, though. That's an interesting remedy!!

Love Jean.

Anonymous said...

I was just thinking last night... When I said in the first comment he probably wouldn't get as sick if he caught a cold and then got the WC symptoms again, I was thinking of a few months down the track. I'd forgotten that one daughter only really went down with WC when she caught a nasty cold on top of it. Before that she was pretty mild.

Some other friends, whose children were REALLY ill, were very affected by a cold they caught as they were recovering.

Not wanting to place even more burdens of worry on you but I thought what I said was a bit misleading.


Elaine said...

I, myself, have had a viral respiratory infection with an asthmatic reaction (never before had asthma and I'm now at the ripe old age of 65) for the past four weeks. I've never coughed so much in my life.

While a child, both my younger sister, 13 months younger than I, and I were ill for a matter of weeks at the same time. I have some wonderful memories of that time. It probably helped us that we were both ill at the same time. One of my aunts bought us a phonograph on which we played 45 rpms. If I remember right, they were all Christian songs for children. I can still sing some of those songs, and this is now 60 years later. I imagine we may have just about driven Mother crazy, but I don't recall her demonstrating any impatience with us. It helped that several relatives of her generation, and our grandparents, came and helped entertain us. As I look back over the time, I don't recall anything bad about it, except for the poking and prodding and needle sticks by the doctor, who, by the way, came to our house to care for us.

Thanks for your questions. They've brought back many good memories! Ones I'd not thought of for years!

Jean said...

Lovely memories Elaine!

Katherine said...

Kind of off the topic, but reading this post reminded me of something I've been thinking about. As an Aussie living Cambodia it seems to me that people are sick more seriously, more often. And as hospitals don't have all the staff like they do in Oz, a sick person needs people to prepare food, wash them etc etc. So Christians are busy whenever someone they know is sick, and that seems to be a lot of the time. Helping and visiting sick people seems to be a bigger part of what the Christian community does in Cambodia compared to Oz (of what I've seen so far).

Jean said...

Not off the topic at all, Katherine, and very interesting. It shows how different people's - especially women's? - lives were without modern medicine. And it's a great example to us: with modern medicine, we often forget to care for the sick in the way they need us to, even when the medical stuff is taken care of.

mattnbec said...

As always, of late, I'm late to this conversation! Hope Ben's health is improving.

My Mum had particular things she did only when we were sick. Very simple, but she'd bring our pillow and a snuggly blanket to the couch so we could still be a part of what was going on, even if we were sleepy and weak. She'd read to us lots and feed us glucose-enriched drinks. But the one thing which sticks out in my mind most is egg sandwiches (!). Mum only made egg sandwiches for special occasions. Not because they're hard to make, of course, but because by reserving when we ate them it was an easy way to make us feel loved or special at particular times when we needed it. It was simple, but surprisingly effective!