Thursday, December 29, 2011

The plague: April 27, 2008

There's nothing quite like that lightning-bolt realization you have as you watch one of your kids get horribly ill -- that soul-crushing certainty that everyone in the house is doomed to get this, probably already has it and now we're all just waiting for the suffering to begin.

The flu shatters our immunization illusions
    I always thought my children would discover I’d been lying to them all these years when they caught me placing presents under the tree on Christmas Eve or slipping a dollar under a pillow in exchange for a tooth. But it was the flu shot that cost my sons their first illusion.

    Every year, like good little virus-fighting soldiers, my husband and I and our two boys roll up a sleeve and get a flu shot. The kids don’t like it. But I have so aggressively promoted the mythology that a flu shot will “help us stay healthy all winter long” that they’ve nearly stopped questioning it.

    In fact, as summer packed up its tent and fall weather blew in last year, my 7-year-old asked me one day, “Will we have to get a flu shot soon?”

    “Oh, yes, indeed,” I told him, “to help us stay healthy all winter long.”

    Both my boys are in school from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day, which means they spend about 35 hours a week marinating in a Crock-Pot of viruses. All the handwashing and good hygiene in the world just cannot combat the power of one sick kid’s runny nose multiplied by the number of times he wipes his face with his sleeve and then tackles a classmate. (And I say this as the parent of a 3-year-old who has a penchant for both sleeve-as-tissue behavior and tackling.)

    Since my oldest, now nearly 8, was a toddler and we developed the flu-shot habit, no one in my house has had the flu. And we have gone to great lengths to get that shot.

    One year all the pediatricians were out of them, so I lugged my youngest, then a baby, to the health department downtown to get one. It took four hours. But we did it.

    And when my older son got out of school that day, I drove him up to the health department branch in North Hamilton County, where the shot was administered in about four minutes. Go figure.

    I should have known we were in trouble this year when three things happened.

    First, a broad alert went out to the public that there were plenty of flu shots this year. (Come and get it! Take extra! Use them as Christmas ornaments!)

    Second, I quit my job at this newspaper to work in corporate communications, and I managed to schedule three weeks of free time.

    And third, a broad alert went out to the public that those plentiful flu shots we’d all had were no durn good. (An article appeared on the front page on Feb. 20, my very own BIRTHDAY, under the headline “Flu bug sneak attack.”)

    On the first Monday I was off work, my youngest son woke in the night wailing. I went into his room, leaned over his crib and could feel the heat radiating off his body before I even touched him. He was diagnosed the next day with the flu, and down we all went like dominoes through the rest of the week.

    We had every flu misery, from terrifying fevers and sick stomachs to sore throats and hacking coughs. All of us. All. Week. Long. We took Tamiflu, but if it helped I couldn’t tell. (For some of us, it probably didn’t stay down long enough to do any good.)

    “Do I even need to comment on the timing of this?” asked my friend when I called her to explain that I couldn’t meet her at the gym. “Isn’t this your first week off of work?”

    “Ugh,” I said, which is all I could muster.

    As I write this, a week after the onset of the Plague of 2008, my houseful is on its way to health again. We’re still a little weak, but the boys are back in school, and I am making plans to spend my next week off in far pleasanter fashion. Nothing like wallto-wall misery to make you appreciate a little normalcy.

    I’m hoping for better luck next time, so this fall we’ll get flu shots again. But when my kids ask me why, I think I’ll skip the syrupy line (lie?) about staying healthy all winter long and just go right for the bribe, laced with a little symbolism.

    We may be suckers to believe in the flu shot, but from now on everyone at our house who gets a flu shot gets a sucker.

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