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Flu Sissies and Stoics: How We Suffer

February 10, 1988|NIKKI FINKE | Times Staff Writer

You feel rotten.

No, you feel worse than rotten. You feel flu-like.

Realtor-to-the-rich Stan Herman of Beverly Hills confesses, "I'm an absolute baby."

"I just lay in bed like I'm dying," reveals Gary Wexler, an L.A. advertising agency executive. "And if I have a fever, then I'm completely gone. There's nothing left of me."

What they're describing is their reaction to that sniffling, sneezing, coughing, aching-all-over feeling. No wonder Norman Cousins decries Southern Californians as the worst offenders among a nation of sick-time sissies.

"It's the sissification of the nation," says Cousins, the Saturday Review editor who laughed himself back to health after a serious illness and now is an adjunct professor at the UCLA School for Medicine. "We don't realize how robust the human body is, and we tend to cave in emotionally and psychologically unnecessarily."

And when it comes to Southland residents, well, we're simply not accustomed to getting sick. How can we, especially when this week's balmy winter temperatures are hovering in the 80s?

"At least in the East, people know it's going to snow, and they take flus and colds as a part of life," Cousins says. "But out here it seems like an aberration."

So what's causing all those back-wrenching coughs, runny noses and sandpaper-like throats in the first place?

H3N2. More popularly known as the Sichuan flu.

And, no, it's not that Chinese meal you had last night near Melrose. It's a variant of the Hong Kong flu that struck in 1968.

"Actually, we expected to see the Leningrad strain this season," says Suzanne Gaventa, spokeswoman at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Ga. "But the Sichuan flu is so named because that's where it was first identified in April 1987--in a province of China."

In fact, Gaventa notes, the differences between the various flu strains are virtually unnoticeable. All influenzas seem to cause the same symptoms. Specifically, temperatures above 100 degrees, plus a cough or sore throat. "But the only way to confirm it is the flu is to obtain a culture," she notes.

But how we nurse ourselves back to health shows a lot about our personalities.

First and foremost are the Sissies.

Or, as Dr. Joshua Trabulus, a Century City internist, observes, "this hopeless, helpless frame of mind" that Southern Californians seem to fall into as soon as they feel feverish.

"These people really get into the sick role. They withdraw from work and responsibility, wear pajamas all day and find people who will take care of them," the physician says. "And even though they're miserable, for these people flu is the best thing that can happen to them on one level because it's very recuperative."

Arthur Hansl, the Pacific Palisades author of the new novel, "A Call From L.A.," counts on getting at least one bad cold or flu a year. "And I just got over mine a week ago," he says. The first thing he did was "panic."

"When I get sick, I'm out of it like a hung jury. I collapse. And I get feeling very sorry for myself," he notes. "Then I wish somebody were around to take care of me. And sometimes there is. There's my wife."

If anyone should know how to cool a high temperature, it's Los Angeles attorney Hal Kwalwasser, a city fire commissioner. "If I'm running a fever, I give up and get into bed," he admits.

Actually, crawling under the covers for a few days isn't as cowardly as it sounds. Cousins, for one, says we shouldn't feel guilty. "When you have something like the flu and you have a fever, the doctor will tell you to get off your feet and you darn well better follow that advice."

It only becomes a problem when you want to stay in bed for the rest of your life. "Once your fever is passed and you're breathing freely again, pampering yourself doesn't help," he notes.

Then, there are the so-called Scotchers of the disease world.

As in Chivas Regal and J&B.

"I make up a batch of my mother's favorite hot toddy recipe--a large shot of Scotch with sugar and some tea," Kwalwasser says. "It may not cure me but I don't feel the pain."

Barbara Kraft, director of communications for the Museum of Contemporary Art, annually nurses her flu with a citrus brew devised by grandma. She quarters a grapefruit and grates rind into a pan, then boils the mixture for 30 minutes.

So what's the secret ingredient? "My fantasy is that it's quinine in the grapefruit rind," Kraft reveals. "But a doctor might refute that. All I know is that it makes me feel better. And at night I put Scotch in the brew and it really makes a difference."

In fact, quite a few Californians go on a liquor diet during illness. When Hansl had the flu last week, "I took plenty of cocktails. That's not a change of routine for me. That's just part of living."

Others need to pig out on junk food just to prove they're really ill. These are the Sinners.

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