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Jack Smith

Flu Hits and He Assumes a Fatal Position

February 15, 1988|Jack Smith

I was just getting back on my feet after a bout of the flu the other day when I read that story in the paper about "Flu Sissies and Stoics: How We Suffer," by Nikki Finke.

I had no trouble categorizing myself. I'm a sissy. The minute my temperature rises one degree above normal I assume the fetal position, pull the covers over my head, and whimper.

I was embarrassed to read in Finke's article that my buoyant friend Norman Cousins calls my type "sick-time sissies."

It's a national disease, he says, and we Southern Californians are the worst of the lot. "We don't realize how robust the human body is, and we tend to cave in emotionally and psychologically unnecessarily."

Of course the world knows how Cousins cured himself of a supposedly terminal disease by laughter and sheer will, and of his subsequent recovery from a massive heart attack. Millions have read and been inspired by his books.

But I wonder if he ever had the kind of flu I had?

I have an idea he'd assume the fetal position, pull the covers over his head and whimper, and he'd surely get a new book out of it.

Dr. Joshua Trabulus, a Century City internist, also called us Southern Californians sissies who go into "this hopeless, helpless frame of mind" as soon as they feel feverish, "withdraw from work and responsibility, wear pajamas all day and find people who will take care of them. . . ."

Cousins and Trabulus have my number, except that it wasn't that way this time because I had no one to take care of me but a sick wife.

She came down first. We hadn't had a bout of flu together since the moon landing. I remember both of us watching it on television with high fevers. We were wrapped in blankets. In my delirium I thought Walter Cronkite was God.

This time my wife came home with a cough and a fever and feeling lousy, as we Southern Californians do; she went stoically to bed. The next day her temperature hit 103.5. I faced up to my responsibilities. I phoned the doctor's office for a prescription. I went to the pharmacy for antibiotics. I cooked her meals for her. I washed the dishes. I turned television on and off for her. I was the perfect nursemaid.

Then I began to cough and feel lousy. By the time my temperature hit 103.5, I had already curled up in the fetal position in the bed next to my wife's. I had subsided into a state of self-pitying delirium and prenatal helplessness. She had to get up and heap the covers over my head and get dressed and go down to the pharmacy for me.

I must have driven my doctor crazy with appeals for miracle drugs, with warnings that I was dying, with pleas to be taken into the hospital. He knew all along, of course, that all I had was a touch of H3N2. He knew I wouldn't die. Probably not, anyway.

Since she had already passed her crisis I expected my wife to wait on me. She gave me an alcohol rubdown. Can you imagine the shock of cold rubbing alcohol splashed on your back when you have a temperature of 103.5? Later I began to sweat. My pajamas were soon sopping. She got fresh ones for me and covered the sodden sheets with towels. Of course she was still sick, too, but I was no longer aware of her as a person, only as a stoic.

Oddly, when my fever subsided I remained disoriented. Finally, I realized that this was caused by lying in bed while mindlessly switching the tube from station to station by remote control. In three days I must have seen 300 commercials for toothpaste, chewing gum, perfume, deodorant, soap, hair spray, shampoo, beer, male scent, cheeseburgers, tacos and every other modern blessing; yet I have no recollection of seeing any entertainment whatever. It is one of the side effects of H3N2 that you should know about.

Now it's over. We have survived. Our doctor has even survived. My wife has gone back to work. I was surprised to find myself in Doonesbury the other day. The kid says to his mother, "Mommy, Daddy's dying." And she says, "I know, honey. He'll get over it."

Norman Cousins and Garry Trudeau are clairvoyant.

I'm a sick sissy.

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