Dispatches from the Sofa:
A word on keeping the flu and the zombie apocalypse at bay.
Like so many of my colleagues, friends, and fellow parents, I found our lives completely disrupted by a brutal bout with flu. Much like Genesis and Billy Joel, I could feel it coming in the air tonight for the longest time, but knowing it was probably going to make its rounds to us gave me very little power in preventing it. When Justin and the kids were hit so hard that Justin could not drive or feed the kids, I knew I was probably already a carrier. A week of languishing on the sofa on sick leave has made me realize that we are overlooking some pretty important steps to slowing and spreading infections during cold and flu season.
Arthur tested positive for the flu and strep four days before I showed symptoms outside of a nagging earache and sinus trouble, which meant I had to continue to go to work knowing there was a good chance I was a walking vector, but it wasn’t until Thursday that it hit me. As I went through my day at the school, it was as if someone were slowly turning up the volume on my symptoms. I did not have a fever, but I felt as if I was moving through paste or quicksand, my body heavy and foreign. By the time the final bell rang, I felt as if I were looking through foggy glass at the world around me.
Thursday night brought a fever that paralyzed me with discomfort; I literally sobbed like a sick preschooler, huddled under the blanket on the loveseat where I would basically spend the next five days. Constant, low-grade nausea made even drinking fluids hard, and I lacked the mental focus to even watch TV. Fortunately, the doctor assured me it would only last between 10 days to 2 weeks. ::retreats to fetal position::
As I suffered at home, reports flooded in from friends and colleagues of high absences: 8 students from one class, 6 from another. My job as a high school English tutor has given me a front-row seat to the unholy mess of viral and bacterial vectors running amok this academic year, and it isn’t lost on me that as terrible as I feel, as much as I want to crawl into a hole and bury myself in self-pity, my immune system is much better equipped to handle this than loads of disabled and elderly folks or little babies.
Two members of the Roe-Owen fam are asthmatics, which means we have to be extremely careful about the spread of illness into our home. Not having asthma myself, I grew up with a very 1980s movie-inspired concept of asthma as just sort of a quirk where its bearers carry a cute little plastic accessory to puff on when they become exerted or anxious.
In reality, asthma can be downright terrifying and certainly dangerous. Like me, Justin knew very little about asthma until he was diagnosed with it in his late 20s after a seemingly endless series of debilitating bouts of bronchitis. I had watched helplessly as Justin’s lips and skin took on a pale, claylike grayish blue and he gasped and wheezed in his sleep; so potent was my fear that I used to check to make sure he was still breathing when he became quiet. An emergency room doctor at Claremore Indian Hospital had looked at him with great concern, explaining how his own brother-in-law had unexpectedly died of asthma at the age of 30 while painting his house. Looking back on the countless breathing treatments and attacks Justin has had over the years, I imagine that doctor has saved Justin’s life a half dozen times over.
Like many other chronic health conditions, asthma possesses the ability to cause life-threatening complications for illnesses that healthy adults or children might otherwise be able to shrug off fairly quickly. Anytime there is a respiratory virus going around, Arthur can go from his normal, happy-go-gothy self to a 104-degree fever within a matter of hours. In just a couple of days from becoming symptomatic, Arthur was diagnosed as having “near-pneumonia.” It’s a frightening thing as a parent to realize if you had waited until morning to go to the doctor, your child probably would have been admitted to the hospital. But that is how quickly asthma can turn dangerous with viral infections. If your child doesn’t have asthma or a chronic health condition, more than likely, someone you know does, whether it’s your child’s best friend or teacher’s child, the checkout clerk at Aldi, or your grandparent. This is why it is absolutely crucial that we work together as a community to prevent the further spread of contagious infections.
When Hand Sanitizer Isn’t Enough
When we talk about preventing the spread of germs, we automatically grab for the purse-sized cucumber melon-scented antibacterial hand sanitizer gel and start disbursing it to everyone who will slow down long enough to catch a palmful. But anyone who has worked in a public school knows that despite oceans of bacterial soap, what comes around always goes around, as my mom used to say.
On a good year, this means a few weeks of high absences at school and work. But on a bad year, like this year, it can mean high numbers of hospitalizations and even deaths, not to mention the lower productivity and morale as well as lost wages. Amid all the half-empty classrooms and sick workplaces, it should not be lost on any of us how quickly a flu season could turn into a deadly epidemic with a slightly more aggressive strain. The takeaway from this season is that it could be so much worse, and we have to find ways to limit the spread of disease before it is.
All of us have a vested interest in slowing the spread of contagious vectors. If we can do a better job mitigating the spread of infections during cold and flu season, we will save lives, see better performance in school, happier workplaces environments, and maybe, just maybe, stave off the impending zombie apocalypse a few more seasons.
Three Tips for Fighting the Flu
Beyond the obvious “Get a flu shot” and “Wash your hands,” there are some pretty major ways we could ebb the tide of illness. I will leave you with three suggestions that bear further consideration at the very least before I retire to my nap nest with my Z-pack and remote control.
1. Stop rewarding perfect attendance.
This idea has been making the rounds online for a while now, but really it is worth echoing. As an educator, I know as well as anyone the importance of kids being in school to learn and establish routine, but the pressure for attendance in schools is so high that I don’t know many parents who haven’t sent their children to school knowing there was a good chance the other kids were getting a dose of community soup from those little snotwagons.
I don’t have much to say on this subject through my current haze of nausea and fever that others have not said better, except to say that if there is one lesson I have learned as the mom of a kid with autism, we have to take care of our kids first, and that has to come before learning. Here and here are good reads on changing the way we think about attendance.
2. End the culture of “toughing it out.”
This has actually gotten a bit better in the past 20 years or so (thanks millennials!), but we still seem to by and large carry the misconception that it’s some kind of personal failure to go home when you’re only “a little sick” (I refer you to item #1). Vectors either are present or are not present; there isn’t a “slightly” to flu or strep, and those things are serious public health risks.
Like most Americans, I have enough sick leave to cover regular sickness like the occasional debilitating migraine or stomach bug, but my leave does not remotely account for the literal weeks I have missed for our family’s two bouts with strep and flu, so I know firsthand the struggle when you say, “But I can’t afford to miss work!” I feel you, and I hope that maybe we can find a solution to that in the future…I’ve heard a proposal for cashing in early social security temporarily for parental leave, and while I realize that could be problematic, I wonder if maybe that could be a good starting point for a conversation about national sick leave.
But what I am asking is that if you have the leave available, please don’t go to work sick, and employers, please encourage your people to stay home. If you see someone else sick at work trying to go home, have their back. Don’t ever bust on anyone for taking the day off for something that could be contagious because you do not want that junk. Spreading illness lowers productivity and is socially irresponsible.
3. Wear a mask if you have sickies in your home.
This is my original idea, probably not super original, but it at least felt pretty ingenious as it came to me through my delirium as I laid on the sofa in my fuzzy slippers wracked with anxiety and grief over how many people I might have gotten sick when I was asymptomatic. The past couple of weeks at school, I saw a few students wandering around the hallways with medical masks, so I imagine it’s not too far-fetched to think we could make this a thing if teens are not too embarrassed to mask up. We could even start a funky mask trend like those cute Harajuku kids (don’t get me started on how much I adore Japanese street fashion).
If you have been exposed to a vector in your home but are asymptomatic, it could be a full week or more before you begin to exhibit signs that you’ve got the bug. Imagine all the people that get infected in that time. I would love to see schools and employers start a campaign to encourage students or employees to wear masks for a week after someone in their home is exposed to a contagious bug. This would be completely voluntary, but just like the “Don’t Bug Me” campaign has led to all my students carrying around clip-on sanitizer, I think it could really work and make a pretty fair dent in slowing the spread of illness during flu season.
All right, friends. Now that you have heard my modest proposal–I actually probably shouldn’t use that one–now that you have heard my big ideas to save the world from the zombie apocalypse, I am going back to my sofa where I plan to sleep for the next 15 hours. Take care of each other and please be well.