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Nashville Scene Road Show

The medicine man cometh

By Margaret Renkl

MAY 8, 2000:  If I had been forced to complete Biology 101 in college, I would have flunked it. Twice. Since I needed Biology 101 to graduate, and since I'd waited until the last minute of my university career to attempt it, I was very grateful when a sympathetic dean let me out of the science requirement the second time my grade at mid-quarter was an F. By then, I'd already been accepted to graduate school in English, and the dean probably figured passing biology wasn't especially important for a person who planned to spend her future dissecting sonnets instead of cats.

What that kind-hearted but ultimately misguided dean couldn't have known was that Biology 101 was probably the one and only class in my entire university career that might have had direct application to my actual life--not the life that 15 years ago I imagined I'd have as a university professor of English Romantic poetry, but the real life I have now as the mother of three human petri dishes whose little bodies constantly cultivate nasty microbes.

These kids of mine stay sick the entire winter, the reasons for which I basically understand because I've seen a lot of television commercials for Theraflu. What I don't understand is why the germs tend to escalate in intensity as they make their way through all the twin beds in the house. If I'd stuck out Biology 101, I might have some idea of why a simple cold in one of my children is bound to turn into an ear infection in the next, or why the first round of strep throat isn't so bad for Kid #1, but by the time it reaches Kid #3, it's become a full-blown case of scarlet fever.

Even more important, though, if I'd stuck out Biology 101, I might have some idea of why the most debilitating childhood illnesses invariably occur during family vacations. In the last eight years, I've collected receipts from 21 different doctors around the country. We can leave our house with all three children as robust as a politician's ego, but before it's time to come home, at least one of them will be as sick as a frat boy on Sunday morning. And if there's anything worse than being stuck in the house all winter with a bunch of sick kids, it's being stuck in a faraway hotel room with a bunch of sick kids.

Or so I thought. Then this year's spring break added a new kind of illness detour to our family travels. The long-planned visit to my in-laws' house in rural southwest Georgia began normally. It's true I had a little tickle in the back of my throat that morning. Earlier in the week, I'd sat next to someone else's snotty-nosed toddler at my son's second-grade performance of "Life Cycles in the Natural World," so it did not surprise me that a cold virus was now commencing its life cycle in my own mucous membranes. But since we'd never leave the house if I counted ordinary head colds as actual illnesses, on we went.

Three hours later, my throat felt like Satan had taken up residence there. I was so sick I sort of rolled out of the front seat into my father's arms when we pulled into my parents' Birmingham driveway for a pitstop halfway to our destination. A quick trip to a walk-in clinic confirmed that I hadn't picked up a random toddler's head cold at all: I'd finally developed the strep infection my two older sons had had the week before. Feeling only slightly better than embalmed, I crawled into my childhood bed and plummeted to unconsciousness.

I assumed we'd either turn around and go home, or we'd wait at my parents' house for a day or so, until the antibiotic kicked in, and then continue our trip. But when my husband gets within 250 miles of the piney woods of his South Georgia youth, he doesn't listen to the logic of delayed gratification. So instead of waiting for me to get better, my husband--who has never been alone in the car with all three of his children for more than a three-mile jaunt to the downtown Y--decided to leave me in the care of my doting parents and press on.

There would be no other adult in the car to hand back juice boxes while he drove, no one to dispense sewing cards or lacing beads or coloring books or Viewmaster reels to cranky kids stuck too long in their car seats. Nor would he, I knew, delay the trip long enough to pull to the side of the road and perform these tasks while safely parked. No, he would do all these things himself while hurtling down rural Alabama backroads at 60 mph. He would take that minivan full of the people I love most in the world and drive it into fiery oblivion, and I was too sick to stop him.

When he called four hours later to report that he'd made the normally four-and-a-half-hour drive in record time, I was still too sick to ask how he'd performed such a traveling miracle. But by the next afternoon when my oldest son called to check in, modern medicine was doing its job, and I could take a little more interest in the activities of my faraway family, the family I had never spent more than 24 hours away from in my entire parental life.

"So what's happening there?" I asked my son. "Been fishing yet?"

"Well, we shot the BB gun for a while after supper yesterday," he said enthusiastically, "but we haven't gone out in the boat yet because PaPa had to take Daddy to the hospital."

I held the phone for minute, trying to figure out what my 8-year-old was confusing for a hospital. There's no hospital in the tiny farming community where my in-laws live; the nearest hospital is 45 miles away. "PaPa had to take Daddy where, sugar?"

"To the emergency room. In Americus. Dad thought he was having a heart attack."

When I could speak again I sounded almost calm--the effect, no doubt, of prolonged fever. "Sweetie, may I talk with your Dad for a minute?"

"I'm not having a heart attack" were the first words out of my husband's mouth when he reached the phone.

Turns out he'd gotten to his parents' house a little sore from all that nonstop driving and had helped himself to a couple of Advil from their medicine cabinet. Only the pills in the Advil bottle weren't ibuprofen at all but some extra tablets of my mother-in-law's prescription medication. "So what I took was a double dose of something that made me a little dizzy and short of breath is all," he continued by way of reassurance. "It freaked me out a little, but there's nothing to worry about now."

But of course I did worry. I lay alone in my childhood bedroom and thought about how there really is something worse than tending a sick child while far away from home: It's being far away myself while someone I love is hurting or upset or afraid.

So I knew what to say when my husband called again the next day: "Listen, honey, I don't want to worry you," he began, "but what does it mean when there are red blotches all over a kid's hands?"

If I'd completed Biology 101 in college, I might have recognized such red spots as the onset of hand-foot-and-mouth disease. But even though I didn't--yet--recognize those particular symptoms, I knew the answer to give my husband:

"It means you need to come and get me. It means we need to go home."

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