Poison Ivy

I couldn’t bring myself to post anything all last week, because on top of an extremely challenging and stressful week at work, I’ve been dealing with an incapacitating poison ivy rash. I must have rubbed up against some poison ivy by mistake when I foolishly ventured outdoors a few weeks ago. (When will I ever learn?! Indoor kitties should stay INDOORS). 

For more than two weeks now I have been dealing with a repulsive, oozing rash. Whenever I see people (and I see people ALL DAY LONG), I feel compelled to blurt out awkward things like, “Oh, hi, I swear I don’t have leprosy or Ebola…it’s just poison ivy. The pus isn’t contagious, but you probably don’t really want to shake my hand.”

Just poison ivy, but the itching! – the torturous, unrelenting itching that has brought me more than once to tears of despair! I can only describe the feeling as having insects crawling underneath my skin. I have become a bag lady, toting ice packs everywhere I go. Ice is the only thing that brings any kind of relief, and believe me, I’ve tried everything.

My mother was aghast when I turned up at her house last weekend, dripping from ugly patches all over my arms and legs. Unable to sleep for worry over her miserable daughter, my poor dear mama got up in the middle of the night to consult with everyone’s favorite primary care physician, Dr. Internet, who told her that chicken was the cure. I woke up to the smell of chicken soup. Even though I stopped eating meat years ago, I ate bowl after bowl of the soup, and maybe a dozen eggs that weekend. At this point, I would eat raw, pulverized worms if I thought it would help. Alas, the chicken cure has not had any discernible effect. What’s more, when I later googled “chicken” and “poison ivy” myself, I could find nothing. Could this all have been a ruse devised by my crafty mother to get me to eat meat again?

“Do you think it’s because Mom was searching on Korean websites?” I asked my husband.

“Of course,” he replied with an authoritative air, “She would have been looking on mudang.co.kr or something like that.”

Mudang means shaman in Korean.

If I thought insurance would pay for it, I’d ask to be put into an induced coma for a couple weeks. I’ve resorted to knocking myself out by trying sleeping pills for the first time in my life, with mixed results. I’ve engaged in fisticuffs with my husband, who tries to grab my desperately clawing hand to prevent me from tearing at my festering pustules.

Well. If you’re still reading, I’m astonished. Thank you for indulging me. I know there’s nothing more tedious than to hear someone complaining endlessly, so I will conclude this mournful lament with a solemn vow to never speak of such things ever again and a whimper: uuuuuuuuuuuuuuunnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnggggggghhhhhwwwwaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!



When my father was eleven years old, his entire family was struck down by typhoid fever. Only his mother did not get sick, having developed immunity after surviving her own bout with the disease as a child. By the end of those terrible two weeks, my father’s father was dead. He left behind a widow with ten young children and a farm to run. This disastrous change in the family’s fortunes unleashed a whole chain of calamities. But this is the story of triumph over death in the midst of tragedy, and it came thanks to two venomous snakes. Here’s another installment of Stories from Easter Island, as told to me by my dad, whom we call (with great affection!) The Easter Island Head

My second oldest brother was thirteen or fourteen when our father got sick with typhoid fever. He tried to help around the farm, but he overexerted himself and hurt his side. He was completely incapacitated for months. He got so sick, we thought he would die. We lived in the country, and there were no doctors in the vicinity.

It was monsoon season, which is when snakes come out of hiding. There were men who would catch venomous snakes to sell for medicinal purposes. These snake catchers would keep them in boxes that they would carry around on their shoulders. One of those snake catchers heard that my brother was sick, so he visited our home. He told my mother that he could heal my brother with two snakes.

He had an earthen jar with a small opening at the top. These jars were used for boiling herbs or for storing food.

He put one of the snakes in the jar with some water and then he wrapped the jar with a straw rope from the bottom to the top. He plastered mud over the rope so the jar wouldn’t heat up too quickly, and then he lit a fire under it. He slowly, slowly heated up the jar, using just a few sticks of wood at a time. The fire burned for two days. The only time he ever left the fire was to use the bathroom. For two days he ate every meal sitting on his haunches, tending the fire.

At first the water felt warm and good to the snake. But as the water heated up, the snake started to feel uncomfortable and got angry. It started to strike at the walls of the jar, releasing all of its venom into the water.

On the second day, it started to smell like boiled chicken. After two days, the snake had mostly disintegrated. The head and bones were all that remained. The man dumped everything into a hemp cloth to filter out the liquid. He squeezed the cloth so that only the bones and some meat remained. The liquid made up a bowlful of soup.

There was a layer of fatty grease on top of the liquid. I remember that he used hanji, Korean handmade paper, to soak up the grease. He did that two or three times to get all the fat out. He said that if my brother drank any of the fat, he would get diarrhea and become even more sick.

Before he would give him the soup, he very carefully checked his mouth for any sores or open wounds to make sure he would not get poisoned. When he was absolutely sure there were no wounds, he let my brother drink the soup. My brother said it tasted good.

After a one day break, he did the same thing again with the second snake and served another bowlful of soup to my brother. After two doses of snake soup, he fully recovered. Two or three years later, the snake catcher returned and told our mother that it was time for my brother to have one more bowl of snake soup so that he could maintain his good health throughout his life. He was exceptionally healthy, even into adulthood, and it was thought that it was because of the snake soup.

It’s not appendicitis!

Things were looking dire for my middle child this morning. Yesterday, he spent the entire day in bed without eating a thing. This morning he felt even worse. He looked gray and was hunched over in pain. He clutched his belly as he hobbled down the stairs. My husband was convinced he had appendicitis.

With zero medical training between us, we are swift and confident in our diagnoses. We’ve read WebMD and have had three children after all. We were especially confident that we were dealing with appendicitis, because our oldest child had it three years ago.

We quickly made a game plan that involved a complete shift in our usual routine. Colin took our daughter to school and I drove my son’s carpool. Colin would take our sick child to our family medicine practice to be evaluated and I would leave work to meet them there once they arrived.

“Poor T. I hope he’s ok,” I fretted as I drove his older brother and his friends to school.

“Me too. And, I hope if he does have appendicitis and he has to have surgery, you don’t do what you did to me when I had it.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Remember how the doctors wanted me to stay an extra night, but you were so desperate to get out of the hospital you made me walk around the nurse’s station to prove that I was ready to leave? And I was in so much pain, but you made me do it anyway.”

Ummm. This absolutely shocking and horrible allegation is sort of true.

I was desperate to get out of there. But in my defense, as I’ve mentioned before, my son feels things more keenly and expresses those feelings more vociferously than the average child. After his appendectomy, the doctors and nurses kept checking on his recovery with their pain assessment tool, the one with a series of  faces grimacing in increasing degrees of anguish. You could tell they were expecting him to point to the slightly frowny It’s OK, I Can Take It Face when asked how much pain he was experiencing. Instead, he’d always, always point to the Holy Mother of Pearl, I’m In Mortal Agony Face.

Staying in hospitals is awful for so many reasons. What made it especially miserable this time was that we were sharing a room with a little toddler whose parents weren’t spending the night with him. The poor boy cried all night, but I wasn’t allowed to pick him up or comfort him myself. Instead, I had to repeatedly call for a nurse to come attend to him throughout the night. It was heartbreaking.

I had to get out of there, and I was convinced that it would be much better for my son to rest and recuperate at our own house. The condition put upon his release was that he would have to be able to walk without too much difficulty. To prove that he was mobile, he would have to walk all the way around the nurse’s station.

I whispered a little pep talk in his ear before he set off.

“I know you’re hurting, but try not to make it seem like such a big deal, OK?”

I know. I’m Caligula’s eviller twin sister.

Hunched over like a shrunken, little old man, clutching his IV pole, the poor boy staggered around the nurse’s station as if he were on the last mile of the Bhutan death march. I hovered in the background whispering encouragements, “Come on! Straighten up a little! Put a little pep in your step! You can do it!”

He was discharged.

I fully expected my middle child to be admitted this morning. I was mentally preparing to atone for my past sins by letting him stay as long as he needed to in the hospital. Instead, as soon as he got to the doctor’s office, he magically came back to life. He regained his color, his appetite, and his vim and verve. And despite the fact that the doctor looked like he couldn’t have been more than twelve years old, and made his diagnosis without even consulting WebMD, we gladly concurred when he declared that he merely had a virus and sent us on our way.

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Fountain of Youth?

In Idiosyncratic Medicine, I wrote about my family’s unconventional medicinal practices. In case you thought I was exaggerating, this is what I found in my parents’ kitchen this past weekend:

Blueberry Vinegar

Blueberry Vinegar

My mom and dad drink a cup of slightly diluted apple cider or blueberry vinegar every day. It’s supposed to be good for lowering bad cholesterol, lowering blood pressure, killing cancer cells, aiding digestion, lowering glucose levels in diabetics, clear skin, weight loss…

And then…I saw this:

My mom brews a bunch of chopped up mulberry tree limbs in a crockpot for 24 hours. The resulting twig juice is supposedly good for lowering high blood pressure, numbness, rheumatism, coughs, overactive bladder, etc.

Sounds pretty crazy to me, and yet every time I see my parents they look ever more youthful and radiant:

Still, I don’t think I’ll be adding vinegar and twig juice to my regimen anytime soon…

When my sister found out that Nicholas had fractured his arm, she sent him these very cute “Get Well Cake Pops”:

Now that’s my kind of medicine!

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Idiosyncratic Medicine

I’ve been meditating all week long on my inability to navigate the choppy waters of modern medicine.

“Why?” I ask myself, “Why do you have an unerring instinct to make the wrong choice about whether or not to pursue medical care for your child every. blinking. time?”

The only thing I can come up with is the fact that I myself never had to go to the doctor except every now and then to get immunizations to enroll in a new school. I never spent a night in a hospital until my first child was born. I used to take pride in the fact that I never broke a bone or even so much as twisted an ankle, seeing this as evidence of my superior constitution. Now I realize that I never got hurt as a child, because of the extremely low chance of injury when you spend every day lying on a couch reading books.

The other reason we never had to seek outside medical care was because we had my aunt and my dad.

First: my aunt. My aunt studied Western-style pharmacology as well as traditional Chinese medicine. She’s so good at what she does that the whole Redskins team would come to her for acupuncture and other treatments. At the height of their glory back in the 80s, when they actually cancelled school for a day so that kids could go to their Superbowl victory parade, every member of the team signed a football for her two young boys. With someone like that in your family, why would you bother with baby aspirins or visiting a doctor?

Our aunt would treat us with suspicious and exotic ingredients that she would wrap neatly in plain white paper packets. Heartburn? White paper packet. Acne? White paper packet. Too short? White paper packet. Moral shortcoming? White paper packet.

The ingredients would be simmered on the stove for hours until all that was left would be a black sludgy distillation that looked, smelled, and tasted exactly the same, no matter the combination of ingredients or the complaint they were to address. There were two strategies for choking these vile concoctions down. You could hold your nose and gulp down the mugful of medicine as fast as possible. Or, you could hold your nose and take molecular sips while your mother stood over you with a cattle prod and bullwhip urging you to HURRY UP and drink it!!

As for what was actually in the packets, we could only speculate. My aunt would pull each ingredient out of one of those ancient apothecary chests with millions of tiny drawers labelled with Chinese characters. The one constant was that every mixture always included what looked like bits of mulch. As for the rest: ground moose antlers, tiger testicles, rhinoceros belly button lint? Who could tell?

For more acute problems, my dad would take matters into his own untrained hands. His sub-specialty was acupuncture. For a really bad stomach ache, he would wrap our right index finger with a thread until it turned blue. The next step was to sterilize a needle by holding it over a burning match, or sometimes just by running it through his hair. He explained once that he was harnessing the power of static electricity, which would create a spark that would sterilize the needle just as effectively as would the flame from a burning match. (I don’t think he took into consideration the fact that his hair was always slick with a generous dollop of Vitalis). Finally, he would jab the needle into the lower left corner, right where flesh meets nail, until a drop of purple blood oozed out.

To be perfectly honest, the result was instantaneous pain relief. But the cure was so bad that we all became precociously adept at deception and subterfuge. We were like herd animals that hide their illlness so they won’t be left behind until the very moment they keel over dead.

“Oh no, Dad,” I’d gasp with a weak grin shakily pasted on my grey face, “I’m O.K. My stomach doesn’t hurt…I was just bending over to look for something I dropped on the floor.”

I became so frightened of my dad and his trusty, Vitalis-soaked needle that I once hid the fact that I had gotten a splinter in my stomach from a rickety old wooden seesaw. It remained lodged in my stomach for over a year until it worked its way out in a nasty little explosion of pus.

So after a full work up and thorough analysis, my self-diagnosis is that I’m suffering from a fairly severe and probably incurable case of IMC: Impaired Medical Cognition. I simply can’t make reasonable judgments about modern health care, having only had experience with the ancient variety. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. I’m hoping to put this unhappy chapter behind me now. Or at least until the next ER visit anyway…

Hope your weekend is out of all whooping!