If there is one thing I hate more than my unpaid student loans, it is being sick, especially during my favorite time of year. It’s fall, the weather is perfectly cool and breezy, and I’m stuck inside with a fever, chills, runny nose, sore throat, and queasy stomach. Every time I’m sick, I pull out the box of lotion infused tissues, herbal teas designed for specific ailments (Throat Comfort for a raspy, scratchy throat, Breath Deep for respiratory relief and coughing, or Cold Season, for general symptoms1), cough drops, homeopathic remedies, plain, unscented chap stick for my dry lips, and extra vitamin C tablets. I have an arsenal of flu-fighting weapons on hand, like any good disaster preparedness kit, because honestly, my immune system leaves a lot to be desired.
So, here I am, in day six of of my illness, high on green tea and vitamin supplements, finally well enough to do more than moan in my bed of pain.2 During the quarantine period, laying in bed, staring at my ceiling, too dazed to even watch television, I had a lot of time to think. With all of the modern conveniences and medical developments, I’m actually really lucky to have my arsenal of cold medicines, et cetera, and to be surviving the flu.
In the big-picture scope of things, modern medicine allows most people to live past childhood, unlike the recent past. In 1900, 25,802 out of 70,867 total deaths were registered for children under the age of five years, just in New York City alone.3 That counts deaths from any number of diseases, many of which are avoided today by vaccines. Furthermore, look at the influenza pandemic of 1918. Worldwide, more people were killed from the Spanish Flu than those in WWI, at between 20 and 40 million victims of the pandemic.
My intent is not to scare you with these statistics of diseased history; I could have just told you to go watch Contagion for a modern take on contagious diseases. I’m just trying to put my own woes into perspective. There were times when you could die from the common cold because it turned into pneumonia or a fever grew fatally high without any Tylenol to bring it down.Beyond the severity of making it to your sixth birthday alive and being able to take medication that allows you to breeze through a fever unscathed, there are the simple sides of a common cold that we take for granted. Take tissues for example. Have you ever used a handkerchief? It sucks. My stepfather, the proper British gentleman that he is, carried around a clean handkerchief with him when he was dating my mother. I was eight or nine, so at first, this quirk of his was entertaining and sated my desire to feel glamorous and Victorian. I had already stolen my grandmother’s lacy vintage handkerchiefs and would play at being a genteel, delicate lady in my dress-up clothes. My illusions were shattered when I actually had to use dear old dad’s hanky.4 I had a cold, we were on a day trip, and my nose was runny. At first, the hanky was a quick fix, with no tissues at hand and I readily accepted the cloth. After a few hours though, the shine wore off my antique adventure in the realm of the sniffles and I had a miserable, wet, handkerchief left. Without getting graphic, just imagine using one tissue when you are sick or having an allergy attack for 12 hours. How would you imagine that would feel? Not nice. Thinking back to times when handkerchiefs and cloth were all that was available, it makes me hope that I never get sent back in time during ragweed season. Lesson one: handkerchiefs are absolutely to be used solely for tears; it is the only glamourous usage.
Beyond tissues, think of all the other modern conveniences like over-the-counter drugs, cough drops, preemptive flu shots and vitamins, and heating pads. People just didn’t have these things in most historic eras. With the wisdom of my thoughts, I can’t believe that Mrs. Bennet sends Jane off in the rain to catch a cold so that she can be nursed at the Bingley estate in Pride and Prejudice! Jane reports her illness in a letter home, and her parents have an exchange about her health afterword:
The Bennets always make me laugh, but poor Jane gets stuck with a cold from running around in the rain, looking ragged in front of her suitor. I used to look at women in classic novels and historical fiction books with a bit of disdain. If ladies could fall ill just from getting caught in the rain, they must have some weak constitutions. This opinion changed when I really thought about what kind of a lady I’d be in the 18th or 19th century. With my track record of catching colds, I’d be like Jane or worse, in fact. I’d probably be more of a Miss Anne de Bourgh, between my previous illnesses of pneumonia and mono, my weak immune system toward the common cold, spring and summer allergies, and chronic headaches. Imagining facing all of that without modern comforts makes me cringe. Ever wonder how a woman could be put out of commission for 20 pages, or a whole day in a novel by a headache? Try getting through one without taking Advil, Motrin, or Tylenol. Again, it does not feel wonderful. The few times I’ve tried to ride out a really bad headache, or even a mild one, sans popping pills in hopes of going natural and avoiding the toxic drugs that aren’t good for your body long term, I felt like I was dying. Light sensitivity, throbbing, vice-like pain, and that feeling the next morning I like to call “the headache hangover,” are crippling when there isn’t anything to calm the tension.
I find myself very unwell this morning, which, I suppose, is to be imputed to my getting wet through yesterday. My kind friends will not hear of my returning home till I am better. They insist also on my seeing Mr. Jones — therefore do not be alarmed if you should hear of his having been to me — and excepting a sore throat and head-ache, there is not much the matter with me. Yours, &c.”
“Well, my dear,” said Mr. Bennet, when Elizabeth had read the note aloud, “if your daughter should have a dangerous fit of illness, if she should die, it would be a comfort to know that it was all in pursuit of Mr. Bingley, and under your orders.”
“Oh! I am not at all afraid of her dying. People do not die of little trifling colds. She will be taken good care of. As long is she stays there, it is all very well. I would go and see her, if I could have the carriage.”5
I guess my point here is that I’d be one of those delicate ladies hitching up her shawl because she’s afraid to catch a chill, sending word to visitors that she is “in disposed” because of a megrim, or fainting left and right because her corset was too tight (constricting garments + asthma = fainting spell, but hopefully the lithe drooping kind and not the dead-weight, sloppy kind).6 I am not ashamed though. In fact, I have more tolerance and patience for characters in novels and my ancestors who lacked modern medicine. Let’s just be thankful for the things we take for granted.
1 Thank you Yogi Tea for your tasty herbal teas that get me through bouts of the common cold and flu!
2 Alright, I realize I’m being dramatic, but for anyone who knows me, you’ll realize that I don’t cope well with any form of pain or physical discomfort (see also: panic attack / hysterical fit at IV insertion during hospital visit, age: 8).
3 My source for these statistics comes from the CDC’s Mortality Statistics 1900 to 1904. To view the CDC’s website, and other vital statistics from other years, check out the CDC Vital Statistics of the United States.
4 Which was clean, by the way. He washed them and had a set of several backups for laundry day.
5 From chapter 7 of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I would cite my source further, but I only have an iBooks version, which doesn’t give any other information or have page numbers.
6 Fact: I have fainted twice in my life. The second time was the most embarrassing, being in front of about twenty people at my friends wedding rehearsal. Unfortunately, I neither drooped lithely nor dropped dead-weight to get it over with. My faint was more of a stumbling, whirling attempt to stay standing, grasping out toward the other bridesmaids until I was rescued by the FOB and MOH’s date.