The Parent Ren, Part VII: The Pathogens Strike Back

I remember being a child and having Strep throat in the summer a couple of times. It was miserable. It was so bad that I could not wait to go see the doctor and have my grandmother give me a shot of penicillin. (I spent most summers with my grandparents in the ancestral hometown in Mexico.) She would bundle me up in a blanket, in the Mexican summer heat, and take me to the doctor’s office. He would stick that wooden stick in my mouth and take a look and agree that I needed antibiotics. He’d write the script and off we went to the pharmacy. At the pharmacy, my grandmother would get the penicillin, a vial of injectable saline, and a syringe. Then it was back to the house to get my shot, fall asleep, and wake up feeling so much better.

Speaking of sleep, one time when I had something that was more akin to the flu, my grandfather gave me a soup spoon full of equal parts tequila, honey, and lemon juice. He basically got me drunk, as I was around ten years old. I crashed back to sleep and woke up feeling better some 36 hours later. Dad said I had the highest fever, but both my grandparents told him not to wake me up and to let the fever do its work. (Fevers can be dangerous if allowed to go too long and/or get too high. So don’t try this at home.)

The next big respiratory infection would be the flu in 1997. That one was scary as I was living on my own. I remember starting to feel sick in the morning at school and not quite remembering how I got home later that evening. Then I remember bits and pieces of the next day, opting to stay home and sleep instead of doing anything. Finally, a friend came by looking for me to go play soccer and woke me up out of a stupor. He saw how sick I was and drove me to the university’s health clinic. The prescription was more sleep, but to throw in some acetaminophen for the fever.

After that, I wouldn’t get another big respiratory infection until 2008, when not only did I get the flu but I also managed to have it develop into a whopping walking pneumonia. I remember going to my wife’s apartment (we were dating) and helping her move around some furniture. I then crashed on the couch, out of breath, and she listened to my lungs. “Alright, which ER do you want to go to?” she asked.
“What do you mean? I’m just a little winded,” I replied. That “winded” was because my lungs were filled with fluid. Even the emergency room physician asked me how I was up and walking around.

The best part of the pneumonia story is that I gave a talk about influenza surveillance at a gathering of state epidemiologists and public health workers, and I was coughing up a lung, feverish, and probably made little to no sense. And I nailed it. (Kind of.) I remember people coming up to me to talk more about influenza surveillance, as I had the flu and as I tried hard to sip tea while my throat burned out of control. I wonder how many people I got sick that day?

Bad epidemiologist. Bad.

But that’s the thing about us silly humans, isn’t it? We are teeming with germs and we can’t wait to share them. Our habits and traditions as humans are such that they have allowed all of these bugs to travel the world with us. We greet each other by shaking hands or, as in my Latin American culture, we add a hug or a kiss on the cheek. No better way for respiratory infections to travel, especially if hand washing is not readily available.

Then there’s sex. Almost 99.99999% of humanity will have sex if they live to be old enough to do so, and there are germs that travel with sex as well. From gonorrhea to HIV, we share more than you really want to know when we have sex, sometimes to deadly consequences. When it comes to all the things that could kill us, absolute abstinence would probably save millions of lives each year… But abstinence-only strategies to controlling sexually transmitted infections is as effective as telling people not to eat or drink in order to avoid diarrhea.

Great comparison, I know.

Now that I’m a father, I’ve come to be a little more afraid of germs. It’s not that I’m afraid of what they’ll do to me. I’ve been known to run into an influenza outbreak without personal protective equipment once or twice, and not knowing what we were dealing with one of those times. (My wife still chides me over that one.) Now, I’m afraid of what they might do to Baby Ren. She’s so tiny and delicate that I worry that any little cold will knock her out and really hurt her.

The sleepless nights are bad enough, sure. But the worrying over her breathing and being comfortable really takes its toll. While I try to get things done and continue to write my doctoral dissertation at 3am in the morning while I listen for her coughing, I’m still focusing a lot of my attention her way. Then the brain starts playing the What if? game, and I get worried about her. And then the rational brain reminds me that plenty of children go through these infections and come out the other side with a stronger immune system.

And, of course, the really deadly stuff has been vanquished thanks to vaccines. Baby Ren will never get to know smallpox, and her chances of meeting polio are infinitely small. She got her 2 month vaccines and is going in for her 4 month vaccines right after Christmas. And she’ll get her 6 month vaccines in February, including the two doses of influenza vaccine.

Still, listening to her congested nose and her hacky cough is scary, because she’s my daughter. She’s become a huge part of my life, obviously. While I know that these infectious microorganisms don’t have a mind of their own, I think that it’s a little bit funny that I’ve devoted my life to fighting them and here they are fighting us, making Baby Ren feel sick and making me worried sick.

So I continue to drink sips of coffee to help me stay awake, continue to do research for my dissertation — maybe draw some maps and do some geostatistical analyses — and continue to look over and make sure she’s breathing as she sleeps in complete peace and calm. Parenting ain’t easy, but no one said it would be.

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