The hardest thing about transplanting from sunny, arid New Mexico to lush, seasonal New England is not the climate. The hardest thing about moving to New England is sickness. We are awash in a sea of viruses.
Boston looms forty minutes away. Germs must hold massive conventions there, planning annual pandemics and local outbreaks alike. Our first year here we experienced an unparalleled infectious onslaught.
We arrived in New Hampshire during the special time of year known as “Norovirus Season.” As sure as leaves drop in fall, digestive systems convulse in late February. Alone in a new city, without a car or friends to help, our inaugural bout with this awful illness left us weak and drained. We ran out of everything— soup, crackers, Gatorade, even toilet paper. I vowed to never be unprepared again. Our pantry shelves now creak under the weight of Sprite and Campbell’s soup.
On his first New England birthday, my husband became so ill that he almost saw a doctor. Several days later I wound up in an urgent care since I coughed up blood. The bored doctor told me I strained my throat coughing and that I should drink fluids because I had a virus. My husband smirked and rasped, “Told you it was just a cold.” Eight weeks later, I smirked back—we had pertussis—whooping cough.
We were miserable. A pertussis coughing fit is like trying to gargle your lungs. You need to cough more than you need to breathe, and your lungs would feel much better on the outside of your body. The sensation is worsened by lying down. We wound up sleeping in different parts of the house due to unsynchronized coughing spells. We endured convulsive coughing spells for months.
And then, we came down with H1N1…
Seasoned New Englanders explained that the first year is the hardest for newcomers. Our bodies would adapt to regional bugs and we would healthy again in months. Heh.
Five years have passed and we still feel like the sickest family on the Eastern seaboard. Egor and I discussed this at length the other night. Why are we always ill?
Part of it is exposure. Big cities breed hearty immune systems. My husband and I grew up in hometowns with a surprising commonality—a scarcity of international traffic. Seasonal illness was rare in my secluded and sun-drenched town. Likewise, even large Russian cities were isolated in the 1970s; few people had permission to leave the city, let alone travel worldwide. Sickness was regional.
Culture also sheltered us from getting sick. Egor described how Russians responded to fevers. A doctor was summoned the moment a child had a fever. He prescribed a week of bed rest following the last day of fever. Sickness seldom spread school wide. My mother reacted similarly, considering it shameful to send an ill child to school.
Time, however, changes everything. No one legitimately fears contracting diphtheria, typhus, or measles in modern schools. Civilization mixes germs and people. Sheltering a healthy child from circulating viruses is counterintuitive. School provides an immune system education as well as an academic one.
Liev will need it.
Our immune systems have changed, adapted to New England. We are sick less often, less intensely. What hasn’t changed is our brains’ response to sickness. Under the thrall of illness, our self-management skills vanish. Ill health leaves me mentally hollow. I cannot focus, organize, or tolerate strong sensory input. I am impaired. Liev, at six, is much more so. A cold sends him zipping back toward toddlerhood. He loses his words and anxiety and irritability engulf him.
If I wished for one magic thing, it would be a steadfast plan for sick days. I accept the toll they take on my brain, but something is missing. Not a medication, or a diet, or a lifestyle change, but a pen and paper sort of thing–a way to use my gifts preemptively to tide me over on the ill days. I need the mental equivalent of my stash of sprite and toilet paper.
This is my grand challenge; to equip myself for the next round of viruses. Wish me well!