Saturday, January 19, 2008

What Do You Do When the Caregiver Gets Sick?

When I was at one of many low points with my chronic pain condition, while my doctors remained mystified, and I was still chasing after every new wonder treatment I read about on dubious web sites, Richard got sick. My sweetie, my caretaker, the only one I let inside my black hole of pain and fear, started sniffling and coughing.

I was in a very precarious state. I had been sick long enough to finally know that this nightmare was not a random spasm that would just unwind and disappear. But I hadn't yet found the right balance of care and was still cobbling together a patchwork of treatments that weren't very coherent, and were, at times, contradictory. On the alternative front, my chiropractor instructed me not to bend forward, while my physical therapist prescribed a routine that included toe touches. My homeopath warned me that my acupuncture might be canceling out the effect of her remedies. My acupuncturist scoffed at the idea of anyone seeing a homeopath. My neurologist, gastroenterologist, gynecologist, and uro-gynecologist, had resigned their place on my treatment team with the good news that they could find nothing wrong. All this left me flailing around for an anchor point. Richard was it.

Day by day, his nose got runnier, his eyes blearier, and his cough more pneumonic. This wasn't our contract. I was the sick one, and he was my hero. My pain claimed all the illness space. His cold was puny, a two-bit player in a high stakes game. He took antihistamines and tried to ignore any further leakage. Whenever I asked him how he was feeling, he would wipe his nose and wheeze, "OK."

But there was one aspect of his cold that we couldn't ignore. The contagion. The possibility of infusing his cold into my already mangled nervous and immune systems was untenable, for both of us. The only protection was to remain separated by at least two feet of air or a closed door.

We decided to try this approach. However, after a few days, I only felt more alone in my misery, and Richard felt bereft. He was unable to perform his role of comforter, which was his only shield against his sense of his own helplessness to make me better.

We kept this segregation going for a week -- speaking to each other across thresholds, sitting on opposite sides of the couch. Richard gargled salt water and popped vitamin C and echinacea, as I watched from a distance. The loneliness we each felt was brutal, and we knew we couldn't endure it much longer.

Then, Richard's brother telephoned. He listened as Richard explained our contagion vs comfort conundrum. Mark sagely said, "Get in there and hug her. The absence of touch is doing more harm than a two week cold could ever do."

Richard crossed the threshold and cradled me in his arms. We both felt like babes who had been reunited with the good mother.

I never came down with a cold.

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