Eitan gets sick somewhat frequently. It’s usually something mild. It always starts with a cough; he wakes up one night with that rasping, barking cough that sounds like his throat is so dry there might as well be cactus growing inside it. Either the next day or the day after, his nose starts dripping and the fever follows soon as well. He’s usually fine during the day. He does his part to keep the tissue industry afloat, but he plays and watches movies and is generally pretty stoic about the whole process. He takes the Tylenol or Advil without any protest and does his best to sleep the virus away. He misses a couple days of school, then goes back and gets re-exposed to the germs that probably got him sick in the first place.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
Eitan got sick again last week and it followed the same script, for the most part. It started with a cough and was followed by a fever. Not quite as much congestion this time, which was nice for all of us, but still the fever and cough. The biggest difference was that he first started coughing after having spent the evening chasing after a cat at our relative’s home, which made us think that perhaps Eitan was actually allergic to cats. Maybe he had gotten worn down from allergies being triggered1 and that was what left him more susceptible to a virus. He got rid of the fever fairly quickly but the cough still lingered, so Trudy took him to an allergist later in the week.
Apparently this looks a lot worse than it felt. Eitan said it “tickled.”
The allergy doctor told us there was good news, annoying news and bad news. The good news is that Eitan isn’t allergic to anything, which means he could have bathed in cat hair and still would have been pretty much fine, though I’m not sure I can say the same for Trudy or me. The annoying news was that, since he doesn’t have any allergies, most of these viruses are going to keep coming up because Eitan is a toddler who goes to preschool with other toddlers.2
The bad news was that Eitan has asthma.
In the grand scheme of things, this is not the worst news we could have gotten. Our family, in particular, is no stranger to much scarier diseases. Eitan’s asthma isn’t even the most harmful, chronic variety that requires him to have an inhaler on hand at all times and prevents him from breathing so much that his activity needs to be restricted. It’s actually a lot like my own asthma; it only really acts up when he does a lot of physical activity in a short period of time. He starts to lose his breath a bit and sometimes he develops – you guessed it – a cough. Even though his version is a slightly milder sort, the allergist recommended that we start giving Eitan nebulizer treatments a few times per day to really nip it in the bud.
Eitan isn’t a huge fan of the treatments, as you can probably imagine. The nebulizer is loud, the mask smells a little and the “smoke” makes his nose drip. We also all lose our hearing a little more each time because we raise the volume on the television so Eitan can hear it over the machine.3 But Eitan is a trooper and he goes through the treatments about as well as one could expect. He gets frustrated here and there, of course; anytime we turn the machine off to adjust the mask or to check and see how much liquid is still left, he asks if he’s finished and then starts crying when we say he has to keep going for a few more minutes. He sits, though, either with us or with his stuffed animals to keep him company and he finishes the dose every time.
It’s hard to describe the feelings I experience when Eitan is sick. It goes beyond sympathy; I feel bad for anyone who isn’t feeling well, no matter what age they are or whether they’re related to me. But when it’s my child there’s just something… more. Part of it is that I’m a parent and I’m supposed to be able to solve problems for my son. It’s my job to protect him and if he’s sick, that somehow means that I haven’t done my job right.4
The more difficult piece for me, though, is the feeling of helplessness. I know there are things I can do; I can give him medicine and sit with him while he inhales the vapor and set up his stuffed animals. I can tell him it will just be a few more minutes and I can give him a Popsicle when he’s finished. But if he starts coughing, I can’t snap my fingers to make it stop, nor can I magically open his bronchial tubes to help him breathe more easily.
So Trudy and I do what we can. We turn on the machine and turn up the television. We bring his animal friends in and we stroke Eitan’s hair while we all watch a movie together. We adjust the mask when we need to and we give Eitan an ice pop when he’s finished. We try to keep him away from the typical asthma triggers. We make jokes here and there to make him laugh. We keep the concerned glances between us and make sure Eitan knows we’re looking after him. And all the while, we follow the same advice that I give to so many of my social work clients:
We focus on our breathing and hope for the best.
1. The fact that he was up pretty late that night and the next night for the Passover seders probably didn’t help much either.↩
2. Or, as my father calls them, little germ factories.↩
3. Our neighbors probably know Toy Story 3 about as well as we do by this point.↩
4. This is a very minor point with me. I fully acknowledge that there are things in the world that I can’t control and most sicknesses fall squarely in that category.↩