Czech Culture & Adaptation

Home-remedies, family traditions

October 8, 2010
ginger tea with lemon and honey

Keeping up a family from a sick-bed

When the kids come down with runny noses that days later turn into nasty cases of the flu or sore throats that transform into bulging tonsils and strep, generally, I’m the one who stays healthy. I think I was born with a decent immune system, and growing up in a family that was constantly in motion didn’t hurt. I remember once being rundown with a cold in high school and my father still encouraging me to go for our scheduled afternoon run. “Come on, a little fresh air into your lungs will help clear out that bug in no time,” he bantered, as he all but laced up my running shoes and pushed me out the door.

I’m sure there were times in my childhood when I was so sick that I couldn’t function. But I can’t think of many. I remember doing a school play as a first-grader with a fever. Instead of painting my arms as my costume required, my mom put me in a sweater instead, so I wouldn’t be chilled onstage. Later, I remember being diagnosed with mononucleosis in high school just before I was to attend a prestigious overnight scholarship competition at nearby university. Instead of calling the selection committee and explaining my situation, my parents agreed that
if I felt well enough to compete I could go. I didn’t have a fever, and the full-body rash that I had from the mono wouldn’t be noticeable if I just wore long sleeves, my mom reasoned. In the end, I didn’t win the full-scholarship, but I was glad that I hadn’t chosen to forgo the experience. I think I was more proud of how “tough” my parents told me that I was than I was of my actual performance.

Being sick growing up meant a bowl of canned soup with toast for dipping, eaten on a TV tray while watching my favorite cartoons. For snacks, I’d sip on Sprite and slurp down cherry Jello or butterscotch pudding. My mom would come to the couch periodically to take my temperature, but otherwise I was left in peace. My favorite days to be sick were Mondays when Carol came to help my mother clean the house. Carol pampered me far more than my
mother did, and I always got away with reading on the couch long after my mother would have declared me well.

When I met first Radek, I was surprised to watch the way he took care of himself when he was under the weather. If he had a cold, he’d wrap a scarf around his neck, and even though he’d go to work, he’d come home straight afterward and hop into bed. With the covers up to his neck, he’d ask for hot tea with lemon and honey and try to sleep. He wouldn’t drink anything chilled, avoided taking medicine or going to the doctor, and on the rare occasions that he’d let me give him a pill for fever, he’d stay in bed even after the fever had broken. There was no going to the gym when he had a cold, or even when he thought he might be coming down with one, and he chided me for getting up and being active when I was sick.

His fastidious approach, although considered plain common-sense in the Czech Republic, was a stark change from my upbringing. But my family’s keep-moving-when-you’re-sick attitude was relatively normal in the US. When we were issued a prescription, it was common knowledge that after 24-hours you were no longer contagious, so if you were fever-free that meant life went on as normal. Back to school or back to work. Some of my friends’ parents preferred to get antibiotic shots for their children instead of oral antibiotic, so that they would get over the illness and be back to normal (i.e. back in school) sooner.

Of course, the mentality of popping a few pills and getting back to a regular routine was a direct reflection of the American healthcare system, where sick-leave wasn’t guaranteed to be paid time-off and often cut into days reserved for vacation. Sending children back to school or daycare after a few days of antibiotic treatment was also a necessary evil in many situations when parents didn’t have adequate “sick leave” to be home with their children. In some instances, “sick leave” had to be accrued after working a certain period, so people who got sick soon after starting a new job were out of luck, unless they worked for an understanding supervisor.

In contrast, in the Czech Republic’s socialized healthcare system, it was relatively easy to acquire a sick-leave note for a week or more without jeopardizing your salary or position. Although times have changed here, with more accountability required for workers who are off on “sick leave,” there is still more likelihood that your doctor will insist you stay home for the course of your antibiotic treatment or until your symptoms have disappeared. Children, particularly those in the preschool system, are commonly kept home because they have a drippy nose or a cough, even if they don’t have a fever.

My attitude toward treating illnesses has also changed since I became a mother. I’ve certainly been influenced by the type of care and the approach to illness that I’ve experienced while living in the Czech Republic. Living with Radek has also rubbed off on me. After tending to my children through several bouts of their illnesses, I’m way more likely to keep them home from preschool, even if they just have a cough without fever, in hopes of avoiding the full-blown illness that’s likely to follow. Since I’m not working outside the home, I’m fortunate to have this choice, although I know that some of my fellow American friends here think I’m nuts and should be sending the kids, drippy noses and all, just to keep the school routine established. I still tend to be allow our children to do more when they are sick than Radek does, but I suppose that’s to be expected, since I’m coming to this approach later in life.

During my mom’s recent visit, we reminisced about how Radek spent two Christmases ago in the US, flat on his back in bed for five days with the flu. My mom remembers it as the “sickest” she’s ever seen somebody with the flu. I don’t doubt that Radek felt very bad, but I had to remind my mom that my husband believes that taking to bed while sick is the only logical way to get through an illness.

Radek’s strong belief in bed rest came to the forefront last week when I was laid up with a high fever and a bad case of strep throat. Even though I knew I felt pretty bad, I didn’t realize that I was really sick, until I had visited urgent care on the holiday and come away with a prescription for penicillin, plus 10 face masks so I wouldn’t breathe in the baby’s face while I was nursing him.

When we got home, Radek sent me straight to bed to rest while he prepared lunch for everyone else. In lieu of the instant soup packages, I’d asked him to buy, Radek made a separate trip to the store for ingredients for slepičí polévka (hen soup) which he preceded to painstakingly prepare. After a few hours and a call to his grandfather, Radek finished the soup in time for dinner. He served me hen soup and tea with lemon and honey in bed that evening. I didn’t get out of bed at all the rest of the day, but unfortunately was too miserable with the fever and sore throat to relish the chance to lie around. Although my mom seemed a bit surprised that Radek went to all the trouble for the soup, she acknowledged that it was very tasty and hoped it would help put me back on my feet. I agreed and went to bed thinking I’d be fit enough to help out the next day.

The following day, I made it downstairs to help get the kids out the door to preschool, but when Mom sat down to breakfast, instead of sitting with her, I sank onto the sofa. “Where did you go,” she asked. When I told her I’d laid down, she replied, “I thought you were looking out the window for a really long time.” I know she was surprised that I went back to my bed that afternoon, didn’t help much with childcare and was useless in sorting the laundry from our weekend trip. It was her last day in Prague, and she worked herself silly. Meanwhile, I lay in bed nursing the baby and feeling miserable. We didn’t talk much because my throat hurt badly, but also because I didn’t know how to explain that I just couldn’t be “tough” this time around.

Later that day, Mom offered to fix me some “toast, tea and sugar,” a get-well fix from my German grandmother. Just the mention of the remedy brought a half-smile to my face. Dipping strips of white toast into steaming black tea and then into a small pile of white sugar before popping the sugary, soft toast into my mouth, lifted my spirits as much as Radek’s homemade chicken soup did, although I’d wager the soup had more nutritional value. I imagine my grandmother’s remedy was probably more appropriate for the stomach flu, but the soft toast and hot tea did soothe my throat and the fact that my mother had remembered the tradition made me remember that I’d been sick many times before and had always come through.

Looking back from the vantage of an almost-healthy me (I still have a cold), I’m surprised I didn’t spring back to form as quickly as I used to. In my defense, I think strep throat tends to knock adults off their feet for longer than it does our resilient pint-sized off-spring. I also think I felt more exhausted because I was getting up with baby Samuel several times a night and trying not to take fever-medicine too often to spare him from ingesting it through my breast milk. Maybe the Czech approach to taking-it-easy while recovering from a sickness has finally rubbed off on me. Or perhaps, I’ve lived long enough that I’m starting to listen to what my body is telling me. I know that when given the chance to slow down and rest in bed, I should take it since it’s not likely I’ll have time to be sick again, at least not anytime soon.

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