Brian Sullivan: When being ill was not an option



Medicine is no exact science, that's for sure. It will probably never be that way, But a couple of generations ago, medicine was viewed by the public with as much mystery as it was fact, and if you were raised within those kind of parameters, it was probably pretty scary.

My brother and I did a little family reminiscing when we were together during the holidays, and he was telling me that we had it pretty good at home growing up. All we had to do, he said, was follow three basic rules and the rest would take care of itself. It was Mom, he added, who set these trio of tenets in stone.

The first two, he said, were to do well in school and not run afoul of the law. I listened and nodded. I mean, that wasn't too difficult, and as the eldest of three I tried to set a modest bar, But the third, he said, was not to ever get sick, And we laughed. But it was no joke, it was the absolute truth. Dark clouds would form around Mom's head if any of her children even slightly suggested a dry throat, crusty eye or stuffy nose.

Forget the bigger stuff.


I've given that conversation some thought in recent days, and I'm still not sure whether that no-sick mandate was simply a decision of economics or had more deep-seated roots into family history with perhaps an overall fear left over from previous generations that illness could lead to disease which could then lead to death.

But I understand the economics. My mother was a city public school teacher and Dad an odd-shift GE worker. I can see where sick kids, especially during the school year, don't fit really well into the day's itinerary.

Still, that hovering paranoia that a sneeze might manifest itself down the road into something ugly was real. The influenza epidemic in Pittsfield during the early part of the 20th century -- it actually swept across New England -- proved to be devastating and many senior citizens of the day when I was growing up could recall those dire fall and winter memories.

It could not have been fun fighting for scraps of coal with which to heat or gasping in dismay at the realization that entire families were passing collectively from disease in your own neighborhood. If the elders and wisers of the day were a little sensitive to your childhood sneeze, then who could blame them?

We were hardly out of the woods during the 1950s and ‘60s. I can remember while in elementary school being asked to drink a polio vaccine from a paper cup. Every public school had a nurse and we were weighed and measured annually. It was serious. The city kept track of you. But we don't do that stuff now. We pile it on the "family doctor," another dying breed.

I touched an era that still used the words "contagious" and "quarantine." My younger brother didn't follow through on the no-sick orders and developed scarlet fever when he was 5. I'm not exactly sure, but I think we had to put some kind of markings on the front door during the time he was ill. I guess the milkman delivered in those days.

I was almost 12 and had to stay home. My sister did, too. We were probably at each other's throats; it could not have been fun. I was confined to the house and brief voyages into the backyard. It was the closest I ever came to prison life.

I spent the past week at Berkshire Medical Center battling back from a bad viral-intestinal infection that led to an equally bad case of vertigo. If you've never had vertigo, it's like being on another planet where everything is sideways instead of vertical. Not good.

But I blew the no-sick clause in my contract years ago. I'm reduced to crossing my fingers and hoping for the best. I try to view illness not as a job but as an adventure. But I fail. It is a job, and a very bad one at that.

Brian Sullivan can be reached at


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