December 14, 2001 (Ira Pilgrim)


Throw out opium, which the Creator himself seems to prescribe, for we often see the scarlet poppy growing in the cornfields, as if it were foreseen that wherever there is hunger to be fed there must also be pain to be soothed; throw out a few specifics which our art did not discover, and is hardly needed to apply; throw out wine, which is a food, and the vapors which produce the miracle of anesthesia, and I firmly believe that if the whole materia medica, as now used, could be sunk to the bottom of the sea, it would be all the better for mankind --and all the worse for the fishes.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, MD 1860

Since my own children were frequently ill, I assume that I too must have been ill as a child. However, my memories are not of the illnesses, but of the treatments. My mother used mustard plasters. That was a paste of mustard and flour on a piece of cloth. This was placed on my chest until it produced reddening. That was supposed to help with a cough. Later this was replaced by Musterole or Vicks Vaporub which did the same thing; made my chest burn slightly and filled the air with a medicinal odor.

I remember watching my uncle get cupped. A man came with a number of round glass cups that were slightly larger than a shot glass. He flamed the inside with a burning alcohol swab and put the cup on my uncle's back, where it stuck because of the vacuum produced in it. he covered my uncle's back with cups. After a while, the cups were removed leaving red raised circles where the cup had been. There was an old Jewish saying that a certain remedy did as much good as cupping a corpse. The saying would have been just as correct if it had left out the part about the corpse. Cupping did no good whatever. Neither did mustard plasters, Musterole or Vicks Vaporub.

When there was an epidemic of paralytic polio, I wore a piece of camphor around my neck to ward off what I assume were the evil spirits that caused poliomyelitis. Some people wore crucifixes or stars of David. This despite the fact that the cause of polio was well known; it was a specific virus that was spread from person to person in much the same way as colds and flu were spread.

By the time I had children of my own I knew that there was no effective treatment for any virus infection so I gave them no medicine except what would make them more comfortable; aspirin for high fever, steaming and nose drops for a stuffed up nose or cough. I had no illusion that those things would influence the course of the disease one bit. If it was a bacterial infection, antibiotics were used; and probably overused.

Even if exertion when ill doesn't kill you, it is a good idea not to tempt fate. Even an animal knows enough to rest when it is ill. Going to work when ill or sending your kid to school when ill is not a good idea. The dean of the University of Buffalo School of Medicine was ill, so he dosed himself with antibiotics and went to a meeting. He died. If an MD and a medical school deanship confers no immunity to death, what makes you think that you can get away with exerting yourself when you are ill?

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