Have you ever lived through an epidemic, an infestation, or a plague? You can probably imagine it if you’ve watched movies like Outbreak, Virus, or Contagion. They’re high tech medical thrillers, making our adrenals squeeze adrenalin into our bloodstream with every heartbeat while we watch the screen, thousands perishing from invisible microbes spread from a sneeze or cough. We’ve become a world of mysophobes – a term coined by William A. Hammond in 1879 that includes verminophobia, germaphobia, bacillophobia, and bacteriophobia – all words used in OCD therapy to reflect a pathological fear of contamination and germs. We have become a society of germaphobes.
Michael Crichton, the genius who wrote Jurassic Park and the script for the successful TV series ER, had humble roots as a Harvard Medical School graduate but soon realized that writing, not patient care, was his passion. For those of us who grew up in the 60’s, we’ll remember the success of “The Andromeda Strain” – a book that was a bestseller for decades. Why are we drawn into the fear and tragedy of these stories and what does Crichton have to do with the CURE? The answer to that will follow in a moment. First, let me relate some recent vermin-ridding experiences on my own front steps that will give some perspective.
I’m not a newbie when it comes to “germ exposure”. As a physician, especially in the ER, I’m up to date on sterile surgical technique and contamination prevention. I’ve been trained in PPE (personal protective equipment) during the North American Ebola epidemic (2014-2016) and survived unscathed from the SARS epidemic in Toronto (2003) during which I was quarantined for ten days.
I therefore felt up to the recent task of tackling a garden flea infestation, precipitated by the onset of hot, humid Middle Eastern weather and a litter of local feral kittens who nested near our front yard. No one appreciated that it was the perfect storm for a flea explosion, and I was ill-prepared for what was to follow: fleas jumping on us and our dog over the short 15-second walk from car to house. I suddenly became the paranoid, mad woman who stopped people short at the doorway, vacuuming them and doing sock checks for the incredibly fast, tenacious critters. I’ve become an expert on their life cycle, habits, and hiding places. I vacuum the house for hours every day. It has become a full-out war and I’m the warrior.
So, again, how does this relate to the CURE? Bear with me through one more paragraph. Our approach and response to an epidemic of any kind is key to how we tame it and live with it. If not for microbiologists, epidemiologists, and virologists, the world would be a scary, dangerous place. When we understand the biologic details of an infection, we can battle the contagion – hopefully successfully. In the 14th century, when we had no such understanding and lacked the science to do so, the Black Plague led to many false accusations and beliefs on the origins of a disease that killed 50 million. It’s staggering to even ponder it. If we think that we’ve moved beyond mystical beliefs and unscientific thought, just examine the tragic results of a poorly conducted study by Dr. Andrew Wakefield, published in the well-respected medical journal “The Lancet” (1998), in which he purported that the MMR vaccine causes autism (the study has now been retracted). The Western world has been reeling from the effects of that ever since and we now struggle to cope with countless outbreaks of the deadly measles virus. On a slightly different topic, but still emblematic of the psychology of fear, Orson Welle’s “The War of the Worlds” Halloween radio broadcast in 1938 caught countless Americans in a web of panicked belief that Martians were invading earth. In other words, it doesn’t take much for us to “run for the hills” and leave rationality behind.
So, what did Crichton and Welles both have in common? They knew how to threaten us to our very core! Therefore, I believe that how we deal with disease and personal illness is similar emotionally and psychologically to how we approach contagion or any threat to our well-being. They are essentially one and the same.
The “dis-ease” we feel with pain and illness is just that – an uneasiness with the whole situation. It’s especially challenging and anxiety-provoking when we feel vulnerable, powerless, and out of control. The key is to remember we always have a choice – not necessarily in the outcome, but in our choice of how we react. During my flea saga, I’ve see-sawed from anger and frustration to fatigue, exasperation, and anxiety. I’ve become physically sick from it, down with a nasty cold, which I’m certain is related to all the stress. But now I’m resigned to dealing with it in a calm, systematic fashion – resisting panic! Dealing means educating myself about every aspect of the contagion so I can treat, control, and prevent it. Dealing also means taking care of myself and not getting run down. That means adequate sleep, regular meals, and not taking on additional or unnecessary responsibilities. It means prioritizing. In the ER, we refer to this as triaging – the urgent issues get the most immediate attention and everything else can wait!
If you suffer from a chronic illness or have a close friend or family member/spouse who does, you will undoubtedly relate to the idea of “the warrior”. Although the battle metaphor for diseases such as cancer is a common one, it’s not for everyone. At the very least however, it encourages us to take a proactive, assertive stance that best serves us when advocating for personal cure. If you’re not well, do everything in your power to become educated about your condition or situation, including speaking to experts in the field or others who have had a similar experience. The web has infinite resources, but they are not all reliable so use discretion and move slowly, rationally. Garner support from family and friends and find one person, at least, who can advocate for you when you’re scared, depressed, tired, or in pain. And finally, find at least one professional or specialist whom you trust to advise and treat you and then stick with them. Having a plan, based on solid knowledge and information, and which makes sense to you and those close to you, is your most important first step in controlling an uncomfortable, painful, or challenging situation of any kind.
Take home action: Stand with hands on hips, take several slow deep breaths, and channel your inner warrior when you are faced with a challenge of any kind.