Saturday, September 28, 2013

Week 6, autobiographical slice: "Poopy Diapers"

My allergic reactions to pollen used to start in April and end in October and then would move indoors for the winter and become allergies to animal dander, woodsmoke, dust, mold, and the horsehair plaster all through my house. I would spend the better part of the year with continuous and convulsive sneezing, itching eyes, wheezing, and coughing.

God bless the drug company chemists who developed Azmacort and Vancenase and the health plan that allows me to afford them.

Now it's only in August that the ragweed overcomes the chemists. A single ragweed plant is capable of producing a billion grains of pollen in a season, and most of those billion grains are going to find their way right into my nose and trigger hayfever and asthma, drugs or not. So today, August 21, marks about three weeks that I've suffered the usual symptoms.

Though I have those symptoms, everything is a lot better than it used to be. Even so, last week, when my wife made one of her many funny jokes, I began coughing uncontrollably, fighting for oxygen, still laughing as the dogs danced around the kitchen barking at my unusual behavior. Doubled-over at my cutting board, the thought came that what nearly killed me when I was a baby might well take me away as an old man.

Why are some people cursed with allergies, others not? One likely culprit is breast-feeding. Babies who have been exclusively breastfed for even a month have a much lower incidence of allergies later in life.

My son was born in 1974. My mother visited when he was a few days old to help out. Almost immediately, her wail came from the bathroom. "Oh my god, he has it too. Just like John."

"What?" My wife hauled her weary self out of her chair and came into the bathroom. "Has what?"

My mother pointed to the loose, yellow shit in the diaper. "He's allergic to breast milk, just like John was. You'll have to switch to formula."

My wife was a new mother, but she had spent time with friends and their babies and had a degree of confidence. "No, that's what breastfed babies' poop is supposed to look like. It's fine. Completely normal."

"No, he's not getting any nourishment. That's exactly what John had."

My wife and my mother locked gazes, not for the first or last time, and each thought dark thoughts about the other....

I was born in 1945. The war was just over, my father just out of the service. My mother had married at age 18 in 1940 but had waited until Hitler was beaten before starting a family. I was born 9 months after the fall of Berlin, when she was 23. My father insisted on hiring a nurse for a few weeks to help my mother with her newborn.

As nurses often tend to be, this one was bossy, fussy, and quite prepared to slap down any rebellious notions among her patients or clients. Breastfeeding was not something that nice middle-class ladies did, in her opinion. That was for slum mothers who knew no better. Nor did nice middle-class babies make such messes in their diapers.

"Your baby is allergic to your..., to the...milk. He's not getting any nourishment." My mother says she protested, but the nurse, my father, and Dr Bennett all told her that she was being selfish, that the baby was failing to thrive, that something had to be done.

The first thing they tried was an evaporated milk formula requiring mixing of exact quantities of evaporated milk, water, and sugar. Bottles and rubber nipples were carefully sterilized. But the baby did even worse, and the diapers were even messier. They tried commercial formula, and there was no improvement. Baby puked, baby's diapers were streaked with liquid, baby lost weight and cried incessantly.

Finally, Dr Bennett found a goats-milk-and-banana diet for baby, and that's what he ate the first year of his life.

A few paragraphs back, I said that allergies nearly killed me in 1945. Strictly speaking, a fear of allergies, a bossy nurse, a novice mother, and an ignorant doctor combined to nearly kill me. It wasn't until a few years later that the real bill for the allergies came due.

Sometime after midnight in August of 1952, my father took me in his arms, carried me out of the summer house we were renting in Marblehead, Massachusetts, and drove to a doctor whose name my parents had found in the phone book and who had agreed to see me at his residence at 2 am. Our rented house had feather pillows, cat dander, horsehair-stuffed sofa, cigarette smoke hanging in the still rooms, and dust clouds visibly rising whenever someone sat too hard on the cushions. My lips were blue and my hands cold. I was wheezing, coughing convulsively, gasping for air.

The doctor gave me an adrenaline shot, and in a few seconds I could breathe again.

I had asthma more or less severely throughout my childhood, on into my early twenties, and then it seemed to largely disappear. I could exercise, I could be around horses and dogs, I could live in dusty old houses, and I still had hay fever but not asthma.

Then, just a few years ago--it might have been set off by one of my wife's jokes again--the old but never-forgotten symptoms returned. Now in August when I struggle to breathe, when my lungs burn and cough and feel 'black,' I wonder if a few poopy diapers back in 1945 are to blame. I wonder if I will be spared cancer, Alzheimers, strokes, heart attacks, and, instead, whether I will be one of the fifteen people who daily die of asthma in the United States.

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