On May 8, My Wife Found Me Passed Out on the Floor

"They dies everywheres," said the boy. "They dies in their lodgings... and they dies... in heaps. They dies more than they lives.” (Bleak House, Charles Dickens)

On Wednesday, May 8, 2013, my wife found me passed out on the bedroom floor. This is the story of my comeuppance.

I first felt a tickle in my throat on Sunday afternoon, May 5. By this time, my wife had been sick for nine days. A hellbent virus had swept through our extended family, toppling everyone into bed one by one. I alone was untouched -- and I had gotten cocky about it. I had been publicly evangelizing the virtues of sinus rinsing. Twice in the previous month I had given public demonstrations in classes at my home (one woman left the room and wouldn’t watch. “No extra charge for that,” I quipped when I dripped on another woman’s notes and she protested.)

My confidence was earned. Sinus rinsing had changed my life. By May 5, 2013, I had handily avoided many family illnesses by faithfully rinsing. I had every confidence that this wave of illness would be no different.

When my wife first got sick, she told me to quarantine myself by sleeping in another room of the house. I was so confident in the protective power of nasal rinsing that I dismissed the idea. After nine days of being right, sinus rinsing had become my superpower.

Then the tickle at the back of my throat.

"You had better turn him out," said Mr. Skimpole.
"What do you mean?" inquired my guardian, almost sternly.
"My dear Jarndyce," said Mr. Skimpole, "...I have a constitutional objection to this sort of thing. I always had, when I was a medical man. He's not safe, you know. There's a very bad sort of fever about him."        (Bleak House, Charles Dickens)

By Wednesday, May 8, I was feverish and aggressively treating myself herbally -- using Caleb’s Blend (marshallow root, mullein tincture, yarrow flower) in tandem with peppermint compresses, rinsing my sinus with salt and sodium bicarbonate, pounding fresh yarrow leaves from my garden for anti-inflammatory tea. But I worsened.

That morning, I drove myself to the doctor. My wife’s virus had turned into infection in her ear, and I was afraid I might follow. The doctor determined there was no bacterial infestation and wrote a prescription for a lidocaine gargle to numb my throat, which by this time felt like it was bleeding.

Driving home, I began to see auras. A migraine caused by sinus swelling had set in. By early afternoon, and home alone, I was in exquisite pain. I tried to crawl from the bed to the phone to call 911. On the floor, I began to vomit so fast and hard I could not breath. Then I passed out.

At some point my wife came home and found me on the floor. Rousing me, I whispered “blessing.” She got a member of our lay Mormon clergy -- my son-in-law happened to be nearest -- who rubbed consecrated olive oil onto the crown of my head before laying his hands on me to give me a blessing by the authority of the holy Melchizedek priesthood, and in the name of Jesus Christ. I then whispered for Excedrin Migraine, a blend of Tylenol and caffeine. Immediately, I either fell asleep or passed out again.

When I woke up, I felt brand new. It did not last. The pain slowly redoubled, intensifying through the night.

At some point the next day, I doubled the recommended dose of Excedrin Migraine, on top of the Tylenol I had already taken -- a dosage I knew would begin to damage my liver. I was desperate. At some point, it became clear to me that I had about two minutes before I would lose consciousness again. I was home alone again. I had to save myself. I prayed, and saw the image of myself opening my grandmother’s fridge. When I was a boy on the farm, and I got a rare migraine, my grandmother would treat me with a cold Coke from her fridge. For decades, she kept one Coke on hand as medicine to cure her own rare headaches. I had been raised to never drink caffeinated soda because -- as my grandmother and my mother would say -- caffeine is medicine and not a recreational drug. Now, a few months past my 40th birthday, I had not had a single caffeinated anything since being treated by my grandmother decades earlier (I don’t even drink uncaffeinated soda). I crawled to the phone and dialed my wife, who immediately left her office to buy me a can of Red Bull.

Within minutes of drinking the Red Bull, I began to weep. For the first time in 30 hours, relief.

It took two more cans to stabilize the pain at a tolerable level. My wife drove me to a chiropractor, who said he could drain my sinus. He couldn’t. (He easily accepted an $80 fee, however.) Next Charmayne drove me back to the doctor, who injected me with a steroid in one hip and an anti-nausea drug in the other. Infection had now invaded both my sinus and right ear, and I was prescribed the antibiotic Cefdinir, created in a Japanese laboratory and given an oddly Celtic name.

That night was spent on the hardwood oak floor of the living room. Propped with a wadded quilt, I managed to position myself just right so I could sleep face down for a couple of hours.

The next day, I had my third migraine in three days. This time, it only took two Red Bulls to quell my misery to the point where I could open my eyes. My stepdaughter managed to get my laptop iTunes to play Alanis Morrisettes’s “Jagged Little Pill” album. I needed distraction from three days of lightning strikes to the brain. I fantasized, envisioning an awl that I would carefully insert between the top of my eye and skull, pounding with my palm until I pierced The Pain. Wiggling the wooden handle would allow a cloud of steam-pain (?) to whoosh out of my head. There was no blood in my fantasy. Just relief.

In reality, when “Jagged Little Pill” became annoying, I was too weak to reach over and shut it off.

Like the other days, I wrapped my entire head with a huge frozen gel pack. By now, my forehead and eyelids were literally burned red from peppermint compresses, which gave me a tiny palliative.

This next sentence sounds masochistic now, but you have to remember I was on my third migraine in three days. I hit myself on the head with my fist and knuckles for over an hour -- tapping and banging circles around the expanding pressure under the left side of my forehead -- until I had to stop because of the swelling.

"Charley," said I, "are you so cold?"
"I think I am, miss," she replied. "I don't know what it is. I can't hold myself still. I felt so yesterday at about this same time, miss. Don't be uneasy, I think I'm ill."
I heard Ada's voice outside, and I hurried to the door of communication between my room and our pretty sitting-room, and locked it. Just in time, for she tapped at it while my hand was yet upon the key.
Ada called to me to let her in, but I said, "Not now, my dearest. Go away. There's nothing the matter; I will come to you presently." Ah! It was a long, long time before my darling girl and I were companions again. (Bleak House, Charles Dickens)

Ah, yes. My comeuppance.

We approach sickness much more flippantly today than we did in 1853, when Bleak House -- Dickens’ best novel -- was published in 20 installments. In those days, sick people were immediately and strictly locked in a room, quarantined against infecting everyone around them. When fever took over, you became delirious and then -- if you were lucky -- you lost consciousness, sometimes for days. There were no antibiotics to save you, no Tylenol for pain, no steroid shots in the hip to drain away the inflammation in the skull. If your fever won the day, you woke up and lived. If your fever lost -- well, graveyards were busy places.

Today, we act like we have forgotten all this. Because we have.

Recently, the five-year-old living next door broke his leg at some place where parents pay to let their kids jump on a bunch of indoor trampolines. Literally the next day, our grandson Xander was begging us to go to this place. With a touch of righteous anger, my wife explained to him and me (I was standing nearby, so I was guilty) that a hundred years ago, no one would have let their child jump on a trampoline because if you broke your leg, you had a fifty-fifty chance of dying from infection. Parents took the health of their children very seriously because children routinely died. It was not uncommon for half of your children to die. Men married two and three times because their wives died in childbirth. Just this week, there was a major story in our local newspaper about a stunningly beautiful young woman who died in a neighboring town while giving birth to her sixth child. The placenta had attached to her organs and she went into cardiac arrest during a C-section. The baby lived. This happens so very rarely today that it was front-page news. In 1853, it was too common to make headlines.

“It was not until Charley was safe in bed again and placidly asleep that I began to think the contagion of her illness was upon me. I had been able easily to hide what I felt at tea-time, but I was past that already now, and I knew that I was rapidly following in Charley's steps.”       (Bleak House, Charles Dickens)

If we -- my wife, me, the kids, the grandkids --  had been living in 1853 when this wretched virus mowed us down, how many of us would have lived?

The question is a trick. The answer is that our family would likely have been little scathed, because at the first sign of illness, the sick person would have been quarantined swiftly and strictly. In those days, this was the drill: One “brave” person would be placed in the quarantined room to care for the sick. The sick would become well and then take care of the caretaker, who had now succombed to the contagion. Daily food and updates were passed through an outside window. The quarantined room was eventually unlocked and -- ideally -- two people emerged. (The “brave” person assigned to care for the sick was rarely the mother. She was too important. It was usually an older sibling -- he or she only had an iffy chance of living to adulthood anyway.)

Me and my family were saved by modern medicine. But we were sickened in the first place by modern stupidity. How I wish now that I had followed my wife’s advice and slept in another room! (The only advice my own mother has given me since my wedding day: “Do what your wife says.”)

When master herbalist Kirsten Skirven taught herbal healing classes around my kitchen table, she would speak of earthquakes. If the earth moves violently, we will be on our own because hospitals will either be flattened, or swamped with critical cases. Herbal knowledge may be the only thing we have for our family (Kirsten will be busy, for sure). I would suggest that we will need to add the old art of quarantine to our efforts, if we really want to save lives.

And foolish is the person (ahem -- me) who waits until a crisis to remember the virtues of quarantine. Voluntary household quarantine should be used today -- without waiting for an earthquake or the zombie apocalypse.

We rely too much on doctors to save us. We are too casual with the health of our youngsters.
When sick, we are far too quick to go to church and school, fanning our disease across town.

We have been medically spoiled -- may our lives always be so. But a pinch of quarantine can save lives, doctor’s fees -- and easily prevent three migraines in three days.

(Postscript: The day after I wrote this, I blew my nose and immediately my sinus began to swell again. Within hours, I had my fourth migraine in five days. At publication, I am still on antibiotics. Yeesh.)


  1. OH, MY GOSH. That is so terrible. I had a similar epiphany about the true miracle of modern medicine when I was twenty-six. "All" I had was pink eye, the flu, and a yeast infection, but it was terrible. Infection went into my lungs and sinuses. I never passed out, though, thank heaven. All hail penicillin!

  2. Whoa, I can't believe all that you had to endure. I'm so glad your safe and healing.