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Childhood Fevers: Letting Go Of The Fear

By Jeanne Ohm, DC

As a child, I received three major surgeries before I was six. Two were completely unnecessary. My father was an insurance salesperson and always “did the right thing.” If I sneezed, we went to the doctor. I believed this to be the norm…until I met my husband’s family. They were a more typical family of the day. They treated most illnesses and even injuries at home. When Tom’s dad had a fever, he bundled himself in long johns, went under the covers, and sweated it out. The rest of his family knew to do the same. The idea that during the time of illnesses the body was exhibiting normal, even healthy function, was new to me. It was not something to be feared. Rather, it was something to observe and care for—at home. Without drugs. Under contemplation, and with a mother’s love and attention.

Fast-forward to our discovery of chiropractic, the philosophy, science, and art that says that the intelligence of life is organized and expresses itself through the body’s ability to adapt and self-regulate. For Tom, this was not a foreign idea. It reinforced the values of healing he learned as a child. For me, it was more challenging. It made sense, but my childhood experiences did not reinforce the idea of trust in the processes of healing. In my family, trust was more about following the direction of a glorified system of drugs and procedures.

Tom and I got married, and I was able to embody these new chiropractic, life-affirming principles for myself. We chose to have a homebirth. We left the cord intact. We rubbed in the vernix. We cherished Ina May Gaskin’s book Spiritual Midwifery enough to where I felt strong. We breastfed and co-slept exclusively with our newborn. We chose not to circumcise. We removed fluoride from our water. We even chose to use arrowroot powder on our baby’s bum instead of talcum. And then came the big test. One of our sons got a fever. A high fever. I defaulted to my upbringing and felt the need to know and even regulate the temperature. So I stuck in the thermometer and gasped at the results. My heart raced and I dropped right into fear mode. I had to do something!

Recently, I watched an interview with Lawrence Palevsky, M.D., a New York–based holistic pediatrician, on The HighWire with Del Bigtree. In this interview, Dr. Palevsky succinctly recounts the shift in the medical profession and in family practices that has altered people’s approaches to disease, including fever. He explains how, prior to this shift, most doctors had what he called “feel.” He observed this during his residency, where most of his instructors came out of the 1940s era. They had old traditions handed down to them by the mothers, fathers, grandmothers, and grandfathers of their time. With these traditions came confidence and trust in their approach to disease, whether it was for fever, teething, rash, mucus in the nose, sore throat, shaking chills, or something else. Even in a time when diseases were statistically more dangerous than they are today, there was generally a lot less fear about them.

“The experience of fever has changed” says Dr. Palevsky. “Now fever becomes, ‘Oh my God, my kid’s gonna die!’ Now it’s about using over-the-counter medicines, which are dangerous to the child, and antibiotics, as soon as possible.”

Clinical medicine used to be about calming people’s fears and subduing rushed decisions through self-composure and caring observation. It has been replaced by machine tests and expedient protocols. What ever happened to the supportive framework of understanding the person within the context of their disease? As Palevsky recounts:

I was teaching medical students in the mid 90s, and they would come to me and say, “Okay, I have a kid with a headache and the MRI showed this…” Before even addressing the MRI, I would ask them basic things like, “Well, did you take a history? Did you take a physical? What’s the child eating? Did the child fall? What did the child take as a supplement? Is there strife at home? Is the child sleeping?” All these psychosocial and environmental questions were no longer being asked. Students were being trained to avoid the clinical picture and jump straight to a “fix.”

In our family chiropractic practice, my husband and I got to care for many kids. We witnessed parents coming to the brink of panic numerous times over childhood illnesses. But over our decades of clinical practice, I noticed more and more fear in the newer generations of parents. Today, it seems to have reached a peak. Any symptom is followed by panic and a search for some prescriptive treatment. There is no calming wisdom present to guide us to observe our child and see that what he needs is already there.

To go back to my son’s first fever, that’s when the real step for me took place. There I was, in borderline freak-out mode: “Let’s DO something!” Like so many of the parents I’d come to care for in my practice, I experienced the fear. “He’s hot! Really hot,” I said, holding my firstborn. “We have to do something.” Tom looked at me, and drew on the trust and wisdom of his own childhood experiences. He said, “This is fine. It’s normal. His body is working and we shouldn’t be afraid of that—he looks okay.” He even broke the thermometer and threw it in the garbage after my third and fourth panicked temperature read. “If it’s going to make you continuously afraid, then we don’t need it. It’s not helpful.”

In 1991, Dr. Palevsky started working in an emergency room in the Bronx. Sometime afterward he wanted to see if a private practice would be right for him. So he approached some clinical practices in Manhattan and saw an old-time pediatric disease specialist. He asked this man what he did for the kids who had high fevers, because in the emergency room you’re required to do test after test. And the practitioner said, “Larry, if I did all those tests on these kids, I would lose half my practice. There’s a simple solution that doesn’t require tests: If you have a kid with a 105-degree fever, who’s still looking at you, talking, babbling, drinking, peeing, sleeping, is arousable, alert, interactive, and consolable, and then you have another kid who comes in with a one 100.8-degree fever but who can hardly wake up, which fever would you be more concerned about?” The answer: the child with the 100.8-degree fever.

From this experience, Palevsky learned the wisdom of old-time medicine—to treat the patient, not the condition. To help parents manage the self-care of their children, Dr. Palevsky gives them what they need most: support and guidance in observing their children, not fearing the disease.

Most of the families in my practice learn to go through the trial. I’ll be with them and I’ll hold their hands, but I need them to go through the experience of their child having a fever, and to watch to see what happens. After the parent has this experience, then it becomes wisdom and real inner knowledge. Right now, there’s very little but fear and angst coming from media, other parents, and doctors who mostly carry the same fears. I try to teach parents not to treat the number on the thermometer, but to treat the child, just like that pediatrician taught me many years ago.

Is the child alert, awake, arousable? Is the child interactive, drinking, and urinating? Is the child in respiratory distress? What’s the child’s color? These are some of the questions Dr. Palevsky reminds parents to ask—questions that don’t require a thermometer to answer. Like my husband, who knew to observe our child before making any rash decisions, Dr. Palevsky learned to observe and trust the process from an old-time pediatrician.

“More and more, by going straight to the medicine chest, you’re actually ignoring the child,” says Palevsky. Tom and I couldn’t have put it any better ourselves. The bottom line is, once the fear subsides, the solution comes naturally. Your child, that beautiful human being, is strong and healthy, and the body is intelligent. What he or she needs more than anything else is your loving attention.

As a young, new parent it was harder for me to “trust the process” and tune in to my children despite all my initial fears. But I learned the great benefit that comes once we do. “When kids have their febrile illnesses, regardless of what the cause was—if it didn’t need antibiotics, and it took its course without intervention, they would almost always see a developmental growth spurt afterward.” This was Dr. Palevsky’s pediatric experience, as well as my own personal one as a parent.

The onset of an illness is like the peak of a stressful period in the child’s body that requires rest, fluids, and toning it down. After it passes, the child will appear to be more advanced. The immune system and the nervous system will be more mature. The child will have grown.

“There’s a list of observations for parents to make posted on my website” says Dr. Palevsky, “so parents can follow a checklist. And I get e-mails from parents who say, if it weren’t for your checklist, I wouldn’t have made it through. My purpose is really about letting parents gain experience and learn along the way why it’s essential to treat the child who has a fever—not the fever. Otherwise, we’re going to miss connecting to the child.”

Through the years of raising my own kids, I watched them advance past each childhood fever and illness. I learned to let go of the fear.