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Sickness And Health

I remember when our son, Marco, contracted dengue fever. It was seven years ago, and we were in Puerto Engabao, an Ecuadoran fishing village largely populated by street-fighting pigs and graced with a magical point-break surf wave. It was here, in the middle of nowhere, that I realized that this fever, this illness, was different, and that it meant business.

Marco was 8 years old. After four days of high fevers, vomiting, lethargy, and joint pain, I took him to a small emergency room in the neighboring town of Playas. The nurses took one look at him and told me it was dengue. I couldn’t believe I’d let it go for days like that. My mom heart was heavy with guilt. We had two months left to our travels, but I immediately decided that if he didn’t get better within a day, I would fly back home with him.

I spent the day with Marco completely out of it, with hydration IVs and the most amazing coddling from the sweetest, most loving nurses a mom could hope for.

Toward the end of the day, after sleeping in that hospital bed for hours on end, Marco woke up with some color in his face and with clear, compelling eyes. The first thing he said to me was, “Mom? I’m not shy anymore.” I looked at him and thought, “…oooooookay, that’s a bit weird.”

You have to understand that, until this moment, Marco was the kid who hid behind me or under my dress when people would talk to him. He was painfully shy.

Up until then, Marco also had an incredibly sensitive stomach. He would wake up a few times per week, throwing up and needing to lie down on the bathroom floor for a few hours until the tides would turn—usually by noon, when he’d eat anything he could get his hands on, and move on to be as energetic as can be for the rest of the day. It was frequent, unpredictably predictable, and very worrisome.

He also dreaded car rides because he got terribly carsick. We did everything we could. We addressed his microbiome with probiotics and fermented foods; he got adjusted a few times per week, and we took him to an acupuncturist. Out of worry and to rule out a serious pathology, we took him to a pediatric gastroenterologist, who did an upper GI scope, found nothing, and diagnosed him with cyclic vomiting syndrome, which is one of those diagnoses that describes symptoms but does nothing else. This started when he was about 2 ½, and he was still experiencing it at age 8, in South America.

Finally—sorry for sharing this, Freckles—Marco had nocturnal enuresis (bed wetting) every night of his life, and it had continued well into these months we spent in South America.

Marco came out of his dengue fevers on April 14, 2014, and he was undeniably a different boy. He has never once since that day thrown up in the morning without a specific reason, he’s never had a nighttime pee accident, and he was right—his shyness was gone, and he suddenly was a more confident, certain, and outgoing kid. Just like that. It sounds crazy, but it’s true.

Some say childhood fevers are a gift to the immune system and nervous system. That they behave as a “reset button,” and, in fact, maybe we’re meant to experience childhood illnesses, because they help prime us for what may come our way in the future. Research shows that measles, chicken pox, and mumps may actually serve a purpose. For example, measles may reduce risk of lymphoma, mumps may reduce the risk for leukemia and ovarian cancer, and whooping cough may reduce the risk of AML (acute myeloid leukemia).

Hyperthermia (fever) is used to treat cancer in many parts of the world because research shows that fevers may reduce tumor sizes and help treat and prevent cancer. What if we’re trying to outsmart a system that’s already genius? Just saying….

I honestly don’t know where we’d be with Marco if he hadn’t gotten dengue fever. Despite everything we had done for him, it was this illness that swung the pendulum. I do ask myself if it all would have been dealt with sooner, had he had the opportunity to get the chicken pox or the measles…but as we all know, in the name of eradication, we’ve taken care of those.

I write today because I just had a conversation with a close friend of mine who has just recovered from a range of symptoms. She’s in her mid-40s, like me. Her symptoms were moderate, with a fever and severe body aches. She says that she feels like they were actually an unexpected reset that she needed. She feels a level of energy and clarity that she hasn’t felt in a very long time…like she had a massive detox.

I understand and respect that illnesses can be very dangerous for some, but what about for the rest of us? Can we have this conversation from a place of love and respect?

I’m sure many might view the suggestion that illnesses may sometimes be good for us as crazy talk. I get it. But have you ever noticed that babies often meet their developmental milestones or major growth spurts immediately after a fever? (Side note: Using Tylenol to lower fevers may be counterproductive. Considering that Tylenol interferes with methylation—detox—it might actually serve us well only as a last resort.)

Some say that the expression of symptoms is ubiquitous with the expression of health. That the body learns from these experiences, and that, in fact, we genetically depend on them.

What happens when we Saran Wrap ourselves so tightly that we seal ourselves and our kids away from these physiological experiences? Considering that cancer is the leading cause of death in America, and that we’re sicker with chronic illness than we’ve ever been, I wonder if it might serve us well to consider changing the conversation.