by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
April 12, 2007
THE SICKEST WINTER ON RECORD
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- What did you get and how long did you have it? These are the hot topics of conversation up here right now.
Did you get the flu with the terrible cough that lingers for months? Did you get the stomach virus that keeps you in the bathroom for a week? Did the flu that felled everyone in your office turn into bronchitis for you? Did you manage to avoid pneumonia? Only to get painful shingles? How many antibiotics have you taken? Did your doctor give you the prescription for cough syrup with codeine? Wasn't that pleasant - at least for a day or two?
I can't remember a time when so many people have been so sick for so long. I blame it on the weather.
After taking it's own sweet time about getting here, Winter refuses to leave.
When December turned into January and some people were still wearing shorts, I started making jokes about how well we in Vermont made out with global warming. Back then, mild winters sounded like a good idea. Less terror on the roadways during ice storms. Longer growing seasons. Maybe more birds.
Then I had the terrible thought that maybe the climate - or the earth - had simply tilted. Longer late fall mud seasons. Delayed Winter. Winters that eat into spring. Shorter growing seasons. And more colds and flu than ever before.
My first cold hit in January. The coughing was fierce. On the day I showed up to do a stint on the radio, I opened my mouth and frog sounds came out. It couldn't have been pleasant to listen to.
That day I bought a chicken and tried to nurse myself with chicken soup - you know, the Jewish penicillin. But I could have bought five chickens and filled the bathtub with bobbing vegetables and it wouldn't have been enough.
Although my fever and laryngitis eventually departed, the cough stayed on. It became operatic. Violent coughing fits came out of nowhere, fits in which I could feel my lungs light up and my fingers tingle. My body shook. I think I bruised a rib. By the time the second round of fever hit, everyone in the doctor's waiting room was coughing the same way.
Most of us don't have the luxury of staying home in bed. We have to work. So we go to the office, or send the kids to school, and the bugs - if that's what they are - get passed from child to child, from coworker to coworker, from spouse to spouse, around and around and around again.
I've heard several reasons suggested for this Winter's widespread illnesses. That the cold weather didn't come in time to freeze the germs. Is that possible? That viruses have finally outrun our antibiotics and created a stampede of superbugs. We've been warned about that danger for years.
That all the antibacterials around - the hand washes and the cleaning wipes - have killed the beneficial germs that once helped protect us. And have weakened our immune systems as well - even though plain old soap and water is just as effective as Purell.
Then there's the imprecise nature of flu shots. In any given year, the flu vaccine is just the Center for Disease Control's best guess about which virus will be floating around. If the CDC guesses wrong, even if you've had a flu shot, you're still going to get sick.
In the greater scheme of things, these illnesses have been unpleasant but they haven't killed. If we had had an epidemic of bird flu, say, think about how helpless we would be.
We won't know for years if our weather pattern has been permanently altered or if this was just a quirky year. If it's permanent, we're going to need better ways to cope. Acidophilus pills and yogurt to restore friendly bacteria to the digestive system. I'm juicing vegetables like a madwoman. Their mashed remains will be good for the compost heap. That, in turn, will be good for the garden - if I ever see the ground again.
"Now is the winter of our discontent," is the way Shakespeare began "Richard III" in 1594. "Made glorious summer by this sun... And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house in the deep bosom of the ocean buried."
Of course Shakespeare was talking about politics, not flu season. But his lines make a good metaphor for the Winter of 2007.
It's now the second week in April. At my house we have four inches of snow on the ground. Easter was colder than Christmas. A few weeks ago, a brief bit of melting showed that the daffodils were coming up. They have long since held their noses and dived back under the snow again. We're on pace for the snowiest April ever recorded. That glorious summer sun? A weak memory, at best.
And as I was writing this on Wednesday, the clouds are getting ready to "lour'd upon our house" again. Southern Vermont is under a Winter storm warning. They're expecting four to five inches to fall here overnight.