If you have a chronic condition, you are immunocompromised. If your immune system worked properly, it never would have attacked whatever system it did until said system didn’t work anymore. That poses a problem for us during cold and flu season, or any season, really, whenever someone you spend time with – friends, family, colleagues – is sick. Even a little sick. If something is going around the office, it takes me three times longer to shake it than it does for everyone else.
This situation is particularly difficult when it comes to small children, or as I like to call them, "my little petri dishes." I do not have kids, but my brother has four. I love spending time with them, but, more than a few times, I’ve gone for a visit and a kid’s cold has manifested into a pretty serious flu for me. One time, I got out of the car after the four-hour drive home and thought, “Hm. I’m not feeling very well.” Turned out I had a fever of 102. Then there was the time I was so sick that I went to bed earlier than the kids, and my little niece came to check that I was really sick and not just hiding.
When my brother’s first child was born, I remember being scared that, if I didn’t see her often enough, she would forget me, so I began visiting every two or three months. It was great to watch her develop and play peekaboo with overly-long coat sleeves. I was gratified that she never once showed any reticence around me. By the time my first nephew was born (my brother’s second kid), I began to realize that visits were developing into a pattern: drive up, stay a couple of days, start feeling a little under the weather on the last night, drive home, pass out in bed.
I had to make a decision. Being sick is hard. And frustrating. It can negatively impact work projects, rob me of days of paid time off, or result in multiple sacrificed weekends, perhaps unnecessarily. But what is the option? Not spending time with my family (especially the kids) until all of the kids are old enough to graduate from petri dish-stage?
When I thought about what I would lose by waiting to visit, or not visiting as often, it wasn’t a choice at all. I love tossing them around, helping feed, change, and dress them, going to the zoo, watching them enjoy gifts I bring, pretending to extract myself from “stuck huggies” (where they lock their hands behind your neck so you can’t get away), and just listening to them talk about what they’re learning in school. What I get from the visits far outweighs the sometimes significant inconvenience of being sick. So, I dose myself with Airborne, Vitamin C, and anything else I can think of, wash my hands every time I am at the mercy of baby drool, travel with a miniature over-the-counter pharmacy, and hope for the best.
The bottom line is, we all come with the individual burden of each of our conditions. But faulty immune systems are universal for the chronic patient. You can take preventative measures like asking friends to warn you when they are sick, or keeping a physical distance from sick colleagues, but your best defense is learning how your body reacts in certain situations when you can’t avoid—or decide not to avoid—them.
And talk to your doctor to see if he or she has any guidance. I never thought twice about stealing a French fry or rubbing my eyes after holding a baby, until my doctor told me that the transfer of germs most often occurs with you interact with someone who is sick and then touch your face.
Whatever you decide to do or not do to protect yourself, just don’t stop enjoying the things that give your life depth and meaning, just because there is a price to pay.