A grain of salt: Illness is not a weakness

By Ammi Midstokke
Reader Columnist

Somehow, perhaps with the transition into the Industrial Revolution and hourly wages, Americans seem to have lost compassion for the unwell. Working hard for long hours each day and “never missing a day” have become a badge of honor. Things like paid sick leave or — gasp — paid maternity leave are nothing more than myths from Europe. 

Ammi Midstokke.

I’ve lived in Europe. I can tell you these are not myths. The first time I went to the office sick, the HR manager came to look at my box of Tempos (the German version of Kleenex), glazed eyes and pathetic stare. 

“What are you doing here?” she asked. 

I thought I was super tough, martyring myself to make sure reports were filed. Reports are so important. My ego said that if I did not work, the whole capitalistic machine would come to a screeching halt, businesses would fail, the global economy would collapse. 

I wasn’t even that sick. I figured she was just being a socialist and explained that I would sterilize my hands and cough into my shirt if necessary to avoid the risk of losing the entire workforce to a mild case of ebola or dysentery. 

While she cared about the well-being of my colleagues because she did not want to see them suffer the same snot drowning, her special trip from the executive management wing came because she cared about me. And she thought I should, too.

“Illness is not a weakness,” she said as she pointed toward my coat and bag, “but stubbornness is.” 

Not only was I sent home, but I was told not to return until the doctor specifically said it was appropriate and healthy for me to go back to work. 

The doctor said things I had never heard before about the importance of resting and “sleeping it off” so that I would not need antibiotics — and about how trying to work through illness was hard on our hearts and made us more susceptible to infection. There may have also been a rant in there about the workaholic nature of those nations with high antibiotic prescription rates and their role in the development of superbugs. 

I was told in no uncertain terms that I would be in big trouble if he had to prescribe an antibiotic because I was not being a compliant patient. The next decade of care by him was very similar and every time I went in there sick, there was some kind of lecture about how I only had 100% to give and if I keep trying to find another 10% somewhere, it will come from my health. 

Most of my compliance came out of fear of those lectures. They’re really hard to comprehend when you have a fever. His favorite thing to do was threaten the hospital: “Frau Midstokke, it will be the Krankenhaus for you next!” He knew how much I hated the food there.

That was when I learned that the world kept turning even if I napped for 48 hours and that my body could fight off a cold if I would just take a day off from the gym — or, lord save me from instant obesity and a life doomed to diabetes, an entire week. Getting sick was suddenly transformed from weeks of lingering coughs or self-induced pneumonia to a few days of sleeping in and eating chicken soup. 

When I moved back to the United States and called in sick for the first time, I heard the exasperated sigh on the other side of the line. Somehow, I had disappointed my colleagues by catching the stomach flu. I had a good mind to go to work and lick their coffee cups. Then we could join forces on the BRAT diet and enjoy how loose all our pants (and stool) were. 

The development of daytime cold medicines perpetuate this culture. Commercials tell us we can take some orange-flavored cough syrup, drink a quad-shot and our immune systems will miraculously battle off invaders while we still maintain focus and a rosy pallor. That is not how the immune system functions. It takes an inordinate amount of materials and energy to wage war in magnificent microscopic ways. You might not be able to see it happening, but the fatigue, running nose, cough, purging, etc. are proof of it.

Back in the U.S., it was hard for me to stay home at first but I began to feel ethically obliged. It seems we value the sick or injured less, and that is palpable in our bravado approach to bravely suffering through a 40-hour work week while being treated for strep throat. Try a different method this season. Help those macrophages and T-cells out and go back to bed.

When your colleagues fall one-by-one this season as the plagues that haunt us begin to appear, encourage them to go home and recover. They will not be single-handedly responsible for a recession. Their jobs are not at risk. They are of no less value to us. 

In fact, they are of so much value, we really need them to take the time to get better. And we will pick up the slack gladly, because we want to hope they would do the same for us.

Ammi Midstokke is a local nutritional therapy practitioner and author.

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