Vikki Ortiz Healy, Chicago Tribune reporter
January 23, 2013
I used to balk at parents who obsessed about keeping their children away from germs and potential illnesses over the winter. I rolled my eyes when friends declined invitations to social gatherings where runny-nosed children might also be present, and I vented to my husband about fellow moms who avoided indoor play spaces in fear of the bacteria.
But after three back-to-back viruses have left me, my husband and 18-month-old daughter coughing, sneezing, vomiting and pretty miserable for all of 2013, I changed my mind and made a decision.
The Healy family will not be making further social appearances until the U.S. Centers for Disease Control assures me that this nasty flu season is over.
Unless, I thought, I can find a way to move us all to Arizona first.
Yes, I know, all you laid-back parents out there think I'm melodramatic.
Like you, I used to believe that a combination of healthy eating, good sleep, flu shots, repetitive hand washing and sanitizing, and house disinfecting could keep the germs at bay.
Then we attended a birthday party at the end of December at a busy restaurant in Lincoln Park. Despite all our anti-bacterial efforts, a few days later we faced Round One in our battle against the virus seemingly taking over Chicago.
It started with Gracie, whose fever morphed into an upper respiratory infection that necessitated three packs of "Boogie Wipes." My just-learning-to speak toddler quickly mastered the word "Nose!"
My version of the virus surfaced a few days later with a relentless cough that had me wishing I could instead do 1,000 situps.
Thankfully, our immune systems beat the bug, and, a week later, we continued on with plans to join my sister and two other families with young children in South Haven, Mich., for a New Year's Eve weekend at a cottage.
Again, we wanted to favor the benefits of social interaction over the risk of illness. And it was a lovely weekend. The kids played together happily. The adults sipped wine and beer after tucking the children into bed.
And our reward for choosing friendship over confinement?
Round Two: Gracie ended up with a double ear infection and I caught bronchitis. Our kitchen counter became cluttered with antibiotic bottles, cough drops and surgical masks.
The masks, which I wore for an entire weekend, were a desperate attempt to spare my husband, Shawn, from our misery. They hurt my ears and confused my daughter into thinking we were playing one long game of peek-a-boo.
Yet they made no difference. It didn't take long before Shawn was finishing off my box of Sudafed and coughing all night long himself.
When the three of us were finally well again, I began contemplating a cocoon for our condo. While reading Gracie one of my favorite children's books, "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day," I thought the frustrated young narrator had a tempting solution.
He wanted to move to Australia. But for our purposes, I thought, Arizona might work just as well.
Then we were invited to a neighbor's dinner party.
Thinking an outing inside our building couldn't be that risky, we accepted the invite and enjoyed a very pleasant, but short visit with friends.
The stomach flu surfaced in Gracie precisely 48 hours later. In me that same afternoon. And Shawn the day after that.
Which brings me to my current pledge to keep my family quarantined until further notice.
Regretfully, we will not attend your upcoming celebration. We will not be inviting you over, and we will not meet you for brunch.
I just can't fathom using up another precious sick day before one-twelfth of the year is over, I told Allison Bartlett, a pediatrician and specialist in infectious diseases at The University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children's Hospital.
Bartlett, herself a mother of three boys younger than 3, listened empathetically.
"I would love to keep them all wrapped up in a cocoon and healthy, but for their sanity and mine, we need to get out of the house and go do things," Bartlett said.
Bartlett delicately went on to level with me that I should accept these recurring viruses as a fact of parenting life. Because while adults might be great at practicing habits that help prevent the spread of infections, children are not. And with the vulnerability of our children's immune systems, it is very easy for them to pick up infections despite parents' best efforts.
She assured me it's not because we're not taking enough precautions. And it's not because we live in a condo building, where germs lurk in the air vents (another one of my recent theories).
Really, pediatricians expect children from toddlers to school age to contract five to 10 upper respiratory tract infections per year. And they only get concerned when these infections are happening to newborns, children with asthma and reactive airway diseases or more serious conditions, like cancer or immune deficiency, Bartlett said.
That last part put my angst into much-needed perspective. This flu season has been awful, but for some parents, it's not just a season. I need to remember that.
Meanwhile, all parents dealing with minor bugs can do at this time of year is be sure their children are appropriately immunized, wash hands, use hand sanitizers, eat healthy foods and rest well. Choosing less populated play areas where there aren't many things to touch may also be helpful, Bartlett suggested.
"Unfortunately, there is no real great way to win at flu season," she said.
Even in Arizona, where the warm weather allows the virus season to last longer, she added.