I have a theory that engaged, wise grandmothers could save families a lot of money by helping avoid hospital visits. Personally, my grandmothers were very important to my well-being as a child. Not only did they feed and dote on me, they kept me healthy and safe. I remember the time I made a spear out of a sharpened stick. (OK, one of the times.) I was running with it, and as I drew back my arm to fling it across the field, I must have stumbled. It ended up going through the top of my shoe and between two toes, scraping them on the way to the ground.
I limped to the big white house under the maples where Grandma Leap helped me take off my blood-soaked shoe, cleaned the wound, probably applied Merthiolate (didn’t we all spend our summers painted orange?), and said, “Don’t tell your grandpa, he worries!” Maybe she knew he’d take my now cool, blood-stained spear away. I was none the worse for the wear.
I have seen injuries like this time and time again in the emergency room. Relatively minor affairs – scrapes, bumps, bruises, stings, nevertheless brought to the hospital by anxious mothers and fathers, new to parenthood or simply far more worried than necessary.
I also remember the smell of Vicks Vaporub, slathered across my coughing, wheezing chest. I remember cool cloths applied during fevers. My grandmothers had those simple skills down pat. Honestly, I don’t ever remember going to the hospital for a fever as a child. And yet, fever is one of the most common complaints for which parents take kids to the hospital.
“He started having a fever an hour ago, so we rushed him to the hospital!”
“Did you give him anything for the fever?”
“Nope, we just came straight away. We freaked out and decided it was better safe than sorry!”
I hear that a lot. There was a bruise. “I freaked out.” There was a tick. “I freaked out.” There was a rash. “I freaked out.” The baby’s nose was congested. “I freaked out.”
Freaking out never helps anything. And from what I can remember, it was simply something my grandmothers never did. Their job was to draw on centuries of collected cultural and family wisdom, apply personal experience, mix it all with loving attention (and food), and bring calm to all situations. Or bring switches as the situation required.
I’m not suggesting that a family member is all that’s necessary in times of medical need. And admittedly, there are plenty of grandmothers who are as “freaked out” as everyone else. (I’ve met them.) Furthermore, lots of grandmothers and grandfathers are already doing this job as primary caregivers of their children’s children. God bless them.
However, it seems to me that we have an unholy confluence of problems that make people seek healthcare for things our ancestors wouldn’t, or couldn’t have. First of all, for various reasons, families are separated from wise older relatives, or don’t have any. Second, people have 24/7 access to online health information that often only increases fear. Third, we have enormous numbers of young individuals and parents who never learned much about their bodies. Add that to the general increase in anxiety that mental health workers report across the land, and families are completely overwhelmed by the sorts of ailments that have afflicted mankind since well before modern medicine existed.
It seems to me that with our long history of self-sufficiency, and our deep-rooted connections to place and family, rural America should be one of those places where grandmothers could make a real difference in an era of limited medical access, coupled with enormous medical anxiety.
Maybe, in the mountains, valleys, bayous and plains that make up rural America, we can be health pioneers! What we need to do first is educate young people about how to give simple medical care to themselves and others. First-responder and First-Aid/CPR courses are a great place to start. Second, those of us who are more experienced can reach out to young people, new families, neighbors, church-members, strangers at the food bank and offer to be there to teach them how to manage life situations. And how not to “freak out.”
Finally, those of us in medicine, whether nurse, physician, medic or other, can spend time educating the people we see so that they know when, and most important when not, to worry. And never to freak out.
A thing that grandmothers, in times past, taught us oh so well.
Edwin Leap, M.D., is medical director of the emergency department in a small North Georgia hospital. He lives in a log home in a remote part of Upstate South Carolina. Originally from West Virginia, Dr. Leap is married and has four children. Follow him on Twitter @edwinleap.