Elderberries and Garlic Can’t Save Us from Covid-19
In the dark ages of the 1950s and 60s my family knew little about health and nutrition. We knew that the polio vaccine was a miracle, that Kool-Aid tasted great, that everyone loved Sara Lee, and that any product in a box helpful at getting dinner on the table for a half-dozen kids and a hungry husband was a giant step forward for womankind. I questioned none of this until my father died.
My father smoked Chesterfields, while my mother preferred the menthol taste of elegantly proportioned Kools. My father also smoked a pipe and an occasional cigar. Every morning we woke to the smell of smoke curling over the breakfast table, my parents’ cigarettes balanced on their saucers as they raised their first cups of coffee to their lips. Even after the winter storm windows were exchanged for screens, summer’s heat and humidity often required the air conditioner, sealing us in for another toxic season.
We didn’t have the budget to eat out, but if we had, there would have been as much smoke in any given restaurant as at home. Instead, we often got together with relatives for a meal. That meant even more cigarettes around the table, the adults conversing and laughing, gesturing with their smokes laced through their fingers. Children thought nothing of any of this. Grown-ups smoked. Our fathers swore. Our mothers left crimson lip prints on their cocktail glasses and, with sideways glances, reminded us children should be seen and not heard. We rode home from these gatherings, and to and from everywhere, without seat belts or cars seats, cloaked in a miasma of parental cigarette smoke.
My father ate dessert, usually homemade cake or pie, after supper every evening. Before bedtime he had a second dessert, a large bowl of ice cream with chocolate sauce, a cup of coffee, and a cigarette. My mother had two cigarettes and two cups of coffee. We all rose in the morning, happy to see one another — my siblings and I, thrilled to be spooning in our Cocoa Krispies, Frosted Flakes, or Lucky Charms. Life was sugary and good.
One night after supper my father dropped dead of a heart attack. I was 19 and away at college. How could a man who ran his own business, who gardened, who entertained relatives with a barbecue fork in one hand and a beer and a cigarette in the other every summer weekend — who enjoyed life so much — drop dead without warning?
Shocked and grieving, I studied what the newspapers were reporting about cholesterol. Did my father’s regular breakfast of bacon and fried eggs and buttered white toast contribute to his demise? My student budget depended on eggs and cheap bread. But out of grief over the death of my seemingly healthy and active father, I made my first conscious lifestyle change.
In 1972 I learned to make granola and resolved to love every vegetable I met. A decade later I jogged, joined a gym, and took my first yoga class. In the 90s I gave up artificial sweeteners and prepared foods, and harangued my children about the evils of refined sugar. When the century rolled over into the new millennium, and I realized I was a bit rolly myself, I re-started my gym habit — this time with a personal trainer. I kick- boxed, Jazzercised, did step aerobics, re-learned yoga, and set a goal to walk every street in my small suburban Los Angeles town.
Still, health crises presented themselves along my newly paved ways. In 1990 I began to suffer from persistent debilitating hip pain and hobbled into the office of an orthopedist. “You see this,” he said to me, clipping an x-ray of my right hip to the light box behind his desk. “Completely eroded. You need a hip replacement.” I nodded. I’d had a complicated back surgery the year my father died and second one the year after that. I didn’t want surgery of any kind. It wouldn’t be until 15 years later that my marriage would end in divorce, but I knew even then that my wedding vows, as well as my hip, would be under the knife if I were incapacitated.
I made an appointment with a chiropractor. With regular visits, a heating pad, and ibuprofen, I limped less painfully on — until she moved away and I had to find a new chiropractor. “Acid in the joints,” or something like that, the new chiropractor told me. She handed me a fat brown bottle of pills and put me on a special diet. No deadly nightshades. (Wait, some vegetables are bad?) No ascorbic acid. No citrus. I’d already given my children natural remedies for colds, and coughs, and earaches. Maybe the pills and special diet were worth a try.
It was only a matter of days until the pain eased. Stay on the diet, the chiropractor told me. So I did, occasionally treating myself to tomato sauce or downing a glass of orange juice only to feel the beginnings of a burning ache slash across my hip. Adhering to the diet, months, then years, went by without hip pain. Then decades.
Not long after the hip problems resolved, my menstrual cycle went rogue. Heavy bleeding and crippling cramps sent me to my gynecologist. The diagnosis was five ovarian cysts. “Hmm, they don’t look cancerous,” he said, studying the scan. “But, you’ll want to have them out.” He recommended a complete hysterectomy. I got two other opinions that echoed his advice.
Once again, I didn’t want my body or my marriage to be sliced open. Six weeks of no stairs, no driving, no picking up a toddler. It was time to get serious about alternative medicine. A friend who was studying homeopathy advised me. There were pills the size of pinheads to dissolve under my tongue and another special diet. I have no recollection of the diet’s specifics, other than the image of myself, studying the list I’d taped to the inside of a cupboard door.
Six weeks later the cysts were gone, confirmed by an ultrasound performed at Cedars’ Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. “Those cysts must be in there somewhere,” the doctor said. Then, “Well. Maybe not.”
As I was battling my ills, my mother was across the country, ageing with her dozen prescription medications. “Did you hear that music coming from the pipes last night?” she asked me one morning while I was visiting her. “
“Music? What music?”
“There’s always music in the pipes at night,” she said. I finagled a list of her medications from her. “You know, mom, I should know all this in case you have some kind of medical issue, and you’re not able to tell the doctors what all you’re taking.” I wrote the list in the back of my day planner and, sitting upstairs in her guestroom, Googled everything.
“You know, I’ve been reading about some of this stuff,” I told her on the phone after I returned home. “Ask your doctor about the allergy medicine, that sleeping pill, and the anti-anxiety medication. Maybe you don’t need to take those every night. Her prescription meds were decreased and the music died.
A decade later when my mom came to live with me in California she was on a regimen of pills so complex it required a chart with arrows, photos, and a massive pillbox to keep it straight. She was almost 90 by then, down to five cigarettes and a couple martinis a day. Lifestyle changes were not her thing. “Something’s got to kill me,” she said. By this time, we knew that “something” would be lung cancer.
At any given time we only know what we know. My mother should have quit smoking long before she finally did. However, I can’t fault my parents for not buckling us into car seats when there weren’t any. My daughters can’t fault me for putting them in their cribs face down when no one had ever heard of “back to sleep.”
But nowadays we know a lot. We know garlic and elderberries do not cure corona virus or prevent us from getting it. Still, I wonder about the overall state of our bodies and our immune systems. We are not a body, stitched to a mind, stitched to a soul. We are whole and complex beings, our immune systems an intricate tapestry not yet completely understood. As we experience the existential lifestyle changes of sheltering in place or risking our lives by working the front lines in hospitals, supermarkets, or other essential services, the stress is mounting. Though the human race has no immunity to Covid-19, we still bring our personal immune systems to the battle.
I came down with an illness a few days after my mother died in 2015. Grief, I thought. Or the flu. All those hugs, and handshakes, and eye rubbing. That might explain the pain needling my left eyelid. But it didn’t explain the why my knees were so swollen and painful that I began using the bathroom that had been my mom’s so I could help myself on and off the toilet with the handicap bars. It didn’t explain why my fingers had outgrown my rings, why the backs of my hands puffed up like boxing gloves, or the day I could barely lift my arms.
After a month of trying not to touch my afflicted eye, rubbing one concoction or another on my swollen joints, I went to see my chiropractor. “Whatever is going on with you, I can’t fix it,” he said. “You need to see your regular doctor.”
My M.D. ordered blood tests for lupus, Lyme disease, and whatever else they test for. I saw a rheumatologist; an ear, nose, throat doctor; and a gastroenterologist. The blood tests were repeated with no conclusive diagnosis or relief of my symptoms. Finally, I visited an integrative medicine doctor who suggested that I abstain from wheat and dairy. I rolled my eyes, despite the fact both my daughters had found they were sensitive to gluten. Having forgotten my own previous therapeutic diets, I insisted that food sensitivities were not my thing. “Just do it for two weeks,” he said. In a couple of days, the pain and swelling were gone.
Today, as we adhere to the guidelines to stop the spread of Covid-19, we must care for ourselves and others in every way we can. When we’re not washing our hands, fact-checking recommendations for staying safe, trying to procure PPE, sewing facemasks, or looking for the groceries we need, it might be time to consider the unfamiliar, the alternative, and the creative. Maybe we can unlock new possibilities while we’re locked down.
While knowing we can’t yet cure the virus or vaccinate against it, we can support our minds and bodies and spirits in new and meaningful ways. Knowing that underlying health conditions can worsen the outcome of Covid-19, and that grief will affect all of us in the coming weeks, we need every bit of support we can muster. There are many wellness practices whose benefits are evidence-based. Can we eat healthier, lose our belly fat, research reiki, get better at yoga, meditation, or t’ai chi? Can we learn to juggle, draw, play piano, or ballroom dance in our living rooms? The placebo effect is a known phenomenon. Simple joy transforms us, and alternatives have a place in the constellation of healing practices.
We’re here. Not everyone will wake up tomorrow and be able to say that. Let’s do whatever we can to help ourselves.