It was the seventh week of Merav’s latest illness. Sharp and constant pains still pierced her abdomen. She felt dizzy and weak, no doubt in part a result of self-imposed starvation as the very thought of food in her current condition nauseated her. Her head pounded and her joints ached.
As we headed to the Family Medical Center after a night where she (and we, her parents) slept only a few brief hours, I felt sure her doctor would order her immediate hospitalization, if nothing else than to pump her up with nutrients so she wouldn’t waste away. We were, suffice it to say, in quite a panic.
But Dr. N didn’t send us packing for Hadassah. Instead, he carefully read through the summaries written by the specialists and technicians who had conducted various rounds of tests on Merav over the course of the last two months. He then read us the results, confirming what we already knew.
Her colonoscopy was clear, he said, So were the results from her “Upper GI” (a test that involves swallowing radioactive barium and then x-raying the liquid as it makes its way downward). Her blood results – completely normal too.
He then turned to my twelve-year-old daughter. “Merav,” he said, “I can find no sign of disease. Nothing acute or life threatening. It’s time you start to see yourself as a healthy girl again. You need to get back into a normal routine and life.”
That should have been the best news of the day. Yet I must have looked horrified. That was it? After everything she’d been through, after all the poking and prodding, the drinking of foul fluids and being told there was nothing we could do but wait patiently for another round of tests while Merav writhed in pain, her knees held tight against her chest begging me nightly “Abba, make the pain go away.” That’s the end of it – you’re fine, now get on with your life?
Perhaps sensing my confusion, Dr. N wisely chose…to avoid me completely. “Do you think you can do that, think of yourself as healthy?” he continued, looking straight at Merav.
Merav shook her head. “I don’t know. It hurts too much.”
I finally found my voice. “Are you saying…” I said to Dr. N, “that this has all be in Merav’s head? That the whole illness was – no…is – something psychosomatic?”
Of course that wasn’t what he was saying at all. He proffered his best guess: Merav was suffering from something called “IBS” – short for “irritable bowel syndrome.” It’s diagnosed primarily through process of elimination. There are no physical signs of disease in the body, but the symptoms are very real. Merav certainly didn’t bring this on herself, Dr. N assured us. And it was probably totally unconnected to her illness the previous year.
Then, perhaps to make me feel better, he prescribed a cocktail of anti-spasmodics, pain killers and paraffin oil.
Now, Dr. N is not normally from the school of “tough love” medicine. So, as he nearly threw us out of his office, I wondered if maybe there was some method to this seeming madness.
I decided to play along. Despite my frustration, I would try to see Merav as healthy again. I’ve never been a big believer in the whole “power of positive thinking” thing, but it was worth a try.
No more doctors. No searching for the top pediatric rheumatologist in town. No pushing to schedule an appointment with the head of infectious diseases at the children’s hospital in Ramat Gan. We’d change our attitude. The seed had been planted. Time to let it grow, if only a little.
And so the next morning, I said to Merav “Would you like to come out to brunch with me and get some ice coffee?”
Merav was initially reluctant, citing the usual aches and pains, but the idea grew on her. And before long we were walking to the Café Hillel on Emek Refaim Street where Merav ordered her favorite beverage, I got a chai masala with soy milk (my favorite beverage), and we shared a chocolate croissant.
“Can I have milk in my coffee?” she asked tentatively as we were ordering. What would normally have been a standard question had a meaning all of it own. For on top of everything else, during this period of illness we had taken Merav to a Chinese herbalist who put her on a highly restrictive diet that included no dairy products or white flour.
The diet had inadvertently contributed to her predicament: with most foods making her nauseous, the only ones she actually wanted were forbidden. She had been subsisting on two pieces of toast and jam a day for weeks, hardly enough calories for a growing girl.
“As far as I’m concerned, I’m pronouncing this diet null and void,” I said. “Didn’t the doctor say you had to go back to your ‘regular’ life?”
Merav’s mood began to brighten.
As we were sipping our drinks and soaking in the buzz of a Friday morning in Jerusalem when the cafes are all packed and the streets flow like the proverbial milk and honey with friends and acquaintances from the neighborhood, my cell phone rang. It was our good friend Ruth who had taken a keen interest in Merav; the two had been close since her previous illness the year before.
Ruth said she wanted to buy Merav a “small animal.” She had been struck by a hunch that Merav might find it beneficial to take care of another living creature. I gave the phone over to Merav.
Merav nearly jumped out of her seat. She launched into a stream of consciousness chatter that was downright invigorating. It had been a long time since so much energy had come out of our little girl’s body.
Ruth picked Merav up and they headed for the pet store where they lovingly held and evaluated all seven hamsters available before settling on a cute little critter that Merav named “Mazie” after the imagined talking dog in the Judy Blume book “Just As Long as We’re Together.”
The pet store put together a spacious cage at Ruth’s request with a running wheel, various colorful crawling tubes and a little house. Merav held and watched and generally stayed transfixed on Mazie the rest of the day…and the next day…and pretty much the day after too.
Her pain passed and she’s been 100% better ever since.
While they were out shopping, Ruth told us later that Merav had commented that she gets “very attached to things” and that sometimes she finds it “hard to let go.” Could she have gotten attached to the concept of being ill?
I don’t believe that this was all in her head. Neither does Dr. N, I’m sure. But what he understood – apparently before any of us – was that holding on to a concept of being “sick” can impede a healthy recovery just as cruelly as a purely physical condition. His admonition to “get back into life” spurred all of us into action.
Can one’s thoughts really affect health in such a profound and real way? In our case, there seems to be no doubt. I like to call it “the power of positive hamstering.”
Brian Blum is a journalist and entrepreneur based in Jerusalem. He writes the weekly column This Normal Life (www.ThisNormalLife.com). His latest startup Bloggerce (www.bloggerce.com) provides online publishing solutions for budding bloggers. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.