That Which Does Not Kill Us

Gastroenteritis (also known as gastric flu, stomach flu, gastro and stomach virus, although unrelated to influenza) is marked by inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract involving both the stomach and small intestine resulting in diarrhea, vomiting and abdominal cramps. Source: Wikipedia

Hunched on the toilet, clutching a white plastic wastepaper basket to my soon-to-be-heaving bosom, I wonder with one corner of my brain which orifice will relieve the wretchedness within first. Not that it matters much.  As I recall, any relief will be hard-won and temporary to boot.

These symptoms usually begin 12″“72 hours after contracting the infectious agent…

Staggering from bathroom to bedroom, I collapse in a miserable heap. Sometimes the calms between the stomach-flu storms are occupied with wondering whence cameth the infectious agent, but not this time. Just 24 hours earlier, I was attending to my similarly stricken mother in a classic virus incubator: a seniors’ residence. The hygienic precautions I thought so rigorous have, regrettably, proven inadequate.

… and if due to viral agent usually last less than one week. Source: Wikipedia

One week!! Sometimes the less one knows in the heat of battle, the better. About six hours in, all that is keeping me going is the expectation that my attack will be as short-lived as it is severe.

Some viral causes may also be associated with fever, fatigue, headaches, and muscle pains. Source: Wikipedia

A cramp in my right foot brings me up out of a sleep made restless by influenza-like muscle aches. Arching against this new and intense pain, I try to ride it out since standing seems unwise: a half-remembered proverb comes confusedly to mind. Isn’t there something about Letting sleeping stomachs lie? But a vicious charley horse in my left leg changes my tactics: Up and at ’em, however unsteadily!

The primary treatment of gastroenteritis in both children and adults is rehydration. Source: Wikipedia

As foot-and-leg spasms gradually settle under the force of my body weight, I have attention to spare for my headache. Attention, but no stomach for the only available remedy: tablet pain killers just a short distance away on the bathroom counter. Putting anything more than water into this malfunctioning system seems contraindicated: indeed, even plain water seems wrong at the moment.

In the United States [gastroenteritis] is the second most common infection after the common cold causing 200-375 million cases (~0.7 per person) of acute diarrhea yearly and resulting in ten thousand deaths. Source: Wikipedia

In my lifetime I have had too many colds to count, albeit nothing like the two to five a year that Wiki reports as the average. By contrast, stomach flu is more numerable, perhaps because more memorable: after all, it crams its misery into a day or so, rather than the seven I think of as the standard duration for a cold. Where the head cold provokes primarily resignation, the stomach flu provokes something closer to despair, and has for almost 55 years.

Five.  Old enough to know something is wrong, even in the middle of the night. Not old enough to send for help in time.

Seven. Old enough to get to the bathroom in the middle of this first night in a new city.  Not old enough to allow for both possibilities. The no-longer-serviceable flannelette nightie placed outside the motel room in a paper bag for later handling is, for a wonder, gone the next morning. Sometimes crime is its own punishment.

Seventeen/seventeen. Two day-long episodes after egg rolls and I am ‘off’ Chinese food for several years, justly or not.

Twenty-one. As a young mother visiting family in another city, I spend Saturday on the bathroom floor, reflecting somewhat bitterly on the role of children as disease vectors.

Forty-two. As we work through the dinner hour to meet an imminent deadline, take-out Chinese food is offered to keep us going. This time the food aversion lasts a full decade and extends to avoiding even the smell of Chinese food in mall food fairs, justly or not.  Thrice bitten, forever shy.

And now, fifty-nine. After the worst of the storm passes, I still feel as if I’ve been hit by a truck. As the hours drag on and the misery recedes slightly, however, I begin to think I will live. I even begin to think about stomach flu in general, rather than this particular incident, albeit in no very structured way. What is the right time to attempt rehydration, when the fear is that even water will come right back up?  When upchucking is caused by a virus rather than tainted food, of what possible survival value is the reflexive distaste for the food ingested immediately before the attack? You can buy nicotine patches, for God’s sake: Where are over-the-counter analgesic patches when you need them?

You Gibsons are the most analytical people I know. Source: Long-time family friend. Tone: Not entirely complimentary.

A full day later, through the active stage if not the residual weakness, I have recovered enough to indulge my weakness: wondering what it all means.

From a medical perspective it means nothing, really. I can consider myself lucky that I have beaten Wikipedia’s reported odds of infection (roughly three incidents every four years ““ Yikes!), but my survival is, if not a foregone conclusion, at least the high-probability outcome. But speaking of survival, maybe the cheery German nihilists have some philosophical perspective to offer.

That which does not kill us makes us stronger. Source:  Friedrich Nietzsche, per

Well, Freddie, I’m not so sure. Although I am another survival story from the gastroenteritis wars, I’m not sure I’m any the stronger for it. But maybe I’m a little wiser.

Stricken while helping my mother prepare to move, I am reminded of the need to include ‘management reserve’ in my personal as well as my work planning: this episode represented a day lost in a schedule that had little tolerance for such a loss.

Even more important, perhaps, this has also been an object lesson in the limitations of ‘book learning’. Wikipedia’s lengthy but colourless recital of symptoms cannot convey the reality of stomach flu as vividly as a single observation from a young lady of my acquaintance.

Puke comes in different colours, you know. Source: A friend’s five-year-old granddaughter

Yes, sweetie, it surely does. I don’t know why Wikipedia doesn’t mention that”¦.

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12 Responses to That Which Does Not Kill Us

  1. Jim Robertson says:


    Sounds like you were just on one of the two Princess Cruise ships that came back from the Caribbean with 250 or so passengers sick with the norovirus…

    Touch wood, I haven’t had has many bouts as you have had !

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim: I’d sure hate to be sick on a cruise – apart from feeling that you’d wasted your money, there’s the whole thing about not being at home. Tough!

  2. Vince says:

    I imagine that the ability to write well about it and reflect painfully (and pensively?) means that the worst is over – or so I hope.
    I’ve begun building a sick/laundry day in after vacations. Maybe I should start them that way too.
    Hope you’re feeling better and into the swing of things, if this piece was based in recent non-fiction.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Vince – Oh, yes, the worst is long since over, thanks. Just nasty…. And going by the seniors’ residence protocol, one should wait 48 hours after the last ‘incident’ before venturing into polite society. I suspect we all go back to work while we’re still contagious – so a sick/laundry day (or two!) actually contributes to the public good.

  3. Susan Wright says:

    Oh you poor dear, what misery. I hope your mother didn’t get it too.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Susan – Oh, no, Mom gave it to me, the wretch! The good news is that I didn’t pass it to the granddaughters or their parents. How not to be popular as a house guest!

  4. Jim Taylor says:

    Unsympathetically, I chuckled. I can identify, all too well.


    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – Well, we laugh primarily about life’s elementals (sex, death, that sort of thing). I guess upchucking must fall into the same category. Who knew?

  5. steven says:

    (Your source for the Nietzsche quote seems a little wobbly; maybe Wikiquote is better here, since it gives enough detail to be verifiable.)

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