Posted by: downtothesea | February 2, 2009

Illness and injury.

My husband injured his back quite badly about three weeks ago.  He was in terrible pain and required a trip to hospital via ambulance.  This all happened a day after a large snowstorm, so the ER was full of broken limbs and terrible head injuries from slips and falls.  While our wait wasn’t outrageous as far as these things go (2 hours), towards the end of the wait to see the doctor I found myself begging the nurses to give my husband something–anything–that would take the edge off his pain.  I felt so completely helpless.

It turns out that his injury is the kind that will linger for weeks and sometimes months.  Sometimes his meds work, and other times all he can do is lie flat in bed and be in pain.  The fact that we are six hundred miles away from our families (and thus from anyone who could offer me any assistance with him) weighed heavily on me this month. 

Believe it or not, I can tie this all back in with family history.

I started thinking about Thomas McCabe, my gggg-grandfather.  In the 1880 US Census, he is recorded as being about 78 years old and an “invalid.”  In the next field on the census form, we are told his ailment is “asthma.”  Thomas is lucky, however.  His wife Ellen (a spry 71 years of age) is still living at that point, and is presumably able to act as his nurse.  Furthermore, Thomas’ grown son Owen (my ggg-grandfather) lives just next door with his wife and adlut children, and the Gavins, who are by this point inlaws of the McCabes (Owen’s daughter Ellen and the Gavins’ son Michael married some time in the 1870s) live in the house abutting them on the opposite side.  If Ellen McCabe needed immediate assistance with her ailing spouse, there were any number of family members she could turn to at any given time of the night or day.

That is not to say Thomas’ or Ellen’s lot was an easy one.  Ellen must have spent much of her time feeling just as helpless as I did these past few weeks, unable to do much more than make her husband as comfortable as possible.  Asthma in the 19th century was treated variously with coffee, liquor, tobacco (!), and garlic pills.*  While some of these remedies may have had a soothing effect on the patient, they are no match for our modern-day asthma inhalers when it comes to controlling the disease.  I would imagine Ellen spent some frightening times watching Thomas struggle for air and knowing she could do very little for him but try to calm him.  I felt her frustration one hundred and thirty years later: my mantra for my husband, when he was leveled by a muscle spasm attack on his sore back was “Relax…reeeeeeeelax…”  It was all I could do, and he must be so sick of hearing me say it.

So, while I have made little progress in my genealogy these past few weeks, I must say my “long-ago” family has not been far from my mind.  That counts as research, right? 

*As an interesting aside, when I lived in Ireland, I myself came down with a weird chronic lung condition that no amount of antibiotics or even a week’s stay in hospital could either remedy or diagnose.  When I got back to my flat from hospital, my flatmates offered me a variety of homegrown lung remedies.  I was given hot whiskey punch (with cloves and lemon) to relax my coughing and put me to sleep, garlic pills to “strengthen” my lungs, and a vial of eucalyptus oil to daub on my pillow at night to “open my passages.”  And under their care, I recovered.

An opium-based treatment for asthma!

An opium-based treatment for asthma!

Photo can be accessed in original form here.



  1. A great post and I love it when people put their own recent family occurrences into historical perspective.

    I too did this when I severed my right quadricept tendon in 2001. This was a severe accident, pretty major ortho surgery and long recovery. While I was going through this, I kept telling myself this: if I were alive 100 years ago and this had happened, I would have been incapacitated for life. There were no “orthpaedic surgeons” and there was no “physical therapy.”

    I feel for your husband and wish I could recommend something.

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Thomas! Wow, that’s a pretty spectacular injury you sustained–it makes me shiver just imagining it. I play the devil’s advocate the way you describe as well, and it always amazes me how many opportunities I (or anyone else!) have had to die in this modern life but haven’t because of modern medicine. It’s quite a thing to think about.

      Thanks also for your sympathetic thoughts for my husband. He’s getting better by the day, slowly, slowly. It’s a great opportunity for both of us to learn patience, if nothing else!

  2. I hope your husband’s recovery is swift!

    • Thanks, Apple! He’s coming along, day by day. All the doctors we’ve seen have been very optimistic, thank heaven.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: