This is Merle.
I met Merle on Saturday as I stood in the pharmacy line, waiting to plunk down my money on Tamiflu, which is one of two drugs the FDA has approved for use with influenza symptoms.
Before we go much further, I should explain a little about Washington, DC culture and thinking.
In the Washington, DC metro area, when someone is sick, we think it's best if they stay home. We think it very considerate if you keep your germs to yourself. We appreciate a little warning if you have a fever. We'll clear a wide berth when you are coughing. We want to be kind and considerate, but if you're sick, we appreciate you doing the same. So it's polite to say "Stand back! Save yourselves! I've got a teensy head cold!" Friends and neighbors will thank you and be happy to scurry away from such warnings.
With that in mind, you know we're doing a full-on freak-out over Swine flu. Or, being the proper people that we are, the "H1N1 Virus."
One late Tuesday night, after working a weekend shift sitting next to a sneezing, coughing wreck of a coworker whose wife was diagnosed with H1N1 Swine Influenza Virus, (There. That was a mouthful.) and going to the gym, where I did not properly sanitize the equipment before or after I used it, I did get a little sick.
I have a home remedy that I generally like because it generally works: massive Vitamin C doses, Airborne, and Zicam. I launched that.
But by the next day, I was sicker. So I called my favorite doctor and begged a Tamiflu prescription, which he generously called in.
Yes, we're so paranoid of being sick that doctors will actually call in prescriptions for their regular patients without seeing them because A) according to news reports, 90% of what is going around will test positive as H1N1, so why bother to test? And B) the doctors themselves don't necessarily want Typhoid Mary 2.0 coming in to infect them and their staffs. On Friday, I walked out the door to get the prescription when I suddenly thought, "Hmmm, what if this is just a typical early season cold? I don't want to blow $105 on Tamiflu, as well as adding to the general problem of over-using medications and building super-germs." So I went back in the house, figuring the situation would be better or worse by the next day. Saturday morning came and my condition was definitely worse. The scratchy throat worsened along with my all-over acheyness. Plus now I had that nasty stiff, sore pain in the middle of my back that tells me either I've been run over by a semi-trailer or some awful sickness is about to hit. I had a few errands to run and then I went to the pharmacy which is where I met Merle. Behind me in the pharmacy line, he bumped and jostled me a little bit. I said "Oh, you shouldn't get so close." He looked at me, probably thinking I was a rather prickly sort of person. I explained "I'm a bit sick. Not so close, so you won't get sick." He smiled and said "Oh, I'm not worried about that!" I said "Good for you!" A big, beatific smile spread across his face and he said "I have a cure. I told my granddaughter how to cure it, she tried it. It worked. She fine!" At that moment, I was all ears. "Onion tea!" he said proudly. I blinked. "How does one, er, make onion tea?" I asked curiously. "Just make some tea and stick onions in it. Soak 'em and when you ready to drink it, take the onions out." This was not exactly earth-shattering medicine and actually, not even an "old wives tale" that I'd ever heard before. "It make you sweat. The virus don't know what to do. The fever make you sweat. The tea make you sweat. You wrap up in a blanket, sweat it all out your pores and then in the morning, whatever's left come out in a bowel movement," he explained. (By the way, the apparent typos are his English usage, not mine. I was going for authenticity.) At this moment, I realized I was in a Southeast District pharmacy, having a discussion about bowel movements with a 70-ish year old Washingtonian. I sorta chided myself a little in my mind. My well-known openness to new experiences nearly slammed shut.
But a second later, I decided, it was all in pursuit of knowledge and good health. Just then, I was called to the counter, bought my Tamiflu and went home, $105 poorer. (Seriously, $105 for ten pills. I realize they want to make money on their investment, but did they expect to recover it all THIS YEAR?)
When I got home, I realized I still had doubts about whether what I was going through was serious enough to necessitate taking actual drugs for it. My usual thinking is that every drug has side effects and unless you are really in need, you are better off without taking them. Plus, unless I'm truly sick or a deadline is looming, I like to build my immunity by letting my body work through it.
And as I gave it a little more thought I decided... what harm could a little onion tea inflict?
I pulled out a new box of Stash Spiced Chai tea, purchased a few hours before to sooth my throat and steam my sinuses. I made a cup of tea and then, pulled out half of a red onion and sliced off a chunk. I went a little "Paula Deen" and cut slices into it, in order to provide more onion surface and maybe make the tea stronger. Then I dropped that smelly sliced bulb in what smelled like a heavenly cup of spicy sweetened tea and... waited.
Wanting to enhance the effect, I decided to microwave it, which burst all the little onion-y cells to full effect. I pulled it out after 30 seconds, fished out the onions and sat down to, ughhhh, enjoy my cuppa.
To be very honest, I think the dreading was worse than the drinking. If I think back to yesterday, I believe the muscles in my cheeks were stuck in "revulsion" mode for the rest of the day.
But the actual onion-tea drinking experience wasn't that bad. It tasted like regular chai tea that had been made in an unwashed cup that was previously used for onion soup. It left a somewhat iffy aftertaste in my mouth. And I had a small dish of my favorite granola sitting on the side to help rid my mouth of that taste immediately after the first cup was finished.
The second cup was a lot stronger for some reason. (I think I microwaved it for a full minute.) There was a moment or two where it smelled like an underarm. That had been to the gym. For a couple of days in a row. And whose owner was out of hopelessly out of soap.
The next morning, I woke up and felt surprisingly better. It was as if I could feel that the virus was either gone or on its last legs. I drank another cup. And I put the Tamiflu aside, to keep it it safe for the time when I am sure that I do have some horrible influenza. Doc said it will have me ship-shape in 24 hours. Did I mention he's retired, U.S. Navy? Lots of those here in the Washington area, too. Solid medical knowledge and great experience.
So now, 24 hours after starting my onion tea adventure, I do feel a good bit better. I never did experience the sweating that Merle said would be so helpful, (no further bowel movement discussion will be offered here, in case you wondered), but I was already sweating and feverish yesterday, so maybe it was all tied up together.
Did it work? I couldn't say. It's hard to know what works with a cold and fever and what doesn't. I don't think it hurt. Well, maybe that onion-y aftertaste in my mouth that still persists.
But if it didn't, if there was no real effect and it is all a big joke on the "gullible woman in the drugstore," I hope Merle is somewhere having a very good laugh. Just him and his onion-breathed granddaughter.
Update: I dosed an ailing housemate. She feels better, too. I may start a mail-order influenza "cure" business, if anyone knows where I can get a truckload of onions at rock-bottom prices?