The Dangers of Summer

This was my most recent column in the Daily Yonder.  Unfortunately, the Yonder website is down or I’d give you a hot link.

It’s Spring now and all across the land things are bursting with life. Flowers are in bloom, yards are bright with new grass and the sun is high in the sky. My car was, for a while, covered in a thick, green coat of pollen. Carpenter bees are still turning my log-house into Swiss Cheese. It’s pretty out, the sky is blue and the days are warm. Blah, blah, blah. I for one don’t really like this time of year. And it’s mainly because warm weather brings me patients with all kinds of injuries; some of them pretty nasty.

In rural America, there are dangers that seldom occur to people in more populous, metropolitan areas. Ironically, though, rural folks often assume that life in the city is more dangerous. And indeed, murder rates are higher.

However, according to the CDC, deaths from unintentional injuries are 50% higher in rural than urban areas; https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2017/p0112-rural-death-risk.html. These differences in death are due to several causes; rural citizens are further from necessary health care and are closer to large lakes and rivers, use dangerous equipment and firearms. Doubtless there are many factors involved in the difference.

Of course, some of the perils of rural life are just the result of living in close proximity to nature and all her deadly charms. In Spring and Summer, we encounter creatures that bite and sting. Just last year, while mowing our lawn, we must have run over yellow-jacket nests at least half a dozen times. By the end of the summer I just let the grass grow. ‘You win!’ I screamed to the little jerks, hiding in their holes. Whether it’s scorpions, hornets, wasps, centipedes, spiders or some other tiny monster, we simply encounter such creatures more in the warm months. And their various stings and bites, while rarely fatal, can cause dangerous allergic reactions. And make your spouse want to leave the area and move to a condo.

Fortunately, deaths from allergic reactions of all sorts are rare, and around 99 deaths per year in the US. https://www.aaaai.org/global/latest-research-summaries/Current-JACI-Research/death-anaphylaxis. Still, If you or your loved-ones are afflicted with such allergies, please talk to your physician about what to keep on hand; hopefully epinephrine injectors will get cheaper. And there are some other brands besides the ‘Epi-Pen’ that should be less costly. They just hurt a lot (the Black Widow) or make ugly wounds (the Brown Recluse).

Poisonous reptiles (Copperhead, Rattlesnake, Cottonmouth and Coral snakes) are also a feature of rural life in many areas. Those who ‘ooh and aww’ in city zoo reptile houses rarely have the singular delight of encountering these wonders in their own yards or whilst walking through the woods. But these creatures, while important to the eco-system, can deliver nasty wounds and in rare cases can be lethal. They’re certainly dangerous to your finances given the cost of anti-venin to treat the bites. So be aware as you go about working and playing in places where snakes are also enjoying the summer sun, or cool evenings.

Remember also that at least in the US, many snake bites occur because people are 1) intoxicated and 2) trying to mess with the snakes. And yes, ladies, this is a peculiar affliction of men that starts with ‘hey, betcha’ I can catch him!’ Actually, I have it on good authority that snakes don’t even like the taste of drunk people and would like to be left alone, thank you very much.

Now, other dangers of rural life have to do with the necessity of power-tools. In my own life, the chain-saw, weed-trimmer and lawn-mower are absolutely essential to keeping nature from simply over-running our house. But as the dear reader knows, these are things to be treated with great respect. Please use appropriate protective gear, like safety glasses, gloves, appropriate clothes and heavy shoes. Of course, those who work on highways or farms use much bigger types of tools and heavy equipment and have to be ever watchful. This is probably more true in Spring and Summer because that’s when farms are busy, roads need to be fixed, bridges repaired, pipes laid, power-lines connected, houses constructed and all the rest. God bless all those folks who make our lives better by doing hard, dangerous work on the hottest of days.

And of course, warm weather brings assorted recreational dangers. Hiking and camping are delights, but someone always manages to fall off of a waterfall or cliff-edge, break an ankle, sustain a laceration or encounter said biting and stinging creatures.
Bicyclists and motorcyclists look forward to warm months so that they can enjoy the open, dry road. But helmets really are important as is appropriate protective clothing, reflective material and good education. I’ve seen patients who left their tanned skin on 50 yards of asphalt. Nobody enjoys that.

Lakes and rivers are warm, and filled with persons who typically want to be dragged at high speed behind a power-boat while skiing, clinging to a large inflatable item for dear life, or kneeling on a wake-board. Likewise, fishermen head to their favorite spots (either in tournaments or alone for peace and quiet) and other aquatic persons kayak, canoe and raft the rivers that draw so many to rural America for vacations. All of which is fantastic! But remember to learn to swim, always wear life-jackets and follow local laws when doing all of the above.

Obviously there’s always the danger of heat exhaustion, heat stroke, dehydration and sunburn. We all have to remember to be careful to stay hydrated and remember that beer and caffeinated sodas don’t help. Also be reasonable about sun exposure and wear sunscreen to hep protect against skin cancers.

And if the gentle reader wishes to avoid painful foreign bodies and sutures, here’s another bit of advice. Wear shoes all; all the time. Simple and to the point.

Spring and Summer are glorious in rural America. But the dangers are many; I’ve only skimmed the surface here. Please remember to be safe, think before doing, follow the laws, don’t drink and boat, drive, ride, ski, pick up snakes, work with power-tools or do just about anything else. If you’re going to drink, find a chair and sit in it. That bit of advice would keep many an ER quiet all night long. Also remember that everything I said you shouldn’t do when drinking is something you shouldn’t do while taking narcotic pain medications.

I hope everyone has a great summer, free of emergencies. And that you can still be around when that first breath of cool air dips down from Canada and a proper season comes back once more.

Just please, please, be careful out there, OK?

(If you’re interested, here’s another link to a nice discussion of the unique injuries common in rural America. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1448517/)

Grandmothers as an ER Preventative Measure

This is my column in the latest edition of the Daily Yonder.  Enjoy and share as you see fit. Link followed by text.

Life & Limb: Grandmothers — An Ounce of Prevention for a Pound of ‘Freak Out’

 
I have a theory that engaged, wise grandmothers could save families a lot of money by helping avoid hospital visits. Personally, my grandmothers were very important to my well-being as a child. Not only did they feed and dote on me, they kept me healthy and safe. I remember the time I made a spear out of a sharpened stick. (OK, one of the times.) I was running with it, and as I drew back my arm to fling it across the field I must have stumbled. It ended up going through the top of my shoe and between two toes, scraping them on the way to the ground.
I limped to the big white house under the maples where Grandma Leap helped me take off my blood-soaked shoe, cleaned the wound, probably applied Merthiolate (didn’t we all spend our summers painted orange?), and said ‘don’t tell your grandpa, he worries!’ Maybe she knew he’d take my now cool, blood-stained spear away. I was none the worse for the wear.
I have seen injuries like this time and time again in the emergency room. Relatively minor affairs; scrapes, bumps, bruises, stings, nevertheless brought to the hospital by anxious mothers and fathers, new to parenthood or simply far more worried than necessary.
I also remember the smell of Vicks Vaporub, slathered across my coughing, wheezing chest. I remember cool cloths applied during fevers. My grandmothers had those simple skills down pat. Honestly, I don’t ever remember coming to the hospital for a fever as a child. And yet, fever is one of the most common complaints for which parents bring kids to the hospital.

‘He started having a fever an hour ago, so we rushed him to the hospital!’
‘Did you give him anything for the fever?’
‘Nope, we just came straight away. We freaked out and decided it was better safe than sorry!’

I hear that a lot. There was a bruise. ‘I freaked out.’ There was a tick, ‘I freaked out.’ There was a rash. ‘I freaked out.’ The baby’s nose was congested. ‘I freaked out.’ Freaking out never helps anything. And from what I can remember, it was simply something my grandmothers never did. Their job was to draw on centuries of collected cultural and family wisdom, apply personal experience, mix it all with loving attention (and food), and bring calm to all situations. Or bring switches as the situation required.
I’m not suggesting that a family member is all that’s necessary in times of medical need. And admittedly, there are plenty of grandmothers who are as ‘freaked out’ as everyone else. (I’ve met them.) Furthermore, lots of grandmothers and grandfathers are already doing this job as primary caregivers of their children’s children. God bless them.
However, it seems to me that we have an unholy confluence of problems that make people seek healthcare for things our ancestors wouldn’t, or couldn’t have. First of all, families are separated for various reasons from wise older relatives; or don’t have any. Second, people have 24/7 access to online health information that often only increases fear. Third, we have enormous numbers of young individuals and parents who never learned much about their bodies. Add that to the general increase in anxiety that mental health workers report across the land, and families are completely overwhelmed by the sorts of ailments that have afflicted mankind since well before modern medicine existed.
It seems to me that with our long history of self-sufficiency, and our deep-rooted connections to place and family, rural America should be one of those places where grandmothers could make a real difference in an era of limited medical access, coupled with enormous medical anxiety.
Maybe, in the mountains, valleys, bayous and plains that make up rural America we can be health pioneers! What we need to do first is educate young people about how to give simple medical care to themselves and others. First-responder and First-Aid/CPR courses are a great place to start. Second, those of use who are more experienced can reach out to young people and young families; neighbors, church-members, strangers at the food-bank, and offer to be there to teach them how to manage life situations. And how not to ‘freak out.’
Finally, those of us in medicine, whether nurse, physician, medic or other, can spend time educating the people we see so that they know when, and most important when not, to worry. And never to freak out.
A thing that grandmothers, in times past, taught us oh so well.