Chicken pox is a grim rite of passage for kids. In my family, we even have photos of my brothers and I proudly showing off our spotty backs. Indeed, one of my earliest memories is finding this strange crop of itchy spots all over.
Last week, it was the turn of our children to undergo the grim rite of passage brought to humanity by the varicella roster virus. The kids had seemed slightly below par, but nothing unusual in this season of colds and viruses. However, just before school one morning, my wife noticed some red spots on Seán, and a closer examination revealed many more emerging. A quick check of Rose showed the same nascent outbreak. It was going to be a tough week.
My wife, however, had timed the outbreak brilliantly. She was to be working long-day shifts until 10 pm for the whole week. Even 12-hour shifts as a junior doctor are a breeze compared to managing three small children amid an outbreak of chickenpox. I stoically informed my employer of what lay ahead and made arrangements to work from home.
What followed was a week-long blur as the house took on the appearance of a field hospital. All normal restrictions on TV and iPads were abandoned and Netflix become my matron in chief. The heating was cranked up and all comforts possible were provided to the children. Snacks, medicines and creams were stockpiled.
The first day, I sat them down and explained what lay ahead: that the spots would get sorer and itchier in the next day or two, while temperatures and sleepiness would increase, as appetites decreased. Do not itch those spots, I said, but pat them. They had yet to be hit by the full force of the illness and they seemed quite chirpy about what lay ahead, seeing it almost as an adventure.
But within hours, their temperatures did indeed rise sharply. I found one asleep on the sofa, and the other on the floor, both wrapped in duvets. The spots worsened quickly and it was shocking to see them transformed by these angry welts. The pain was real and, despite doses of Calpol, they began to suffer. Their fevers rose to frightening levels as their bodies fought off the virus.
I was sharply reminded that the chicken pox is no trivial thing. Having slept all day, they would wake crying in pain in the middle of the night. Normal healthy eating rules were also abandoned in the interests of getting some energy into their bodies, even in the form of Maltesers or jellies. In the midst of the mayhem, our two-year-old needed constant attention too. Supplies were ordered via the Tesco delivery man, who took on the hue of a visiting angel, as he arrived with essentials.
As the illness peaked, that deep bond between child and parent did too. In the midst of their suffering, they learn afresh how completely we care for them. They see again that we will cast everything aside for them when they need us, no matter what. We parents, though exhausted, are reminded that even our increasingly big and brazen children are still vulnerable. They are once again as needful as babes in arms.
Their recovery was presaged by the first announcements that they were bored. Once they were no longer infectious, they willingly went back to school, but hesitantly. They felt embarrassed by their spots, and Seán even anxiously brushed his hair forward to cover those on his forehead, and raised his collar to cover his neck. Yet they needn’t have worried, as they returned to a half-empty school, such was the outbreak. All the cool kids had chickenpox, it transpired. .
So ended my week-long shift as a paediatric nurse. I returned, exhausted, to the blessed relief of work.