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OFF THE SCENE: Curing the common cold

April 7, 2011
I got a cold. Touch of the flu. Plugged sinuses. Ache all over. The whole bit. How did I get it? Probably hanging out with a neighbor’s kids. They always come home loaded with germs and, not being used to such assaults on my immune system I can succumb easily. In such circumstances I believe in lots of rest, liquids and vitamin C. In my misery I was reminded how a similar situation was treated when I was living in Siberia on a Fulbright 5 years ago.

Then I had also been around children. I was working with five children’s hospitals, but it was attending my friend Ayuna’s birthday dinner, whose her ten-year old daughter was sick, that was the tipping point. They were having a cold spring, so in addition to being in a small house with a sick child I got a real chill that day. I had to go home and jump in the shower to warm up.

Yanzhima, the director of a local Buddhist institute, first spied the symptoms, gave me the bent eye and said, “You need Baikal Farm’s Balsam. It’s made from natural herbs from the Sayane Mountains and based on Tibetan medicine. Three teaspoons in each cup of tea each morning and night.”

She failed to mention that it was 90 proof. Whatever, it halted the flu in its tracks. Didn’t cure it, but there I teetered, my nose a dead weight in the balance. Baikal Farm’s Balsam certainly fostered sleep, always useful in such circumstances, which was bolstered with chicken soup provided by the Khambo Lama, the head of Buddhism in Russia. After a couple days of sleeping, I was up and about but breathing was a chore. The nose simply was not functioning.

“Banaya,” said Alexsey, a local practitioner of eastern medicine. “You need to steam those passages open.” A banya is a Russian version of a sauna, only hotter with belts of vodka between boiling oneself and leaping into snow banks.

We tried that. I ended up clean, pink, relaxed and still clogged. The vise on my sinuses was tightening. I attempted to loosen its grip with the last of my Nyquil. Out of American cold technologies, Olga, the dean of academics at the Academy of Culture where I taught, took me to a pharmacy. After conferring with the pharmacist, she had me purchase a nose spray. It helped, but made me feel a bit woozy, especially when combined with tea laced with Baikal Farm’s Balsam that Yanzhima insisted I drink daily.

Ayuna heard about my sufferings, came over, and told me that my approach was not the best. She felt a bit responsible for my condition, as I may have contracted the cold from her daughter, and was determined to cure me. Next day when returning from class, my floor lady handed me a box of salt and a note from Ayuna telling me to put a teaspoon in a small teapot filled with warm (previously boiled) water, lean back, and pour the contents down my nose.

Water boarding oneself as a treatment for the common cold seemed a severe idea but I was getting desperate – desperate to end the cold and end the array of determined friends testing out their competing remedies. I tried Ayuna’s approach. (I since learned these are called Neti Pots). It helped, but it wasn’t the most pleasant experience. She checked on me the next day and felt that I was not being aggressive enough, produced what first looked like a huge needle, and demonstrated on me how to power salt water up my nose.

A lot came out, but not satisfied with less than total victory she gave me a list of various anti bacteria agents, a bulb like apparatus and other things to purchase. I shared the list with Olga who felt I should be using sea salt, not any sea salt, but ancient salt from a Paleolithic seabed. It had a bluish tint due to added eucalyptus essence. She felt I should use only water that had been frozen and then thawed as Siberians believe freezing water changes its structure to become aligned with the body’s liquids and helps filter the water of any impurities. And to soak my feet in warm water prepared with dried mustard, place dried mustard in my socks and sleep with them on. I tried that, except I forgot the socks part.

Low and behold I woke with air moving faintly through both channels. Gad. Hope at last. I felt overjoyed and a huge wave of relief washed over me, a feeling that was not to last. Ayuna stopped by on her way to work. She looked at my nose and listened to my breathing. “Did you purchase the items on the list I gave you?” she said.

“Ah, no,” I said.

“Why not?” her voice getting a steely edge to it.

“Well, I was feeling better and I resist using drugs if I don’t have to.”

“They are not drugs. They are medicine. Better is not good enough. They are not expensive. Don’t move. I’m going across to the pharmacy right now.” I didn’t move. This time she came back with a blue bulb designed specifically for such challenges of hydro-powering liquids up noses of malcontents along with six tiny hourglass-shaped glass capsules filled with a liquid, and a tiny pie shaped file which she used to sand away at the glass and then snap it open. This anti-bacteria agent went up the nostril, which thirty minutes later shut tighter than a drum and so remained even after an afternoon of hard cross-country skiing with Olga and her husband. (I was attempting the Adirondack sweat it out approach)

That night after dinner, Olga’s husband Lanya said, “There is an old Russian saying, that if you attack a cold with medicines, herbs, nose drops and such approaches, you can clear it up in a week, and if you do nothing, it will go away of its own accord in seven days.”

I have found that his advice works equally well in the United States.



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