About two decades ago, I watched as a neighborhood child stumbled into a nest of yellow jackets. Her mother wasn't home so I ran out, dragged the frightened youngster into my house and gave her a teaspoon of a liquid antihistamine I kept because of my own kid's allergies.
Later, a little taken aback at my chutzpah -- after all, do-it-yourself medicine hadn't quite attained its current cachet -- I called my neighbor to suggest she contact her pediatrician.
"Oh, my daughter's fine," said my neighbor. About four hours later, she called back. "Uh-oh," I worried, "now I'm in trouble."
But all she wanted to know was this: "What did you say you gave her? It must have worn off, because all of a sudden she's got all these bites . . . Do you have any more?"
"That was exactly the right thing to do," says Washington internist Carole Horn. "It's easier today, because so many antihistamines don't even need prescriptions."
I feel reassured, even though it's 20 years later. More than ever, Americans are taking charge of their health care -- which often means treating themselves at home. Maybe it all began when doctors stopped making house calls. Maybe it was the take-two-aspirins-and-call-me-in-the- morning syndrome. Or the fitness fetish.
Or perhaps it was the soaring cost of hospitals, or the simplification of so many tests that in some cases -- testing sugar levels in the blood, for example -- quite literally, even a child can do it.
In any case, the philosophy that everybody should be responsible for his or her own health has caught on, and there are plenty of books, pills, gadgets, videotapes and cassettes to keep a whole new business healthy and a whole population health conscious.
Of course we're talking small medical problems here. Nobody expects you to perform a kitchen table appendectomy. When you're not sure if the problem is large or small, it's a good idea to consult your doctor, since it's better to be too careful than not careful enough.
Some of these suggestions, tips, books and resources can help alleviate a lot of wear and tear in the unnecessary panic department. And then, sometimes, a splinter in a grown man's foot can stir up enough moaning and groaning to make a tweezer-wielder feel like a neurosurgeon. There have always been people around who, if you really wanted to get technical about it, practiced a kind of home medicine without benefit of a chemistry course, much less a medical degree.
One southern public health school sent a survey team out into the neighboring population a few years ago and asked people if they had someone they went to before they called the doctor. And if so, who was it? They found that almost everybody screened their medical "crises" through a friend or neighbor and moreover, without even knowing it, a lot of them were going through the same person. The surveyors gave these people a name, lay health practitioners, and invited them to a special course at the public health school.
A decade earlier, they'd probably have been indicted for practicing medicine without a license. A Laborador retriever of our acquaintance was happily fetching a red Frisbee from the ocean a few years ago. Then he lost it, somehow. But not to come back empty-mouthed, he plopped a huge, fully developed jellyfish at his master's feet. Then went back for another, and another . . . He never did find the Frisbee, but his pile of jellyfish had the life guards ready to hire him on the spot.
Then, poor idiot dog, his mouth began to show the effects. His tongue lolled out, swollen and discolored, his sad eyes looked even sadder. He looked hungrily at his food and drooled, but couldn't eat a bite. Our friendly neighbhorhood lay health practitioner gave him a dish liberally laced with meat tenderizer. (And a little cheese which was absolutely irresistable, stung tongue or no.) It worked. Magically, almost instantly. The sting was gone. So was the dinner.
The point is, meat tenderizer breaks down the protein of the sea-nettle venom and neutralizes the sting. Usually works just as well when applied to stings on people as on dogs. Dr. Carole Horn is a persuasive and sensible medical adviser. But she is not so tradition-bound that she won't let a little folklore creep into her practice when it deserves to. The old wives, she recognizes, were not always wrong.
One such item is the aloe vera plant.
Next to syrup of ipacec, it is Horn's top ingredient in a home medical treatment center. In Floridian climates, the plant can grow in the garden. Where winter comes, it needs to be in a pot, but it does well in the house with a minimum of care.
The leaves of the aloe vera contain a soothing juice -- soothing to minor cuts, scrapes, bites, burns. Break off a leaf and break it again so the juice drips out of the leaf's veins. Its currently popular presence in an assortment of sun lotions, creams and ointments may not be much help because too little of the product is actually the juice. But straight from the plant, "it really works," says Horn.
"It really does," confirms one woman. "I thought my mother-in-law was really nuts when she ran out to her jungley backyard in Florida and came back in with this gunk she wanted to put on my four-year-old's burn. But my kid stopped howling within seconds. I'm a believer -- that was 15 years ago." The examples here are about as anecdotal as you can get -- the anathema of good scientific knowledge. But as an introduction to taking care of yourself without recourse to doctors, health forms or just waiting hours for the doc to return your phone call, it is a pretty good beginning.