Woster: Still around and still alive — even without online health advice

For conditions that didn’t respond to a cool cloth to the forehead, there was a technique called watchful waiting.

Terry Woster
Terry Woster

I was thinking the other day, back on the farm an internet connection and a laptop would have been nice so my mom could have researched her five children’s injuries and ailments.

Anyone who grew up on a farm, especially on the plains where farms were as far from each other as from town, knows doctoring was done by a parent, usually a mother. My mom had no medical training, but she knew measles, mumps, chickenpox, whooping cough, ankle sprains and shoulder dislocations.

She had to know those things. Rural folks never just hopped in the car and sped to town for every rash, head ache, cough, ear ache or fever. After my family started living in town for the school year, we went to the downtown clinic for serious stuff. On the farm, though, our mom diagnosed and treated health problems.

Treatment was simple in the days before vaccines and such. Most ailments meant long stretches in bed with the shades pulled, a steamer running and a cool, damp wash cloth draped across the forehead. An enterprising person might have become wealthy selling medical grade wash cloths in rural America. Like an elixir in a medicine show, damp wash cloths treated whatever ailed you.

For conditions that didn’t respond to a cool cloth to the forehead, there was a technique called watchful waiting. Today, it is sometimes used to care for men with low-grade or slow-growing prostate cancer. Keep an eye on it and see what happens. Sometimes surgery or radiation can be avoided that way,


In my mom’s day, watchful waiting meant exhausting her bag of medical tricks and waiting — hoping, praying and fretting, sure, but waiting. I fell on the furnace grate as a toddler and cut crisscross marks deep into my knee. My mom applied soapy water to clean the wound, swabbed it with Mercurochrome, applied a bandage (which fell off within minutes) and said, “We will watch that for a while.’’

We did. Things healed nicely, with no sign of infection or complications. More than a year later, though, the wound began festering. After a day or two, a torn piece of my old jeans came out. My mom did all she could to make sure no foreign material remained under the skin, disinfected the area again and applied another bandage. And — I am not making this up — she said, “We’ll watch that for a while.’’

We watchfully waited as my big sister slipped in and out of consciousness for a day or two after she banged her head in a bicycle wreck. We watchfully waited with my little brother after he broke his arm throwing dirt clods at ducks on the stock pond in the pasture. Eventually, he got a visit to town and a cast for his arm, but not before we waited — watchfully.

With an internet connection and a laptop, my mom could have researched each of those conditions, and many more. Linked to countless online sources, some legitimate, she could have looked up every rash, scrape and cut any of her kids brought home.

With her lively imagination and ability to fret, I can picture her stumbling on a description of some exotic illness from the Dutch West Indies or the mountains of Peru and asking our dad if we should find a treatment.

We didn’t know about computers, though. She relied on what her mother had told her about medicine, what she had seen in infrequent visits to a town doctor, and her own experience and instincts as a mother.

She did all right, too. Her five children, all in their 70s and 80s now, are still around and still healthy, relatively speaking. That is remarkable when you think about it. She didn’t need the internet at all.

As I recall those days, though, I work up an image of my mom sitting next to the corner hutch in the farm kitchen, dialing that black rotary telephone, trying to make an online connection. On the laptop screen a “waiting to connect’’ spiral would spin, and somewhere half a dozen party-line neighbors would hold their own phone receivers, trying to figure out who she was calling.

Opinion by Terry Woster
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