It was just past three a.m. when she went in for her hourly check on her daughter. Up to this point Olivia had been sleeping comfortably, her breathing shallow and unlabored. As she slowly eased the door of the bedroom open, Olivia’s mother could see that this was no longer the case. Her daughter was flinching in her sleep and sweating profusely, the pillow underneath her head already visibly stained and wet. A check with her hand on Olivia’s forehead confirmed that she had a fever.
Despite her concern, Olivia’s mother sat down in the rocking chair next to the bed and thought for a few seconds about exactly what to do. She certainly had her own instincts about how to care for a person with a fever, however she also knew that her daughter thought much of that knowledge was longer valid. Perhaps there was some value in all of the new medical information in which Olivia believed. Her thoughts were interrupted by the faint cry of the infant from the other room, after which she noticed that Olivia had begun to toss and turn in her bed although she still seemed to be asleep. She also was starting to mutter words, unintelligible but increasing in volume. Deciding that there was no time for anything other than what she already knew, Olivia’s mother shook her daughter’s shoulder in an attempt to wake her up. She could feel the fever’s heat even through the heavy nightgown Olivia wore and the sweat was staring to soak through the garment. Unsuccessful in her initial attempts, Olivia’s mother started to slap her daughter’s face, lightly at first and then more sharply, until Olivia’s eyes suddenly snapped open, glistening and colored red, as she cried out in pain.
“Shhh daughter, I’m right here. You have been tossing and turning in your sleep.”
Olivia buried her face in her hands. “Such an ache in my head. Help me.” She moved her hands and pressed them against her temples, continuing to moan and rock gently back and forth. “Why are my hands so cold?”
Quickly her mother took her right hand and was shocked by how cool it was, a marked contrast to the high heat coming off of Olivia’s skin. She had seen this several times before and only hoped that the general delirium which often accompanied a fever such as this would not manifest itself in her daughter. This hope was quickly dashed as Olivia started to shake rather violently and cry out.
“The heat, oh please help me, the heat. It reaches up and burns me, reaches me from the darkness, dark hands reaching for me.”
Grabbing her daughter’s shoulders in an attempt to get the shaking to stop, the old woman mustered all of her power as she pushed Olivia back down toward the bed. When her head was finally back on the pillow she cried out again.
“The fires are near, the furnaces are open, thousands of degrees of heat that melt the bones and raise the white towers of light. Help me, I am so cold, bring me to the fire to warm my bones.”
Olivia’s eyes now fluttered open again, more red than before although they seemed focused and alert. Placing her hands over several parts of her daughter’s body, the mother realized that all of the body, except for the hands and feet, was extremely hot and starting to turn a pale pink.
Reaching for the water pitcher on the nightstand, she spoke. “I’m getting you some water Olivia. It will help cool you down while I get a remedy in the kitchen.”
Olivia screamed. “No water! No water! You must not put the fire out! It burns me and warms my bones!” Closing her eyes again, she started to thrash around, repeating the words over and over again, her voice cracking as she screamed. Realizing that perhaps she had not seen such a serious case of a high fever as this one, her mother left her wailing and thrashing in bed and hurried to the kitchen. As she passed by her own room, the infant began to cry louder, a faint echo of Olivia’s screams.
Reaching the kitchen, she quickly opened the cupboard nearest to the stove and removed the battered metal tin from the top shelf. Within this tin were the various components for the kind of medicines preferred by Olivia’s mother, the homeopathic remedies with which she had grown up and which were reinforced by Dr. Martin in his letters. Placing it down on the table, she lit the lamp on the table before returning to the cupboard. The cries of her daughter and granddaughter were increasing as they seemed to be locked in a competition to get her attention. The infant she knew was likely just hungry or wet and would need to wait until she tended to her daughter, for whom she was gravely concerned. Adjusting the lamp to burn more brightly, she reached back into the darkest corner of the cupboard and withdrew the tightly sealed jar that contained the belladonna tincture.
…to be continued