Karl Olsson Refresher

Fantasian Flu

Covenant Chris Craft University and Pietisten continue their series of selections from the writings of Dr. Karl Olsson (1913-1996). This essay was originally published in The Covenant Weekly in 1956 and reprinted in Things Common and Preferred—Christian Perspectives…. Dr. Olsson’s column appeared in the Weekly from 1955 to 1959. — Provost, Chesterton Chair of Literature, CCCU

The Fortunes of a Hypochondriac

The pun in the title is not mine, but I shall take the liberty of using it. I have just risen from a minor illness: a cold complicated by a slight temperature (taken frequently), weakness, and a lack of solidity in reality contact. I am sure I would have thought nothing of it and probably have ridden out the storm without bed rest and aspirin if I hadn’t heard since last summer of the Asian Flu. There were rumors in European ports of ghostly ships riding at anchor in which crew and passengers lay victims of the new plague. As the rumors fattened, the scene became touched with the bizarre. Now they were no longer sick people but bodies deprived of breath and stacked like cordwood.

I am not in any sense belittling the seriousness of the epidemic or the sensible measures which are being taken to cope with it. I am grateful to medical science for everything it does for us, and it does a great deal. One of these days I shall be lining up with my fellow citizens with my arm bared.

But what I do want to say emphatically is that the present epidemic as it is developing in the newspapers is a serious strain on those of us who happen to be hypochrondriacs.

Major Sufferers

I do not belong to the Major Pathophobes (those having abnormal fear of illness). I do not walk around with cotton in my ears. I do not object to talking to people on the phone when they have the sniffles. I do not turn the doorhandle of a public lavatory with a paper towel wrapped around my hand. Nor after a ride on the streetcar do I swab my nasal membranes with an antiseptic. But I am of the minor sufferers. As soon as the first fat headlines about an epidemic hits the paper, I begin to feel symptoms. And when the telephone begins to report the cases in the neighborhood, I am an infected, if not dead, duck.

Pall Over Christmas

I remember getting a copy of Borden of Yale for Christmas when I was still a very young hypochondriac. The story depressed me. It was a Protestant saint’s legend, and at fifteen I felt the virtues of Borden of Yale to be not only unattainable but unbelievable. It is nevertheless possible that I could have survived the book if Borden had not died of cerebro-spinal meningitis. But that did it. I fled the dark blue cover and the gold imprint like the literal plague. In an irrational way I felt that the writer of the book, and even Borden himself, had conspired to spoil my holiday. For several mornings I felt my forehead, rotated my head briskly to see if my neck was stiffening, and looked for other tell-tale symptoms.

I do not want to bore my readers or fellow sufferers with any detailed account of my growth into hypochondriac maturity. It is with this as with physical symptoms. They interest only the sufferer. But during my long and reasonably healthy years I have lived through in my fancy the symptoms of cancer, Hodgkins disease, cardiac collapse, tuberculosis, total deafness (when my watch had stopped), the various types of desperate dysentery, polio, botulism (after eating some vague sausages), and our old friend meningitis.

Ministry of Mercy

The latter fear, which was almost my undoing, served in a peculiar way to give me a little saner attitude toward myself. One December night, 1942, in Camp Polk, the Division Chaplain’s Office got an urgent call from the Station Hospital. It concerned a man dying of meningitis, and, since I was junior, I was asked to go. I can still recall the groveling fear with which I approached the contagious ward. I was met at the door by a nurse who with good cheer bustled me toward the sickroom. On the way I mumbled thickly about a mask, but she didn’t hear me. I stepped warily into the room. I saw my first meningitis sufferer. The man was in a coma and he had the severe rash which I knew was a symptom of his disease. I went through the motion of praying for him, but I was holding my breath for fear of sucking in the infection, and I was screaming my heart for my own deliverance: “Lord, take care of me, me.” I learned very little about meningitis that night but I learned something about myself.

There was in me a buffoon of Satan—an abject little mousie with vibrating whiskers and a fiercely terrified heart. Deep within there was a squeak and a scurry from which in my mortal life I should never be delivered.