Occam’s razor

Macraea laricifolia (Romerillo)

Pretty much every year, the males in my household come down with a cold. I am less often afflicted; men are after all, the weaker sex. The last cold I remember having several years ago, left me with a stopped up ear that lasted so long I began to wonder whether I’d ever recover. (I did.)

The Cuban remedy is “inhalaciones” – you bring a pot of water to boil on the stove, remove it, and then breathe in as much of the steam as you can tolerate. Five minutes are ideal, several times a day. I find even a minute intolerable and have always viewed the remedy skeptically. So I felt somewhat vindicated several weeks ago when some Cuban nurses visiting from Spain pointed out that “inhalaciones” are no longer recommended. Cubans still do not agree, however. They say that this claim is nothing more than a first world plot to hawk cold medicines. Which could also be true.

Anyway, the latest viral round here in October left my son with ears that remained stopped up long after the chest cold had departed. I told him to try closing his mouth, pinching his nose, and blowing. No difference. His hearing was obviously affected – if I spoke to him in a normal tone, he had difficulty hearing me, and his teacher let him leave class early several times so I might try to resolve the probIem with a doctor. First I took him to the neighborhood clinic, though I suspected it would be futile because the last time this happened, I was told they were lacking one of those medical penlights for ear exams. Still no penlight. Later I took him to the pediatric hospital’s emergency room and after a three hour wait was told he had an ear infection. Amoxicillin for a week. No change.

The HMO system in the US is very similar to the Cuban system. You have a local “primary” physician (in our case, the one without the penlight), and for a broader array of services, you can visit a polyclinic, where you can also obtain a reference to a specialist. It is free, but somewhat time consuming, and a bit of a lottery. We opted for a doctor in the family who might help speed things up with a reference to another doctor. Since pediatric ear-nose-throat specialists are somewhat rare, I wouldn’t say it ended up being any faster, but when we finally saw one, she was excellent.

At this point, the deafness had remained unchanged for more than a month and I found myself in the embarrassing position of questioning my abilities as a mother while my imagination ran wild. I could admit this to very few people however, and when I finally (sheepishly) mentioned it to a close, trusted friend he laughed and said, “Yeah, I get what you’re driving at. He is an American, after all.”

The ENT’s diagnosis was an allergic inflammation in the ear canals, and in addition to limiting exposure to the family cat, she suggested we pursue a traditional remedy: inhalations, coupled with nasal lavage. Green medicine is very well integrated into the Cuban medical system and I was instructed to gather and boil an herb that grows wild here – romerillo – and use a syringe without a needle to push the fluid through the nasal cavity with mild pressure, three times a day. Nasal drops were also prescribed, to be followed by a hearing test in two weeks.

Yesterday we went for the hearing test, part of which was electronic and part of which consisted of the nurse walking into the adjacent room and whispering common words like “chocolate” and “amor,” while my son repeated the words from a distance. “His hearing is better than any of ours,” she said gruffly.

I’m not saying that the hearing difficulties claimed by diplomats working in Cuba are positively the result of colds or allergies, or that they might have been cured with romerillo. I am saying though, that there are many things that can cause persistent hearing problems without blaming imaginary top-secret sonic weapons, and that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.



2 Replies to “Occam’s razor”

  1. Good insights into the common sense approach to public health in Cuba. Delighted that your son has recovered.
    And will bear the romerillo in mind for future use…

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