On Valentine's Day, when other people were exchanging chocolates, flowers and maybe even body fluids, I was undergoing the Attack of the Choleliths.
That's “gallstones,” for those lucky enough never to have had them. “Cholelith” makes a swell Scrabble word in the future but it's not much fun in the moment. It really did feel like an attack — a series of body blows from a concrete boxing glove.
During a February 28 surgical consultation, I was given the option for a March 1 laparascopic procedure. I accepted instantly, then whirled and howled for the next day and a half (more on that below). Check-in was at 6 a.m., surgery at 7:30, and at high noon I headed home to recuperate — frugally.
As an independent contractor, I don't get sick days as such. I just don't get paid if I don't write. This time I was lucky: Since I had some warning, I was able to prepare for a temporary decommissioning — and because I have a year-round readiness plan in place, I was able to use most of those 36 hours to get ahead of myself, writing-wise.
How about you? If you got sick tomorrow, would you be able to cope not just physically, but financially?
Suppose the virus that's going around vaults the walls of your cubicle tomorrow. Could you stay reasonably nourished and medicated while the sickness ran its course? Or would you have to stagger to the nearest store for TheraFlu and Campbell's?
Before you get sick is the time to shop for your favorite broths and over-the-counter meds. Best-case scenario: You buy them on sale and use coupons. Even if you don't, you'll still be buying at a reasonable price. (Reality check: Next time you're in a convenience store, note the cost of a bottle of NyQuil.)
People who don't get sick often may not think about what they'd need if they suddenly came down with the epizootic. Imagine yourself at home with a bad strep throat. Now imagine that the only things in your cupboards are instant coffee, peanut butter and a bag of scratchy, salty tortilla chips.
When your eyes stop watering, read my list of basic sick stuff, which can be tailored to suit your dietary or medicinal values:
Basic Sick Stuff
- Soup, in generic cans or organic cartons.
- If you think you might have to vomit, you might only want broth. Speaking of barf: A few spoons of the syrup from canned fruit will quiet an upset stomach, so keep a can or two on hand.
- If the other end of the GI tract is the source (ahem) of your illness, remember the BRAT diet: bananas, rice, applesauce, toast. I always have at least one loaf of bread in the freezer; plain crackers are good, too.
- Gatorade or Powerade will replace electrolytes.
- Hot tea, especially with honey, is super-soothing.
- Canned, bottled or frozen juice tastes great if you're feverish; they're also good smoothie-starters if you've had oral surgery and can't chew. (Remember, too, that dental work is God's way of saying, “Oh, go ahead — have a milkshake for lunch.”)
- Whether you do Big Pharma or organic/homeopathic/herbal, lay in a basic supply of meds at the best prices you can find. I'm currently dipping into some Advil that I got free after rebate. A few months ago, coupons and rebates got me some free Ricola lozenges and some nearly free cold meds. Here's hoping I don't need them.
If your ailment is not the fever-and-ague type — say, a back injury or a broken leg — you'll be thankful if you have a nice, deep pantry. You don't need the stress of trying to shop, or of fretting about the cost of delivered groceries and/or takeout.
Note: It's really OK to cook like a peasant vs. a gourmand for a while. Preparing an elaborate spread just isn't as much fun while balancing on crutches or wracked by lumbar spasms.
You won't come down with a nutritional deficiency if you have PBJs three times in a week either. They're inexpensive and easy, and pretty tasty with some of that canned chicken soup. No one has to know you didn't make your own stock.
If you're already a batch-cooking practitioner, take a moment to congratulate yourself on your cleverness: You've got a freezer full of goodies to heat and eat. Even if you're not a batch-cooker, an impending date for elective surgery could spur you to fix a few favorite dishes and parcel them into freezer containers.
In my case, I was told I probably wouldn't feel like eating for a few days. My solution was to put a large batch of oatmeal in the fridge, with flaxseed and milk already mixed in, and to make an extra batch of yogurt. Boy, was I glad I did. I'd heat up two or three spoons of horse-food at a time or add a touch of homemade jam to an eighth of a cup of yogurt. Both were easy to get down, and they also cushioned the Oxycodone/Tylenol pills. (That's probably the weirdest word-pairing I'll use this year.)
I also moved my canned soup from a lower cupboard to one at eye level. If you're having surgery, I would suggest you do the same, so that you can reach for them without saying bad, bad words.
You've gotta have friends
Illness can leave you feeling isolated, vulnerable and even a little bit afraid. In some cases it's actually dangerous for you to be alone, e.g., you're too unsteady to get to and from the bathroom or to fix meals.
Obviously, you'd do well to polish up your inner strength — other people survived head colds, and you will too. But you should accept help graciously when it's warranted. Because I'd had general anesthesia, a relative spent about five hours at my apartment. (I napped most of that time.) After she was sure I could move around on my own and form complete sentences, she left. I went back to bed.
Single people are definitely more challenged, but even if you have a partner he or she probably can't be with you every second. By all means answer in the affirmative when family or friends ask “Is there anything I can do?” You might need someone to stay with you for a night or two if you're wobbly, to pick up a prescription refill, to drop by (not unannounced!) and watch a movie with you. (Hint: Laughter is the best medicine but it plays hob with stitches.)
Practice saying “thank you kindly” if your BFF offers a ride to PT, or if your sister drops by with a casserole and also runs the vacuum and scoops the litter box. Otherwise you'll have to hire part-time help. Family and friends will work for free.
And when I say “free,” I mean “they do it because they love you.” You'll be lots more lovable if:
- You make it clear you will reciprocate in times of illness or in terms of loaning your pickup next time BFF changes apartments.
- You write notes about how much you appreciated the help. If your sister or pal went beyond the pale — think: changing dressings, emptying urinals — include a small gift with that note. I suggest a discounted gift card to the person's favorite place. Still way cheaper than a day nurse.
Life without salary
My health insurance deductible is $1,500. While I'm not nuts about the out-of-pocket expenses, I can meet them because I have an emergency fund. How's your EF? If you don't have one, start one. Please. Today. For tips on jump-starting your savings, see “Think you can't afford an emergency fund? Think again!”
As noted, I don't get paid if I don't work. Quite a few people — new employees, part-time workers, entrepreneurs — are in the same boat. If you missed a week's salary, would you be able to meet basic expenses? This is another reason that the EF is vital.
Nobody expects to get sick or injured. I sure didn't expect gall bladder surgery, although my sister points out that our grandmother had hers taken out. Mom-Mom lived on home-grown produce and game meat and fish and never weighed more than 110 pounds during her 90-year lifespan, yet gallbladder woes sent her to a surgeon.
In other words, no matter how healthy you think you are, you might be blindsided one of these days. Build your savings.
Another tactic: See if there's any part of your job that you can do from home. Suppose you blew out your knee, necessitating surgery and a period of immobility. Any chance you could telecommute, even half-time (once you're off your own brand of Oxycodone/Tylenol, that is)?
Keeping at least some work coming in might prevent the boss from wondering if he could get along without you permanently. This is an unsavory line of thinking from a supervisor.
This won't work for every job. But think about it now, while you're still healthy.
A few more tips
One of the things I did in that day and a half before surgery was to pick up my pain meds. If you know you're going to need a prescription, look for the best deal you can get. Companies like LowestMed or GoodRx can help with that. If you are an inveterate reader of the drugstore ads, you already know which ones offer gift cards for new prescriptions.
If you'll need a heating pad, shower chair or other specialty item, use a price aggregator such as PriceGrabber or online deal sites like Savings.com or Retail Me Not. You can usually get free shipping, and having this stuff delivered saves you one or more trips.
Keep a water bottle or pitcher within reach. This is especially useful if it hurts to get out of bed or off the couch. Yes, the docs want you up and walking; but if you drink enough water, you'll get up eventually.
Make sure your laundry is done. When you're recovering from surgery is not the time to drag a bag of clothes to the basement.
Lay in a supply of books you always meant to read. They're a terrific distraction from the itch of a knitting bone.
Sleep. Your body needs to heal, and good sleep is one of the best investments you can make. Giving in to naps does not make you a bad person. Just blame it on the Oxycodone/Tylenol.
Author: Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman is an award-winning journalist who writes the Frugal Cool daily blog for MSN Money and blogs at DonnaFreedman.com .
Donna has lived the frugal life. She has been a college dropout, a single mom, a newspaper reporter in Chicago and Alaska, and a late-in-life university student. She has also picked tomatoes, worked on a chicken farm, managed an apartment building, inspected and packed bottles in a glass factory, babysat, cleaned houses, mystery-shopped, set type, and sold doughnuts, movie tickets, fresh Jersey produce and, when things got bad, her own blood.
While getting divorced she went back to school and helped to support a disabled adult daughter by working a handful of part-time jobs.
Donna has freelanced for numerous magazines and newspapers. Her work has won awards from organizations such as the Society of Professional Journalists, the Women's Sports Foundation, the Association for Women in Communications and the Society of American Travel Writers. A resident of Seattle, she is the mother of
one daughter, Abigail Perry â€“ whoâ€™s also a writer. Go figure.