As a young child, I would get really sick two or three times a year. I’d lie on the couch in the family room, with a towel and a bucket, barely able to move. The fevers were so high I couldn’t even watch TV. I’d get weak enough that my mother would have to carry me to the bathroom. Neither Mom nor I remember exactly what age I was when these fevers started, but we think it was first grade and that it happened about four or five times over a two-year period.
I realize in this modern era of medicine at our fingertips, it may sound like my mother was waiting a long time to take me in to be checked. I am the youngest of five, and by the time I came along my mother knew that a viral infection did not need an antibiotic, and that more often than not, our bodies are strong and designed to fight most run-of-the-mill childhood illnesses. She was actually quite diligent with my illness as you will see.
What’s behind a recurring fever?
When this first started happening, day four or five of my fever would inevitably result in a trip to Dr. Nowak’s office, which I grew to dread. Dr. Nowak would listen to my heart and lungs and feel the glands in my neck. Then I would get an extremely painful shot of penicillin in my rumpus that felt like he was throwing a dart at a bullseye. If you’ve ever had a shot of penicillin, it feels like cement being injected into your backside. I was scared to death of him, and it didn’t help that he never spoke to me directly. However, I always got better within two or three days—the beauty of antibiotics.
Dr. Nowak told my mother he didn’t think I needed any further testing, to figure out what was driving the fevers. But once the recurrent pattern of fevers began to emerge, my mother’s gut told her something was triggering them, and we needed to get to the root of the issue.
Stress and recurring illnesses
I called Mar (the name we children affectionately call her) to talk about this pattern back when I wrote my book. She said it always happened around the time of an event in our family, like a graduation party or something. With five kids, some milestone was always on the horizon. Our house would have been buzzing with friends and relatives getting the house ready and food prepared (not that I was likely doing any of that, but I am sure I was running around with all the melee).
Mar noticed that the fevers seemed to be triggered when my system was run down and taxed (stressed) by external factors. (I am having a chuckle as I write this because the same thing happened to me in high school after my brother and I threw a raging party when my parents were out of town. I stayed up all night cleaning the house and two days later, I had an attack of appendicitis and had to have my appendix removed.)
Did I need an antibiotic?
Back to my fevers and my mother’s sleuthing. After about the third episode, Mar started to realize that when these fevers happened, nobody else at home was sick. This became her clue that it wasn’t likely a virus. However, Dr. Nowak seemed content to continue giving me injections of penicillin. He never attempted to find the underlying cause and rebuked my mother’s attempts to do so.
After about the fourth or fifth episode, Mar took me to the Cleveland Clinic for further testing—back then they didn’t require referrals. As she and I talked about this in 2020, we marveled at how she figured it all out. She reminds me a great deal of the incredibly bright and tenacious mothers I see in my practice. How did she even know what type of specialist to take me to or which hospital? As Deb Allen, the amazing pharmacist who works with me—and the mother of teenage triplets—always says in our office, “The mother of a sick child is better than an FBI agent any day of the week at finding answers.”
The proper use of antibiotics
I ended up getting a kidney ultrasound and a VCUG (voiding cystourethrogram). My kidney function was fine, but they discovered I had a small area on one kidney with an abnormal appearance (they also found incidentally that I have four kidneys and four ureters…if you ever need a kidney, you know where to come).
My young ears remember it being explained that this area had carried a low-level infection for much of my childhood. When my immune system was run down, I’d get a kidney infection. So, the high fevers were recurrent kidney infections, which can easily end up in sepsis (an overwhelming full-body infection where the organs begin to shut down).
The doctors at the Cleveland Clinic prescribed a six-month course of a low-dose antibiotic, and I’ve never had a problem since. This is the beauty of conventional medicine—and of a mother trusting her instinct. Watching my own parents trust their guts when it came to raising us, I have always trusted the mothers in my practice when they tell me they think there is something else going on with their child that we have not figured out yet.
This is why I became a pediatrician
As you’ll see throughout my blog and book, food will certainly help many inflammatory issues and it also helps the immune system to work optimally, but we always have to keep the big picture in mind. From my many years of practicing medicine, I can also guarantee that all the right foods and supplements on the planet would not have healed my recurring kidney infections. I needed a strong course of antibiotics to resolve each kidney infection I had. And then I needed a less potent antibiotic over that long duration to fully clear the issue.
Childhood illnesses are now the norm
My childhood was spent in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, and all the Kilbane kids walked to the public elementary school at the end of our street. All five of us cycled through the same amazing teachers at Erieview Elementary School and my memories there are some of my fondest. Fifth grade was the first time I ever remember noticing any type of illness at school when my friend Lori was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Lori had to prick her finger at lunch and carry a snack with her at all times.
Think about that: one kid in a school of 300 had a chronic illness. We didn’t have kids using albuterol inhalers or storing EpiPens in the nurse’s office in case they got accidental food exposure. We didn’t have peanut-free classrooms or restrictions on the type of foods we could bring for lunch. Doesn’t this sound like a fantasy now?
Today in most towns across the U.S., fifty percent of American children now suffer from chronic illnesses—more than at any other time in our history. Chronic childhood illnesses have gone from being a rarity to the norm.
- 1 in every 11 children has asthma in the US.1
- 1 in 5 has eczema (and it’s on a steady increase in industrialized countries.2
- 1 out of 4 children experiences recurrent ear infections by age seven.3
- 1 in 12 has food allergies.4
- 1 in 3 has food sensitivities.
- 1 in 80 has celiac disease.5
- 1 in 5 is obese.6
- 1 in 5 has mental or behavioral impairments such as ADHD.7
In other words, we’re sicker than we’ve ever been, and if our children are the future, the future is not healthy. Take heart. By reading my blog, my book, and taking my online course, you can take action to improve your child’s health.
3 Teele DW et al. Greater Boston Otitis Media Study Group. Epidemiology of Otitis Media During the First Seven Years of Life in Children in Greater Boston: A Prospective, Cohort Study. Journal of Infectious Diseases. 1989;160(1):83-94. doi:10.1093/infdis/160.1.83
6 Childhood Obesity Facts. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/childhood.html. Published June 24, 2019.
7 Currie J, Stabile M. Mental Health in Childhood and Human Capital. National Bureau of Economic Research. 1(2). https://www.nber.org/papers/w13217.pdf.