Only a family delivers this kind of intensive care; Nursing: When a sister is ill, relatives rally around to deliver chicken soup, child care and extra pampering.


WHEN WE GOT word recently that my sister was having a hard time with the aftereffects of a gall bladder operation, my family got in the car.

My sister Ellen and brother Eddie took off from South Baltimore for southern Delaware. They fetched the patient from the hospital and opened an at-home field hospital. Why this call to immediate action?

My ailing sister has 13-month-old twin girls and a boy only slightly older. This brood is now walking -- in every direction -- and needs as many adult eyes as the room can hold. And my brother-in-law could use all the extra hands available.

There's a family history of delivering medical attention -- call it family nursing -- and with heavy doses of nourishment, both spiritual and physical. Like so many things we learned as children, one was the value of family care-giving.

Great Aunt Cora had trays of chicken soup, toast, scrambled eggs and baked egg custard. Pop Monaghan was an amateur pharmacist with a host of medicines (over the counter, of course) he prescribed. My father was a firm believer in Coca-Cola syrup. My mother, not exactly a born nurse, provided little gifts that broke the tedium of the recuperative process.

And, when all else failed, and the patient was not in Baltimore, they bought a ticket on the Pennsylvania Railroad and took off.

We operate on the theory that a recuperating patient needs double doses of succor.

The first would be collective attendance and attention -- get-well wishes, visits and talk. In my family, this means incessant chatter about the patient, constant medical updates, constructive worry. The wounded becomes the most important person. Every phone call focuses on this topic. There are reports issued about skin tone and coloring, about what requests they have made, about every mood, temperament and attitude.

Once you've achieved the status of a family medical star, the next order of business is food.

For instance, the first thing my brother Eddie did when he decamped in Delaware was to start the oven and light the burners.

As a guest cook, he went into full food production mode -- roast beef, meat loaf, chicken in wine, gallons of homemade spaghetti sauce. And, as my younger sibling said, he made enough macaroni and cheese to break down the road surface on the Kent Narrows Bridge.

For her part, my sister Ellen produced a big apple pie.

She also supervised the children's evening baths and became the house mother for the first night my ailing sister was home from the hospital.

My family's experience in this realm has prompted brother Eddie to suggest that perhaps more important than the Family Leave Act is an understanding boss who grants time off from work for relations to provide a needed dose of family-run medical nursing.

Things turned out fine. My sister reports that she's feeling more like herself. And my brother echoed this when he spotted her exit the sick bed and tiptoe to the kitchen for a recuperative sample of macaroni and cheese.

Pub Date: 3/06/99

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