That mystery illness
Watching my daughter hollering and cheering during the UP-Adamson basketball match last Saturday, I wondered where her 9-year-old’s lungs were getting all their power.
Yet, just the day before, from early afternoon to late night, she was vomiting every half hour or so, to the point where she had to be rushed to UP Diliman’s health service and put on an intravenous (IV) line for dextrose.
It was nerve-wracking for me because my son just had dengue in October, and had similar gastrointestinal problems. The tests came in and, to my relief, we ruled out dengue.
Then I reviewed, several times, what my daughter had eaten that day and compared it with what the others in the house had eaten. Nothing conclusive either.
I stayed by her side at the health service into the night, and was relieved when, around 1 a.m., she was feeling strong enough to have the IV line removed. I took her back home so she could recuperate on her own bed, huddled with her favorite dog.
Morning came and she was still fearful about taking anything lest the vomiting would start again. I had to coax her to take some water, then soup, then some solids, reminding her she had to be well enough to go to the basketball game, even as I toyed with the idea of skipping the game, exhausted as I was from the last two sleepless nights caring for her and, the night before, dealing with fraternity problems.
She was determined to go to the game and so we went, and cheered as the Maroons made history, winning our first semifinals game in 21 years.
The day after that game, one of the security guards, who was on duty when my daughter fell ill, offered his diagnosis: “usog.”
I was startled. Although I wrote a book on “usog,” “pasma,” “kulam” and other folk illnesses in the Philippines, usog never came to my mind as I was caring for my daughter.
Usog takes many forms. The most common one involves infants who begin to cry uncontrollably after a visitor has been in the house, greeting and complimenting the infant (e.g., “What a cute baby!”). That is why the illness is also described as “nabati,” literally “was greeted.” The family then tries to call back the visitor to do a sign of the cross, with his or her saliva, on the child’s abdomen as treatment. The visitor will sometimes apologize for having forgotten the precautionary measure when he or she first greeted the child, which is applying the sign of the cross and uttering “puera usog (away with usog).” Usog vaccination, I call it.
Medically, the crying is usually attributed to colic or gas pains. There’s also “stranger anxiety” — some children needing more time to adjust to someone they don’t know. These conditions are self-limiting, meaning they’ll resolve themselves even without calling back the visitor.
But usog, and its Visayan counterpart “buyag,” can also affect older children and adults and is more complicated, the mysterious illness now involving stomach pains and, yes, vomiting. One form involves someone — friend or stranger — complimenting you for your appearance. Instead of saying “thank you,” you’re supposed to respond, “puera usog” or “puera buyag.” If you don’t, you risk the gastrointestinal problems.
A more complicated form implicates a person who is tired, stressed, upset or all of the above, and who greets and/or compliments someone, which then causes the illness. It turned out that our guard, housekeeper and driver were all convinced I brought usog to my daughter because, indeed, I was running late that day with appointments, rushing home to grab a quick lunch (and saying hello to my daughter) and then going off to UP Manila for a student’s thesis defense.
I try to be rational, but sometimes I do wonder. Folk illness terms are ways, after the fact, to explain mystery illnesses, and sometimes it makes more sense to invoke “usog” rather than just saying the problem was “something viral.”
Folk illnesses like usog speak of social vulnerability from adults interacting with children (children don’t cause usog to other children). Usog warns us about strangers and reminds us of social values that see compliments as dangerous, and prescribe modesty as a safeguard.
Finally, usog tells us to be more mindful about our own physical and emotional states.
I’m not taking chances next time, rushing from one appointment, or crisis, to another. I’ll try to destress first, eat something, before greeting and hugging the kids (and the dogs?). Maybe, too, at athletic events, we shouldn’t be cheering for our teams on an empty stomach, or when we’re upset.
At least not without a “puera usog”!
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