The Sniffles Nov 20, 2011

by Rick Rader, MD

I woke up this morning with the sniffles.

Okay I agree, for the editor-in-chief of the nation's most respected publication addressing the spectrum of complex disabilities to get on a soapbox and discuss "the sniffles" is pretty lame. Beyond lame, I should be embarrassed, banished and whipped within a quarter inch of my life. The sniffles don't even rate a footnote in the annals of the disorders, conditions, syndromes and disabilities that are common to readers of Exceptional Parent.

Still I woke up with the sniffles. The sniffles, mind you, not simply sniffles. So before you spray your keyboard with silicone to help you fly off a letter to the editor, let me share my interest in the sniffles.

It has more to do with the fact that we refer to this annoying, audible breathing through a running or congested nose, as "the sniffles" than anything else. It got me thinking about all the diseases that we feel grammatically compelled to use "the" with. So, with two perfectly altered bits of Kleenex sticking out of both nostrils, I went back to the basics.

"The" is an article, a definite article that indicates that its noun (sniffles) is a particular one identifiable to the listener. The definite article in English for both singular and plural nouns is "the." So we can refer to "the sniffles" as well as to "the sniffle." When it comes to sniffling it's like eating potato chips, you can't just have one; so there is no "sniffle." At least, none that I know of or ever experienced.

So I conjured up all the diseases I was familiar with and tried to identify those we use the definite article we and came up with "the mumps," and "the measles." I vacillated back and forth with "the chicken pox" before I couldn't definitively decide if it was a "the disease." Surely this couldn't be it. There had to be hundreds more. So I took a quick excursion with the prominent ones that have filled the pages of EP for decades. So I began......"the cerebral palsy,"...."the autism,"...."the Down Syndrome,"...."the Fragile X,"...."the mitochondrial myopathy,"..."the PKU,"..."the epilepsy,"...none of them worked.
Next I tried some of the classics. "The tuberculosis,"..."the cancer,"..."the rheumatic fever,"..."the leprosy,"...and finally "the asthma." None of them worked either. What was going on here?

Both "the mumps," and "the measles" were childhood diseases and both began with the letter "m." But I couldn't make any other connection. Going back to the use of the "the" (I realize I'm starting to sound like former President Bill Clinton dissecting the language "It depends on what 'it" is.").

In actuality, I was starting to get annoyed. If the grammar texts tell us that the use of a definite article ("the") indicates that its noun is a particular one identifiable to the listener, then what would be more deserving of "the" than cerebral palsy, autism, Down syndrome, Fragile X and the other disorders that are common place to EP readers? In fact what about the over 6,000 disorders "classified" as "rare diseases?" The entire classification should be (and could be) described as "the rare diseases."

While "my sniffles" were abating, my curiosity about the "the" disorders was escalating. Maybe I should just go through the list of all "the diseases known to man" (not to be confused with "diseases known to man."). It seemed like a worthwhile exercise.

After all how many diseases are there. I quickly realized that the idea was fool hearty. The World Health Organization has codes for doctors to use when describing the diseases, disorders and conditions that they diagnose. The current and total amount of codes are 14, 199! The book that is used to identify and classify these diseases is the "ICD-10th Revision" meaning the International Classification of Diseases.

No way was I going to check out each and every code; it was fruitless. I thought I would rely on EP readers to run interference for me and let me know which diseases were "the" diseases. Surely there had to be more than "the mumps, and the measles."

By this time, the sniffles, all "the sniffles" were gone.

What made more sense to me was proposing to the World Health Organization that they should provide a "code" to parents of children with special needs. If ever there was a group that deserved a definite article to describe them, it is "the Exceptional Parent."

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