The Enema: When Health Care Happened At Home

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Rectal bulb syringe

Susan Dromey Heeter, Joyful Musings
By Susan Dromey Heeter, Joyful Musings

As I muse joyfully on big families, I continually find commonalities among my own big family experience with those of whom I interview – the lack of privacy, the one bathroom among many, the crowded bedrooms.  And with my friend, Ginny Morrissey, of the Fitchburg, Mass., Morrisseys…we discovered the most uncomfortable commonality of all: the enema.

First of all, should you be reading this and uncertain of what an “enema” is, it’s officially defined as “a procedure in which liquid or gas is injected into the rectum, typically to expel its contents” or, if you grew up in a large family, it was simply the “go to” for any ailment.  A cold? Enema.  A stomach ache? Enema. A head ache: Enema.

To this day, I can simply whisper, “barium enema” to my sister and it puts her into a cold sweat.   If I gave her a red enema bulb, it might just do her in, cause her enema PTSD to flare.

In the Morrissey household, Ginny tells of the “enema line” whereupon all children received an enema from her germaphobe grandmother.  When we discussed our enema commonality, we realized that, with big families, visits to the doctors or hospitals were at a minimum. Who had time? Hence, the enema.  It was cheap, quick and could be done at home.

Ginny and I compared our “medicine cabinets” – huge closets, filled with not only enema bulbs but enough supplies to outfit a small hospital. We discovered our closets both contained items including pliers, ace bandages, vomit buckets, tongue depressors and, of course, enemas.  We could count on one hand the number of times our parents took us to the emergency room or the doctors.  Sure, we went for checkups, but more often than not, health care happened at home.

My own parents were not educated in the health field; my father once bathed my sister in Epsom Salts after she suffered from boils.  My dad, oblivious to the effects of Epsom salts simply poured some into the tub, put my sister in and, well, rumor has it, screams can still be heard from 1974.  “Salt on a wound” remarked my sister, “not good – I remember him rocking me in the porch swing because I was in such pain and he didn’t realize he should not have done it.”

But the Epsom salts were a staple in the medicine cabinet – always there next to the calamine lotion and Tums.

And today, as I muse joyfully on big families I think gratefully to the efforts put in by those parents and grandparents to do the best they could with what they had: supplies and enema bulbs.

And, somehow, we survived – traumatized but alive.


Susan Dromey Heeter is a writer from Dover who recently let her hair go au natural white. Writing has been her passion since her English majoring days at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.  Dromey Heeter has lived in The Netherlands, Alaska and currently basks in all things New England, including the frigid winters. An avid swimmer, Dromey Heeter’s great passion is to bring back body surfing as most children have no idea how to ride waves without ridiculous boogie boards.

The opinions expressed are those of the writer. takes no position on politics, but welcomes diverse opinions. email

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