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Why do we care about hiccups?

The phenomenon, which has lasted weeks, has sparked interest from people around the world.

By Mary Jane Park
Published February 25, 2007

As the Today show follows Jennifer Mee, her mother says a month of the hiccups and constantly being in the spotlight is wearing on the family.
[Times photo: Mary Jane Park]

ST. PETERSBURG — The furor started with a single telephone call.

Rachel Robidoux was worried about her daughter Jennifer Mee. The 15-year-old ninth-grader at Northeast High School had been hiccuping for three weeks straight.

Robidoux called the Times, wondering whether anybody reading the paper might be able to help.

The interest in the story and the determination of people to help Jennifer have translated into nearly 200,000 hits on the Times Web site — — and more than 2,000 e-mails and more than 1,000 voice mails to the reporter, most offering home remedies. News assistants have taken hundreds more telephone calls.

Why, with the war in Iraq, property taxes and insurance, and all the Britney Spears and Anna Nicole Smith headlines, would there be such pronounced interest?

The themes are ancient, said Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which owns the Times.

People may see Jennifer as a damsel in distress, Clark said.

“I think the culture has a natural sympathy and natural affinity to children, cute animals and young women, especially when they seem to be suffering needlessly.”

There also is an element of mystery in why her spasms won’t go away.

“Given so many other medical advances, how could we not know the cause and remedy for something as mundane as the hiccups?” he said.

“This is one of those things that brings people together,” said Charles A. Colletta Jr., who teaches popular culture at Bowling Green (Ohio) State University. “It’s sort of like folk culture, sitting around and telling stories. This is something that everybody can latch onto. Everybody has an opinion. It’s so universal. Everybody’s had the hiccups.”

Use of the Internet has created what Clark calls “a democratization of medicine,” in which people often consult online sources before their doctors.

The Drudge Report, a Web site that links to news stories, picked up the Times’ story Tuesday about Jennifer’s experiences on NBC’s Today and another network’s incessant phone calls to her New York hotel and her St. Petersburg home.

That fueled even more interest in the story. On Thursday, traditional mail began arriving at the newspaper from people across the country, while remedy suggestions still keep pouring in via e-mail, voice mail and online.
Jennifer has been to a neurologist and a chiropractor. She’s been on local and national television stations and radio. She even got up at 1 a.m. one day to talk to a British satellite broadcast.

A Today television crew continues to go with her to doctors’ appointments and elsewhere: On Friday afternoon, she and some friends were scheduled to see a specially arranged private showing of the Eddie Murphy movie Norbit at Channelside Cinemas in Tampa. (Her hiccuping might be too disruptive otherwise.)

Jennifer and her family continue to sort through various suggestions sent from throughout the world. Having tried dozens of suggested home remedies, they now think her condition is likely medical.

“At this point, finding an answer is second,” Robidoux said. “Finding a cure is first.”

The media attention has been fun to an extent, but it also has been stressful, she said. Jennifer is tired, and the hiccups make her chest and hips hurt.

“I had no idea, no idea. Not in my wildest dreams would I have ever thought it would have (gone) any further than the St. Petersburg Times,” Robidoux said. “No idea.”

Even Saturday , the story was the lead item on the National Public Radio program Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me.

Clark, of the Poynter Institute, said it may be time for the story to run its course, at least until Jennifer has recovered.

“If you’re suffering from a natural malady, I’m sure you want to get help,” he said. “Do you really want to get 57 calls from some television station somewhere? Does that make the quality of your life or your family’s life any better? I’m just saying let’s not kill her with kindness.”

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

[Last modified February 25, 2007, 22:55:52]

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