The recent outbreaks of Ebola in the US brings me back to another contagious time when people were actually doing something about it.
Despite massive preparation (mostly just worrying) on my part, I got H1N1 while driving from Montreal to Boston (my then regular weekly commute).
I’d heeded the calls. I’d read the posters. I didn’t dismiss the email from the scientist, old as dust, that MIT circulated admonishing us to do everything to avoid getting the flu. He’d apparently barely survived the Great Influenza of the early 1900s. I got the N1H1 flu shot. I made myself a robot whenever I needed to sneeze. It went like this: crane head to the side. Ready appropriate arm. Secure perimeter by stepping away from any person nearby. Allow the sneeze to happen. Direct all force into said arm, with a continuous moving down and away force.
I washed my hands like a surgeon and kept hand lotion on me because my hands kept drying out.
I was ready.
A reluctant me got in my Toyota at 5am. While I loved that time of day, quiet, I’d had so much fun that weekend at a party that I felt like a cardboard cutout going back to my desk job in the US.
I picked up my first rider, a Russian with papers to live in Montreal. He was going to Boston to fly out to Nicaragua for a few months. His hands were wet and cold and shaking them gave me an electric shock. I picked up the Harvard student not far from the Russian’s place. I remember wiping my hands often to remove the shock that somehow lingered.
My nose started running in Swanton, Vermont.
My cough deepened after gassing up in Warner, New Hampshire.
BY the time I dropped the student off in Allston, I was actively devolving into primordial chicken soup.
I dropped the Russian off near the Blue Diner near South Station, telling him that this was the only place that was open 24 hours. His plane was taking off the next day. He thought he’d be able to check his luggage into a locker somewhere and discover Boston.
“Haven’t you heard of 911? You won’t find any lockers anywhere,” I said. “Better here than staying at the airport all night.”
I parked in the clinic parking and tried checking myself in to the hospital part. There was no hospital part to check into, I learned. Just a bunch of doctors and nurses on different levels of the building.
I begged them to hospitalize me.
Nurse practitioner escorted me to a room and inspected my raging throat. She said, “You don’t have a fever, so it’s not H1N1. It’s likely bad allergies.”
“A,” I said. “I was at a party in Montreal this weekend where I met a bunch of people who’d been literally travelling the world.”
“I love Montreal,” the NP said.
“B. I started out 5am completely normal, nothing to report. And 6 hours later, I’m a mess. I don’t have a fever YET,” I said. “But wait an hour, and I should be good. As in bad. This is happening to me so fast.”
The doctor came in, listened to my chest.
He said, “I can give you a script for Blingderosifeen or Nugachoochooton but anything over the counter should take care of it. Get a good night’s rest.”
“It’s not allergies,” I wheezed. “I’ve had them all my life. Please check me in.”
I was kind of homeless at the time, couch surfing in a variety of ways while healthy, when I was down in the US. I didn’t want to infect anyone else.
The NP returned. I said, “I kind of couch surf when I’m in the US. Can’t you please please please check me in?”
She thought a minute. I thought she’d do it. “We
The doctor said, “You are sick. I can prescribe you allergy medication but there are a number of good over the counter alternatives in the pharmacy. Get some sleep.”
I found a bed to sleep in, and prepared myself to succumb.
I bought every kind of cold medication at the pharmacy, along with cough drops, and kleenex. I felt bad for buying a burrito at one of the food trucks near the medical center, but I had washed my hands thoroughly and didn’t touch my face. If I coughed, I coughed into my sleeve – practices I had already been doing religiously since meeting a Harvard researcher at the Plough and Stars who specialized in influenza and warned me and my partner about this coming strain of H1N1.
I bought jugs of water and lemonade at Trader Joe’s. Then went to my uncle’s house and didn’t talk to anyone, went to bed where I thought I was going to die for about 3 days. Was just terribly ill for another 2. Got enough energy to get in my car to drive back up to Montreal where I was sick for another week. When I returned to work, everyone kept telling me that I looked and sounded like shit, and was I sure I wanted to be back?
3 or 4 friends in Montreal went to the local clinic and were diagnosed with H1N1.
I went back to my medical facility to just yell at the attending doc, who wasn’t the one who turned me away, but I let him have it anyway. I was so filled with disdain I didn’t hear what he said because it sounded like an excuse.
A scientific campus, a scientific institution, had messed up. Because they were human, and my symptoms didn’t yet meet the criteria. I thought of a friend of mine, an anesthesiologist, who said practicing was an art form because what worked for one person didn’t necessarily work for another.
All the news of Ebola makes me think back to this time when the plans didn’t work. It’s not as easy to catch Ebola as it is the flu. Mistakes will be made, and when they do, will someone have to be coughing blood for there to be a plan B?