Lessons from the Flu

By Marlys Hersey, Editor

Lesson # 1: Getting the flu shot probably is a good idea after all. If I had, I probably would have other stories to tell you now. Instead, I’ve been sick for a month.

For years—decades, in fact—when the topic of getting a flu shot comes up, I have maintained that that last time I got the flu shot, I got acutely, violently ill with the flu within hours. “I’d rather just take my chances,” I have been telling friends, “just stay healthy and hope I don’t get it. Or let the regular old flu come on gradually, thanks.”

Holy cow, there is so much ignorance contained in this statement it’s hard to know where to begin dissecting it now.

First of all, the last time I got a flu shot, in 1989, the illness that came over me just a few hours later was marked by profuse vomiting, diarrhea, exhaustion… and then it was over within 24 hours of its onset. The symptoms alone mean that the sickness that befell me was not the flu, but rather a norovirus, often mistakenly called a “stomach flu,” which attacks the entire gastrointestinal system. Bad, definitely, and also misery-inducing, but technically, that ain’t the flu, kids. Not even close.

I learned this the hard way: in December, on vacation in Santa Fe, I was struck with a norovirus which rendered me absolutely immobile, horizontal in bed – save running to the bathroom—for about 36 hours. Unable to really concentrate on reading anything nor able to handle much TV (except some kids’ movie about a dolphin in captivity who gets its tail amputated, and a special on Animal Planet called “Too Cute” that featured very young, very fluffy kittens), from bed, I used my iPod Touch to access the web and research just what illness I had. (Yay, Internet! No holds barred. Nothing too gross to look up on the world wide web!) Clearly I had contracted a norovirus, often transmitted via food or public surfaces, and often mistaken for food poisoning. (I had it the same week as Sec. of State Hillary Clinton had it, by the way; thanks to watching TV in the same hotel suite while ill, I learned that Clinton was so weak and dehydrated from this, she fainted while home alone, struck her head, and two days later went to the hospital with a concussion.)

Okay, then: all these years I have been avoiding the flu shot thinking I was so smart, avoiding possibly getting the flu from it, when, I now realize, I didn’t get the flu from it; I just happened to come down with a norovirus (aka “stomach bug”) the same afternoon I got the shot.

To clarify: the influenza (“flu”) virus plagues the body in a different way, primarily through the respiratory system, causing chills, fever, body aches, sometimes sore throat and hoarseness, and usually a bad cough that lingers a while. Secondary infections are also common from the flu: pneumonia, ear or sinus infections.

Secondly, you cannot get the flu from the shot. Period. WHY? Because the innoculation itself contains a killed version of the virus that stimulates your body to produce antibodies. Plus, this year’s shot is about 62% effective.

Thirdly, the ‘regular old flu’ doesn’t come on gradually or gently, either. (How on earth could I have forgotten this?!) Just this past month, I was verily re-schooled in the difference between a cold and the flu. In early January, I got a sore throat, was sneezing, was really really tired and weak, and even had a slight fever at times. I thought this was a mild version of the flu. When a friend asked me “Are you SURE it’s the flu? How do you know it’s not just a bad cold?” I was annoyed. I’m 45 years old. Hello?! I think I know the difference by now.

But then, as I was getting better from this seemingly mild flu, one Sunday morning at precisely 8 am, I awakened to find myself freezing cold, shaking—a chill that even huddling in a fetal position under many layers of covers and turning the electric blanket up to high could not touch. Then the aches started, replete with actual stabbing pains shooting from my hips down through my legs. Plus there was the “general malaise,” something my anatomy and physiology teacher from massage school, a charming science teacher with a thick Texas twang in his voice defined as “When you just have that sensation all over of: ‘I. feel. CRAPPY.’”

Right, then: This in fact, was the flu, slamming into me like a train. No mistaking it for anything else. Nothing like that silly old thing I had last week. That was a walk in the park.

When I could actually concentrate on anything, it wasn’t for long, and most of my waking consciousness hung on my awareness of just how miserable I was. I didn’t have the patience to read anything unless it’s directly related to my bodily agony. Again, queue that horrid little iPod Touch: look up “flu signs and symptoms” via the Internet. Check! I have them all. Roll back over into fetal position.

As the day wore slowly on, my chills alternated with high fever.

Lesson # 2: Having a high fever is awful. I forgot this, too. Just by virtue of having a high temperature, I felt just wretched all-over, seemingly every cell just plain miserable. Plus, the fever made my heart race a little, made my breathing much more shallow. I tried to reassure myself that this is my body doing what it does best: surviving, trying to protect itself by cooking whatever pathogen was causing this sickness. But whoah, boy…

Somewhere in here, a friend sends me an article about the first guy on whom they tried penicillin, because he got this raging infection in his head from a scratch from a rose bush, ended up losing an eye, along with a host of other grisly maladies, all from this one scratch. But what I latch onto is that he had a fever for a couple of months before he died. And I’m thinking a couple of months of fever?! No way could I last that long.

Then, for some reason, I am reminded: “Hey, people die from the flu!” What was that 1918 flu epidemic about, anyway? True to my Irish and Jewish heritage, there, in the middle of my worst fever in years, I am going to look up the historic flu pandemic. Yes, there we go. (Not quite miserable enough? Let’s poke around a little in some hellfire and brimstone from history.) Thank god for the Internet and hand-held web browsing devices.

I search the web for the 1918 flu pandemic, settle on a site from Stanford University. More holy cow here: it was “the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history.” One in five people worldwide contracted this flu in 1918-19, one in four Americans. More people worldwide died from this flu than from years of fighting during World War I (which was winding down as this flu epidemic was gearing up). More people died from this than from the Black Plague of the Middle Ages. And perhaps the spookiest part of this: while most flus are hardest on the very young, the very old, the already sick or otherwise weak, this strain of flu was “most deadly for those ages 20-40.” How does THAT happen?

In talking to my mom a few days later, mentioning this information about the flu pandemic, I also learn that my maternal grandfather had a profound brush with this strain of the virus: when he was just seven years old, and living with his paternal grandparents and two aunts in Hartford, the flu wiped all four of his beloved adult caretakers out within a week. Imagine?

When I mention this to my husband, who no doubt thought it extremely morose of me to be researching the Flu Pandemic of 1918 while in bed with a bad flu, he says “Yah, everyone’s great grandparents got that flu.”

I vacillate between 95° F and 103.5°. Chilled and shaking to burning up and then drenched in sweat. Also, by the middle of the second night, I am so out of it at one point I can’t even find the light switch right next to my bed. It’s at that point I fixate on one tidbit in particular from my flu pandemic research: the story of four women who played bridge together one evening, and then three of them came down with the flu later that same night and flat-out died that very same night. Dead by morning.

Lesson #3: The flu can cause all sorts of other weird things, too. In the middle of the second night, when I get out of bed to use the bathroom, suddenly my lower back is out; I cannot stand up straight, it hurts a lot, and I am walking like Fred Sampson.

When it seems I am finally done with the fever (on day four), I am exhausted, but heartened that at least I’ll be able to sleep well that night, no waking up and staying awake for hours just feeling horrid with my heart racing, waiting for the fever to break. But that night, I don’t sleep. Not at all. Not one bit. Because? I have restless legs syndrome! That’s right. Something I made fun of (“Please: is that a real diagnosis? Get some exercise already!”) is now upon me. And man, is it miserable. I’m exhausted (a term I don’t use lightly) and yet every time I start to doze off, I have this inexplicable urge to move my legs, and then, despite exhaustion, there I am again: wide awake.

At 6 am, I finally research this malady on the Internet, too, and find out stretching, warming pain relief gels, and manual massagers can all help. I have them all, and I use them all. I drift off for a few minutes before the sun comes up.

The high fever is not all bad. I have all sorts of creative, clever thoughts, ideas for new businesses, novels, great screenplay plot lines. Unfortunately, because my brain was cooking, I also forgot them all. Promptly.

Then, as I am getting better from the flu, it turns out I have a sinus infection. What fresh hell is this? No amount of rest, hot tea, hot showers, ingesting Emergen-C, and neti-potting my nasal passages can make this hideousness go away, so finally I drag myself to the doctors’ office—the last place anyone wants to go when their immunity and strength are down, note—and I sit, very slumped over, for many hours, amidst lots of other sick people in the waiting room to get a proper diagnosis and prescription antibiotics.

Even the nurse is sick. (In between her coughs, I ask what is wrong. “I got what you all have,” she says, only half jokingly.)

Lesson #4: Poorly insulated houses are the devil’s handiwork. This is not a new revelation. But it so happens that the night I have the highest fever for the longest time is also the coldest night we’ve had all winter—11° F—and having to get out from under the covers for any reason and set foot on the icy floor amps up my suffering at least fifteenfold. I think I was swearing out loud and promising myself “As soon as this fever breaks tomorrow, I am moving out of this place.” Really, why DID people who moved west from colder climates not think to adequately insulate?!

Lesson #5: Some people are just plain missing the empathy chip. This is really unfortunate—and pretty obvious when you’re sick. Even though I barely left the house for weeks, in my limited interactions with others over the past month, I was struck by the chasm between two basic responses.

There are people who perceive your illness primarily as 1) an excuse to tell you how healthy and strong they are and how they never get sick (just like you used to feel, until this month), and/or 2) something about them, as in “OH my god, get BACK! I cannot afford to get sick!”

Then there are those who get it: when they hear of another who’s horribly ill, their first reaction is genuine concern. These are the people who call and email, who offer to get Kleenex or Alka Seltzer Hell Cough meds for you, or leave giant insulated bags on your doorstep full of homemade food of roots and garlic and ginger and other things they know are supposed to hasten your healing. Some maybe don’t cook but they still check in just to ask how you are and let you know they miss you. When you’re sick for a while, this means a lot. These are the people who made me nearly cry with gratitude this month. Many times. I imagine this is how my friends with newborns probably feel when friends bring them casseroles and offer to babysit their toddlers.

Lesson #6: Maybe most noteworthy of all the lessons is one I have learned before, many times, and forgotten. It bears repeating. And it’s this: any suffering I’m experiencing pales in comparison to what lots of others around me deal with a lot of the time. I happen to mention the strangeness of the fever-induced restless legs syndrome to a few friends who say “Oh, yeah, I’ve had that. Every night for ten years, actually. Yah. If I don’t walk a few miles a day, that’s what I’m facing at night.” Not sleeping for a few nights? I have friends who have unwittingly made part-time careers of this, it turns out. How do they stand it? And still manage to be so funny, and kind, and reasonable?

Oh, yes, and the very same people who have hidden in their cloaks of life experience lots of pain, insomnia, long bouts of illness, or unexplained bodily quirks are the exact same ones who will call you to check on you, and will bring you soup and brown rice and smoothies made with beet juice and ginger. Go figure.

Lesson # 7: Sooner or later, you will probably get the flu. And it will humble you.


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