Monday, July 13, 2009

so that time i got swine flu

Hello all. I think it's been about a month since my last post, and for that I apologize. But if you continue to read on then I can at least offer you some very legitimate excuses for my internet absence, at least in the last two weeks. And as far as weeks go, those two were a doozy.

It all started after a weekend trip to Bangkok. Everything was lovely as it usually is when I go to Bangkok. Against all odds I have formed an attachment to this big, chaotic city. Pretty much whenever I don't travel off to islands or other far flung Thai locales I pack up a few things, hop on the red, non AC number 82 bus that leaves from the center of my town, hop off about ten minutes later and get onto the air-con orange number 140 and head direcly into the heart of the city (I mentioned this earlier but in case you forgot I pretty much live in a suburb of Bangkok). There's this little street (barely more than an alley) tucked away in the shadow of one of Bangkok's behometh malls, and this street has become intensely familar to me. It's lined with hotels and hostels and guesthouses. It's barley wide enough for a car to pass on (although they do of course, and of course as in all places in Thailand they pass by at high speed). There are various food and fruit vendors. And toward the end of this little street, with the big skyscrapers looming in the distance overhead, are a few little hostels that well, feel like home. I've stayed in these rooms legitimately a couple of times. I have also crammed illegitimately into single rooms shared by five or six of us teachers when really they only comfortably fit one (hey when you're on a budget...). And maybe I should venture out more for comprarison but I really can't imagine ever staying anywhere else in Bangkok (except for the super modern, ultra luxurious Pathumwan Princess Hotel but more on that later).

My favorite of these hostels is Wendy House. I'm not even sure if it is techincally a hotel or hostel or guest house, but I do know that it has a wonderful blend of hotel ammenities mixed with the laid back, warm vibe of the most backpackery hostel or guest house. The lobby is small and filled with tables. At any time of day or night there are at least a few travelers sitting at these tables, either eating the home cooked Thai food provided by a small kitchen or thumbing through Lonely Planet in various languages. Some have their ginormous backpacks on the floor beside them, either waiting for a plane or train or bus to some next destination or newly arrived in Bangkok, jetlagged and exhausted but full of restless energy at the adventure to come. Toward the front windows there are two rows of computers with webcams and speakers conveniently attached. Whenever I walk through the lobby there is almost always one guest on the computer talking on skype to a friend or family member back in some far away home. Toward the back of the lobby is a large bookcase crammed full of paperbacks and hardbacks in various stages of disintegration. And here you can browse or borrow a book for your room or if you happen to have some extra books you don't want anymore you can simply exchange your book for a new one, no money necessary.

So in many ways Wendy House sounds like your typical hostel, but one large difference is that you get to your room, and it's clean and nice and there's an ensuite bathroom with hot water and fresh towels. The beds are large and made up with soft, clean sheets. There's television with cable (channels in English!). There are even a pair of slippers to wear around when you're in the room. So it's really the best of both worlds. Which is exactly what I crave. I love staying in a nice room with AC and hot water and tv and all of that, but I also love the commaraderie and friendliness of a hostel or guest house, the sort of "all in it together" vibe that fills the place, the knowledge that everyone else there is a tourist or traveler and can in some way relate to your own situation, with all of the excitements and frustrations it entails.

But I of course digress. So two weekends ago I stayed at Wendy House, spent time at Siam Paragon (oh such decadent, shiny luxury, so much so that the only two floors I ever really frequent there are the food hall and the cinema), bought myself some real, honest to God cheese at the Gourmet Market at Paragon, saw Transformers 2 (very, very silly) and then on Saturday evening went back to my humble little abode in Pra Pradaeng. I ate myself some cheese (mmmm) despite not having too much of an appetite (warning sign! dun, dun, dun) and went to bed early. And then I woke up, early (another warning sign, although I've started at least waking up on my own early in the mornings I can almost always get back to sleep if it's a weekend, unless of course I'm sick, dun, dun, DUN!) And fairly quickly I realized all was not well. There were the usual culprits, chills, general ickiness, lack of appetite (and right after I bought the block of real CHEESE, freaking germs), but there was also a very weird sensation deep in my chest. I didn't really have a strong urge to cough, but when I did cough I found myself unable to stop. And it was that full, heavy kind of cough, ugly sounding and rattly, but emanating from a deeper place than I'd ever coughed from before.

So I was sick, but not surprised. As I've mentioned before my immune system must have decided to jump ship somewhere around my plane's stop over in Hong Kong. It must be happy, off alone on some Asian beach, not having to do any heavy lifting anymore. But unfortunatley it's left me in the predicament of constantly being sick. Until this point I'd had a couple of minor infections and bugs, sore throat, cough (but a different, much less scary one), nasal stuff, you know, the usual. But very soon on this Sunday I could tell this was worse. I took my temperature early on in the day and it was just under 100, so a mild fever but nothing I couldn't handle. I made myself some tea and put on a sweatshirt and retreated to my bed to watch DVDs.

But an hour later I was freezing even with my sweatshirt and blankets and the AC setting turned up to a high temperature. I felt significantly worse so I took my temp again and it had jumped up to above 101. Hmm. Well I snuggled back in bed and tried to nap, but unfortunately I have this weird thing where I have a really hard time sleeping when I'm sick, especially when I have a fever. It's all my body wants and needs and yet it's somehow forgotten how to do it. I kept watching my DVDs (Chuck Season 2, yeah that's right, go out to your local Barnes and Noble and see if they have it there, oh wait they don't, it's not out yet and won't be for quite some time, same with my Gossip Girl Season 2, and 30 Rock Season 3, and The Office Season 5, oh how I love MBK and its wide selection of completely non legit DVDs). But suddenly I couldnt even watch tv properly (which is definitely not normal for me). I was feeling even worse. Only an hour had passed but I took my temp and it had jumped up again, past 102 now. Same deal an hour later. And then an hour after that it had reached 104.

That's when a small part of my brain started to worry. I felt too sick and hazily feverish to really panic or be alarmed, but I had never in my life had a fever that high, and with how fast and sudden it came on, I knew something might be wrong. This coupled with the fact that I'm in Thailand right now and you know, they have tropical diseases right? Isn't that what my doctor told me before I left. I started to wonder if I could be malarial. I'd been bitten by mosquitos plenty of times. Or what if it was Typhoid (I got a vaccine for that of course but in my fevered state such logic didn't matter). All sorts of terrible, dramatic, illnesses raced through my mind-Dengue Fever? parasites? Whooping Cough? I groaned a lot and pulled my blankets even tighter around me except now I was both chilled and extremely hot. My face felt like a furnace. I kept picturing how in old movies they put those ice things on people's heads who have fevers. I really wanted one of those ice things, or a cold wash cloth, they have those in movies too. The closest I had was a chilled bottle of water and that actually felt really, really good. I was thirsty and no amount of water I drank really helped. It was just a lot of badness really, and through my fevered state I resolved to call someone if my fever went up much more. That's the thing about living alone in a foreign country. When something like getting massively sick happens you really are on your own. And at that time you want nothing less than to be on your own. At my sickest that Sunday I could barely make myself get out of bed to pee (luckily I did mind you). When the end of the DVD came and I had to put on a new one it took about fifteen minutes of convincing myself before I could move the five feet to the DVD player. Although I didn't want to watch dvds, I couldn't really concentrate, I couldn't sleep. My head was starting to ache. My eyeballs were painful (ugh, one of the WORST and little talked about parts of the flu, is the painful eyeballs). My lower back and knees were hurting so much I couldn't get comfortable. So I just lay there, a bottle of water perched precariously on my head, took three Advils and waited for their promise of relief.

And whether it was the Advil or just the fever reachings its peak, an hour later I was covered in sweat. I took my temp and it was back to under 103. Which made me even more confused because while I welcomed the fever reduction and subsequent improvement in my convalescent state, I had no idea what illness I had that would have included such a rapid rise and fall in fever.

So after another full day in bed (oh how I miss my soft, full size bed with even softer down comforter at times like these) my temp was close to normal and I decided I could go into school. I had already missed several passport related days and I felt bad missing more, especially with a three day holiday coming up the next week. So I taught, although I was so exhausted and still icky feeling that I could barely stand up, much less try to corall 40 boisterous children. I came home exhausted, went to bed early, woke up in the middle of the night, and surprise, surprise, the fever was back. But now in addition to the fever and chest stuff there was a whole new array of symptoms, mainly just an ungodly sinus blockage that felt like there was something very heavy sitting on top of my skull.

At this point I really had no idea what in the world was going on with my body. I was seriously leaning towards me being malarial, that or the whole Whooping Cough thing. So deciding that I shouldn't just assume all would be well on its own, I called my coordinator in the morning, said in no uncertain terms there was no way I could teach (I know my limits, I would have passed out or started babbling incoherently, or if the sickness really got the better of me and the students were extra troublesome there could have been physical violence involved, it would have been bad). I said I needed to go to the doctor. And so I somehow forced myself out of bed, put some clothes on (that's about as much as I could handle, the whole brushing hair, putting in contacts thing, not so much), stumbled out my front door into the heat (by this point I had started to get used to the crushing Thailand heat, but being sick, oh it's not fun), stumbled even more to the school and met my coordinator.

A little while later I was being poked and prodded in the front of a Thai hospital. Since it wasnt my first trip to the rodeo (ie all of my previous sicknesses) I was familar with this distinct Thai medical practice. You get checked in like an American hospital but there's sort of an assembly line type thing right there in the waiting room. At one table they take your temp (it was in Celsius, but the nurse exchanged a meaningful glance and some Thai words with my coordinator, which was reassuring), your blood pressure and pulse, then you're taken (this time I was physically led) to another little station where you're weighed (thank you Thailand! with exactly no attempt at dieting I have lost 12 pounds, I think about 4 pounds of that were sickness related, but seriously I've heard from everyone hear how foreigners come here and lose weight. I officially give up. I know nothing about dieting. Forget carb free. All I eat here are carbs, literally every meal noodles and rice. And I've been going through a box of sugary cereal every two days! Yet I'm losing weight without effort, while at home I deprive myself of all things delicious and force down cottage cheese and celery and I maybe lose 2 pounds in a month. It's like it was in France. All of these things Americans avoid or else turn sugar free or fat free or calorie free or carb free, well they eat them freely everywhere else in the world and yet people are not what we so often are back home, super, super fat. Maybe it's the spiciness of the food or the fact that I walk a lot or you know, the whole no wine thing (which pains me to admit because it means that my love affair with wine and my refusal to abstain from it even when dieting could in fact be the thing keeping me from ever being able to lose weight at home), but I'm just convinced that it's something about America itself, the place, that takes all this wonderful carby food and makes it pudge inducing, oh it's just so unfair)

But again I digress. After my little spin at the assembly line, there came more waiting (although minimal waiting time compared to what it would be in an American hospital), and then I was led into a room with a doctor behind a desk. I sat opposite him. He talked in rapid Thai to my coordinator. I stared at the wall behind him while they conversed in what seemed to be a very interesting conversation about me. Then he came across the desk, looked into my mouth, said some more stuff in Thai, listened to my breathing (for far too long for me not to be a little freaked out) then went back to the desk. At this point I coughed (something I had needed to do for a while but was trying to hold in because in this H1N1 climate you cough in a public place and people look at you like you just sprouted three extra heads). And the doctor's reaction to my cough pretty much told me all I needed to know. He literally lept back in his seat, almost cartoonishly so because of how speedy it was. Then he hastily pulled his face mask up from his neck onto his mouth. Then he grabbed some tissues, thrust them at me, and said I was to cough only into these tissues. Meanwhile I was trying to narrow down what horrible contagious disease I must have that he would clearly be so afraid of catching, again leaning toward Whooping Cough.

There followed more rapid fire Thai between him and my coordinator. Then he looked at me, said "well, yes I think it might be H1N1 or something like it", then began speaking Thai again to my coordinator. And so there it was, I was officially (or I guess unofficially, since there were no blood tests, just this doctor's opinion and obvious fear of me and my cooties), swine flued. I suddenly felt like the diagnosis was scrawled across my forehead. I was infected. I was contagious. I was like those people in the signs everywhere! The disembodied nose sneezing into a tissue or the similarly disembodied mouth coughing. I was the disembodied mouth! Would they put me on a poster? Were they going to quarantine me and make me live in a bubble? But I was getting ahead of myself. The doctor looked back at me, said that it didn't seem to have "progressed" in my lungs (which, um, what exactly would happen if it did PROGRESS in my LUNGS?), but that it was important to monitor my symptoms over the next few days. Then he very quickly prescribed me four different meds (one I later learned was the famous Tamiflu I had so often read about in the news), said to come back if things got worse or if after four days I wasn't better, and then hustled me right on out to the waiting room to wait for my prescriptions (in Thailand you get your prescriptions at the hospital about ten minutes after you see your doctor, and with no insurance at all they're still so cheap they might as well be free).

My coordinator led me to a chair and then proceeded to walk to the other side of the room to stand (which at the time, not gonna lie, made me feel a little like I had leprosy). And then the icing on the cake. The same nurse who had taken all my vitals earlier walked up to me, in the middle of this crowded waiting room, and handed me a face mask, clearly indicating I was to put it on immediately. Now there were plenty of people in this hospital with face masks (as there are all over my town and Bangkok), but it was clear to me and to all near me that this mask was not for my sake. It was for the sake of everyone else around me, because again, I was officially diseased, a danger to society, like that monkey in Outbreak. I could almost sense everyone in the room shift slightly in their seats away from me. I was still feverishly hazy at this point and exhausted from the minimal effort it had taken to get to the hospital, but underneath it all, I felt a lot of things, weirdly amusement in some ways because OF COURSE I would catch swine flu while in Thailand, after everything else that had already happened. It was really just my luck (or complete lack thereof). I was curious about what exactly swine flu was and how different it was from any other flu. I was more than a little freaked out after the whole lung progression discussion (what would happen if it did progress doctor man, you didn't mention that!). I didn't think I was going to die, but at the same time, when you're diagnosed with an illness that has made headlines for killing a fair number of people (I know, I know, people with underlying illnesses, just like the regular flu, but still, the headlines don't say "3 more die from h1n1, but don't worry because they were already really old or sick so you'll be totally fine", they just emphasize the word die). I was more than a little annoyed with the mandatory face mask. Had never worn one before but wow do they suck! Especially when you are sick and have a fever and thus have hot breath, which gets trapped inside the mask and makes it really hot and fogs up your glasses in a really embarassing way. But most of all I just really wanted to be home, not for good, I knew even in my sick stage that my trip here in Thailand was not at all finished, but if I could only be home for like a week, to be in my bed, with cable television and meals prepared by my mom, and all of the comforts of home. I wanted to be comforted and fawned over and made the center of attention. I'm not ashamed to admit these things because well that's what all of us really want when we're sick. I didn't want to go back to my little dorm room apartment and lie in my hard bed (oh the beds in Thailand, I will not miss these) with only a couple of packets of Ramen Noodles for nourishment (the super spicy Thai variety so not exactly chicken soup) and a dwindling supply of bottled water. Plus the whole no hot water thing, I've pretty much gotten used to it, but I will tell you that taking a cold shower when you have the flu, pretty much the worst thing ever.

But I won't bore you with my little pity spiral. It didn't last too long. I got home. I got into my hard bed (which even in its hardness was a welcome relief from being upright at that point). I watched more DVDs (now I was on to Arrested Development). I drank some tea. And then I knew what was necessary. I would go to Bangkok, go to a hotel with hot water and beds and complete my recovery. At this point I was giving myself um, about a day and a half to recover, because like I mentioned there was a big three day holiday ahead and I was not going to miss it. I had already bought a train ticket to an island down south called Ko Samui. A lot of my friends were going. We had a bungalow. I was not going to spend the only major break in the entire semester sick and in bed darnit! I would get better. I was on four different medications! Never mind the fact that as my fever lowered my sinuses were getting even worse, now there was an elephant sitting on my skull, and as much as I adore elephants, I'd prefer if they kept their large hefts off my cranium. Never mind that there was no way I would be up for an eight hour train ride in a day and a half, considering that even making tea left me utterly spent in the energy department. I would will myself to get better in no time. I was young. I was (pre-Thailand at least) healthy. No stupid swine flu or A flu strain of some kind was going to stop me! Pandemic schmandemic. I laugh in the face of any pork related illness! I fart in its general direction (sorry for the crudeness, but the only way to sum up my disdain for this virus is with some help from Monty Python).

So yeah, that was the plan at least, but like most of my plans, it did not go, well, for lack of a better phrase, according to plan. But I will have to finish this tale another time. For one this post is long enough already and I'm almost out of time at the internet cafe. So I'll just have to leave everyone hanging. Suffice it to say I am alive and I can assure you I am not in a bubble, so at least in that regard you won't be in suspense.

1 comment:

Bangkok Hotels Thailand said...

Thank you so much for sharing your story. It's very informative. I love to read it and do hope to read your next story.

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