My wife, Sara, and I are the proud parents of newly minted 4-year-old triplets, and this fall we just haven’t been able to get healthy in our house. We get over one illness and another one crops up a week later. Fevers come and go. Coughs are incessant. Headaches bloom and recede. It’s been never-ending.
So none of us was feeling particularly well on the Thursday before Halloween when Sara called me at work and told me she had spiked a fever. We weren’t sure it was H1N1, but working in the Public Affairs Department here at Children’s Hospital Boston, I spend much of my time communicating about swine flu, so I know fever is one of the bellwether symptoms. Alarm bells started going off in my head because, unfortunately, like the rest of the poor, huddled masses, the Cyrs were waiting for the H1N1 vaccine to be made available.
As soon as I got home from work, I shuttled Sara off to her parents’ house and called my parents to come help me with the kids. The next day was relatively quiet; Sara was miserable but quarantined (and, frankly, enjoying the room service and uninterrupted silence), and the kids and I were doing OK.
Then came Saturday, October 31.
H1N1 showed up at our house early wearing its little pig costume and offering nothing but tricks. One of our daughters, Sophie, was feverish, weepy and miserable, so I took her to our pediatrician’s office, where she had the rapid influenza test, which is the first-line flu diagnostic tool that many of you will become familiar with this fall and winter. It consists of nothing more than a Q-Tip swabbed around the inside of the nose, but can tell the doctors and nurses if you or your child has flu and, further, if it’s flu A (the broad category of flu that H1N1 is part of) or flu B. If the rapid test is positive for flu A, they can do further testing and determine if you have H1N1, but most health care providers are taking a positive flu A result as a positive for H1N1.
Good news: Sophie was negative. No flu, but just to be sure there hadn’t been a “false negative” on the rapid test, we went to the hospital to get some blood work done. That also came back negative, so we thought we were in the clear.
Silly us. Saturday night into Sunday, I had one of those experiences when you just can’t get warm, no matter how many clothes and blankets you put on. I woke up feeling lousy and utterly exhausted, and Sara and I decided it was time to pass the parental baton. She was feeling marginally better, so she and her parents came home Sunday afternoon, while I went to my parents’ house to try and rest and keep from getting anyone else sick.
Monday came and it was another trip to the pediatrician’s office. This time it was our son, Jackson’s, turn, and this time he tested positive for flu A. The pediatrician immediately put him on Tamiflu, and I called my doctor’s office to get put on it myself. We certainly weren’t glad the little pig had come trick or treating, but we hoped the Tamiflu might get us feeling better and keep the others from getting really sick.
Of course, we weren’t so lucky. My phone rang at about 2:30 Monday morning. It was my wife saying that she was taking our other daughter, Olivia, to the emergency room; she had woken up crying and shaking, her coloring was terrible, her breathing was very shallow and she had thrown up twice.
Now, as a parent, working at a place like Children’s has its natural advantages. I get to meet and get advice from some of the most amazing doctors and nurses in the world. If your child’s going to get sick, there are far worse things than having a place like Children’s so close by. But being in this environment also teaches you that bad things can happen for no reason at all. So as I waited to hear back from Sara, I thought the next phone call would tell me to meet an ambulance at Children’s, that Olivia was too sick for our community hospital and needed to be put on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, a heart-lung bypass machine reserved for the sickest of the sick.
Because, really, this is what we’re all most afraid of with H1N1: In this age of knowing everything there is to know about everything, when answers are thousandths of a second away on the Internet, we just don’t know enough about H1N1 and it’s got us terrified. It’s a new virus and seems to strike quickly—unexpectedly and inexplicably hitting some people incredibly hard. And it’s possible that by the time you figure out what it is, it’s already days ahead of you and threatening to plug your child’s lungs with infection.
As my wife said, “The scariest thing about swine flu is that I’ve never known anyone who’s had it.” And she’s exactly right. If you get a cold or the regular flu—even cancer—you go into it with some sense of what to expect, how to treat it, how long you’ll feel terrible and when you might be back on your feet. But most of us haven’t met anyone who’s had H1N1. So we ask ourselves: How can it kill some people, seemingly at random, while it leaves others nearly unscathed? Why is this vaccine taking so long to get to us? Or, alternately, how can we trust a vaccine that some say has been rushed to the market? How can we be sure we’re not going to become paralyzed because of something in the vaccine? So many questions and, seemingly, so few answers.
Is there a bit of mass hysteria at work with H1N1? I happen to think so—even if it’s completely understandable. Keep in mind that the mortality rate for the virus has so far been less than 1 percent, and even if it turns out to be just as deadly as the seasonal flu, which kills about 36,000 people each year, it will still pale in comparison to the more than 630,000 people who die each year from heart disease. And yet you don’t see people in a frenzy to change their eating and exercise habits the way we’re all changing our sneezing and hand washing habits. (Read a great blog post by Children’s physician Aaron Bernstein, MD, MPH, about extremely deadly viruses in other parts of the world.)
And what about all the panic regarding the vaccine? Consider these three facts: 1) It was created in exactly the same way as the seasonal flu vaccine, which is among the safest, most effective vaccines in the world; 2) It was tested extensively by the NIH prior to its release and continues to be tested now that it’s being administered to the public; 3) There have been no documented severe side-effects in anyone who’s received it (check out this great Q&A about the vaccine on WebMD by Anthony Fiore, MD, MPH, medical epidemiologist for the Influenza Division of the CDC).
Yet we’re all still scared stiff. At a time when we think we can conquer just about any health problem simply by knowing more information, it has come along and shaken our confidence in our doctors and nurses, our scientists, our government agencies—in our bodies themselves.
So we react the way we’re genetically programmed to when faced with a threat: with fear and distrust. We see conspiracy and cover-up. We get angry, we lash out, we blame the people who are doing all they can for not doing enough. We worry that we don’t have as much control over things as we thought.
We sit by the phone, waiting for it to ring. Will it be a passing virus or something much worse? In our case, it was a passing virus. Olivia’s shaking stopped when she got to the ER, her breathing became normal again, she stopped vomiting and started doing pirouettes around the exam room (a sure sign she was feeling better).
That was two weeks ago. Olivia re-spiked a fever eight days after the trip to the ER and was put on Tamiflu; Sara and I are still coughing and exhausted and I just got back to work this week; all the kids have recently finished antibiotics, two for ear infections and one for bronchitis; my mother, who caught the virus while helping care for the kids, cracked a rib from coughing so hard.
Yet we know how lucky we were. There were stressful and scary moments, but we didn’t get hit the way others have; fortunately, the fear of critical illness never became a reality.
But we did learn some things going through it.
We learned that having H1N1 can make you a pariah. One friend was kind enough to bring homemade soup, but barely hit the brakes when he dropped it off. When I told a neighbor we’d been fighting swine flu, his face became contorted with horror and fear. I went into the office for a few hours last week, and you would have thought I was carrying the plague, what with everyone running at the mere sight of me. I don’t blame any of them: If the situation were reversed I wouldn’t have wanted to be around me either.
We learned that having two sets of grandparents close by is a rare gift when illness fells a family of five in no time flat.
We learned that it’s also a rare gift to not be expected to return to work (or, frankly, wanted back, given the environment) until you’re feeling completely flu-free
We learned that even working around world experts in illness and disease and hearing the facts about H1N1 up close every day at work still doesn’t make you any less scared and worried about your children when it shows up at your doorstep.
And we learned that knowing someone who’s had H1N1 seems to increase the chances that you’ll get vaccinated for it. The day after the visit to my office, Children’s began distributing H1N1 vaccine to staff, and as soon as the email went out announcing that it was available, my officemates nearly knocked down the doors trying to get to the clinic. Would they have been so eager two weeks ago? I don’t know. But I do know that they finally knew someone who had it and knew the havoc that it could wreak. And there was only one thing they could do to set their minds at ease, to make them feel like they still had some control: Get the vaccine and hope.