In 1999, I was returning from teaching a class at Arthur Andersen University in Downer’s Grove near Chicago. At the time, I lived in Baltimore; it was a short flight.
Because it’s a bit of a taxi ride from Downer’s Grove to O’Hare airport, I had a chance to loll in the back of the cab and drift a bit. So, when I got to the airport I felt woozy and light-headed – presumably because of my nap. But something was definitely wrong. I was on the last flight from Chicago to Baltimore (I think it would have been 9:00pm arriving 11:00pm) so I got to the gate, slugged some gatorade, and drifted out again. It would have felt pretty normal for me to be tired and woozy; the teaching gig at AA U was rough: 5 days of 8hr/day lectures on UNIX system security and how to audit BSD, Solaris, and System V. It was not uncommon for me to have no voice left and to feel exhausted.
I dragged myself onto the plane but by then I was starting to feel that something was definitely wrong. I felt flushed, headachy, disassociated, and sweaty but cold. After having been alive for a while, I knew the symptoms were onset of a fever, so I probably had the flu. We’ve all had the flu. When I get a flu, I feel like crap for 3 days then spend a week coughing up and spitting little globs of greenish yellow stuff – I can be remarkably accurate with them, if I care to be. Once I was on the plane I strapped in and woozed out again.
Deplaning in Baltimore, I felt like I was shrooming or on a mild dose of LSD. I had trouble focusing and walking straight, and was bucketing sweat. Without a doubt, I was expressing virus in all directions, a small storm of pathogens stumbling down the D Gates area and onto the parking shuttle, then driving home somehow. I took a shower to get some of the stickiness off of me, wrapped up in a bathrobe, fell into bed, and woke up the next morning.
It felt like I was breathing through a straw. I had a splitting headache and was terrified that I’d throw up and suffocate because I couldn’t breathe and I hadn’t even realized how much air is involved in tossing your cookies. The cordless phone was handy; I called my father and whispered “help” and he was there in no time at all and I was at the ER of the Greater Baltimore Medical Center, which was 5 blocks from my house at the time. Later, I found out that there was a lost day between my getting home from the airport and waking up unable to breathe; I must have been tripped out with the fever. After that is a hazy period in which I was under an oxygen tent, feeling not good, getting saline in my arm, and being hauled into a sitting position by evil doctors who wanted me to “breathe deeply” – my lungs sounded like they were full of cellophane and if I tried to breathe fully, I choked on clear yellow fluid like thick apple juice that I had to spit out.
Turns out that, when my age-mates all got chicken pox and got over it, I hadn’t. What I had was adult onset chicken pox and I was one of those patients that is fairly lucky and doesn’t get pox on the face and neck/shoulders – my blisters were in my throat. Adult onset chicken pox, I was told, can get deadly if the blisters in your lungs get infected with some opportunistic bacteria. I got MRIs and antibiotics and some pain killers and my lovely cool oxygen tent and they sent me home as soon as I felt well enough to get bored. My breathing wasn’t great for weeks but by the end of 2 months I was back to what passes for me as normal.
From listening to the This Week In Virology (twiv) podcast [twiv] it sounds like we’re not likely to experience the worst-case “movie outbreak” scenario but there are a lot of people who are experiencing something that I am somewhat familiar with; I gather adult onset chicken pox is not as nasty as this new coronavirus, but the thing that gets you is when your lungs get filled with funk and you can’t breathe. I suppose that, because I feel like I have a vague idea what it may feel like, I’m particularly scared of the new coronavirus. There have been places on this blog where I mention the swine flu outbreak of 1917, and I get the date wrong every time – reading about that scared me, made me deeply thankful, and further reinforced my idea that we’re just barely hanging onto the surface of this ball of dirt, and humans who fancy themselves the masters of the planet are delusional (usually religious ideologues) and ignorant, besides. I suppose that was the closest I’ve come, so far, to dying in a way that I was aware of it, and it heightened my sense of fragility and tremendously opened my empathy toward anyone I encounter who is suffering from a mysterious, sudden, destructive, something.
This stuff ought to affect our individual politics, too. When you realize that you’re having a potentially lethal encounter with a sickness, it’s impossible not to see that as a social justice issue. One of my old investors in my company (around the same time as I got sick, actually) was an ageing multimillionaire from New Jersey – Stanley broke his hip, a serious injury in a 72-year-old, when he got hit by a golf cart, and he spent a while in a luxurious hotel room at his own golf resort, while top-notch private doctors came out from New York City to make sure he was alright. Spoiler: he survived. When I had my chicken pox, I was able to afford to be offline for a week and a half, and in a hospital and lovely oxygen tent for several days. There are people who can’t expect that level of care and who are going to have to ride this motherfucker out alone in a small apartment dragging themselves to the shower to cool off, and trying not to get dehydrated or for their lungs to close down. Our fucking government is busy spending huge amounts of money on stealth coatings for F-22s and F-35s and that taxpayers’ money, which was collected to serve and protect taxpayers, is being remorselessly pillaged by a small army of rich old men who have private doctors and private hospital rooms. I hope everyone who gets the coronavirus in the US survives to someday meet Mike Pence and kick him in the nuts as a way of saying “thank you for being there for me you anti-vaxxer sonofabitch.” Knowing what’s going on when you’re sick is a tangible comfort, so a big “fuck you” to Trump, also, for trying to claim this is all propaganda. From the way he pants and gasps even at the best of times, we’d all be rid of him if he caught something like the coronavirus; you can be sure that while he’s cutting access to medical care for everyone except his rich grifter buddies, he’s got the best team of animatronic techs keeping him comfortable, apparently alive, and shambling zombie-like on his big weird feet.
Last night, I had a pretty vivid nightmare about a Hollywood-style outbreak. I know that the chance the world will experience anything like that is very small, so my higher brain isn’t worried but clearly my subconscious remembers and is terrified. My heart goes out to the folks who got trapped on the cruise ship (what a nightmare!) and everyone who’s isolated and wondering “what next?”