Friday, August 24, 2012

My Summer Infection

The two women who just arrived were young. They sat in front of me. They spread a beach towel and removed their clothes. They were wearing bikinis underneath. One of the women had long fine light brown hair and sat with her back toward me. There was only the back lace of her bikini to conceal her back, which was covered with an enormous tattoo. The once beautiful symphony of her skin, the tones of muscle and hues of pink, soft and delicate, were lost to the tattoo.

The other woman appeared to be around twenty-five and had the strong, husky voice of a middle-aged woman. She chain smoked and drank malt liquor from a can hidden in a paper sack. If I wanted to avoid breathing her second hand smoke, we would have to move. I surveyed the beach, looking for an opening in the crowd where Roberta and I could move our chairs and personal effects.

Meanwhile, my right foot itched like crazy. I kept scratching, but the itch wouldn’t go away. My fingers felt wet and I raised my hand. The tips of my fingers were beaded with blood and I could feel a bit of blood trickle down my ankle. We didn’t have any napkins or paper towels , nor were there any paper towels in the men’s room. I thought I would go for another swim and just let the water carry it off. When I returned to our spot on the beach, Roberta noticed my feet were swollen. They looked like dirigibles with toes. There wasn’t any pain. But the phenomenon was a tad worrisome.

Much later, long after we had returned home and had dinner, my muscles began to ache. Everywhere. Though it was most intense in my legs. I also had a terrible migraine. They symptoms worsened. The next day, after a totally sleepless night, I curled into a fetal position on the couch and groaned. When Roberta returned from her run, I phoned the Sound nurse line and ran off a litany of symptoms to a female nurse with a southern accent who urged me to go to the doctor. I phoned our clinic and they said they could fit me in at 2:30 p.m. Roberta took my temperature: it was 103.

The doctor ordered an ekg and several chest X-rays. The results revealed nothing worrisome there, which was a relief, but the doctor was worried about my feet. Edema is often symptomatic of kidney failure. He directed us to the hospital emergency room, where the attending physician immediately diagnosed a skin infection on my right foot. I explained the situation at the lake, and also mentioned that some of the wounds were caused by our cat, who likes to attack my foot.

I was admitted into the hospital. A young man rolled my bed out of the emergency room and into a series of elevators which took me into the heights of the hospital. I was given a room with a view of everything except Mt. Rainier, which was blocked by a building. The young man apologized for the missing mountain. I didn’t care. I just wanted morphine. Dilaudid. Anything to help get rid of the migraine and aching muscles. I was also shivering. The room was frigid.

A young female nurse entered and gave me several additional blankets, freshly warmed. I was hooked up to a syringe pump and a regimen of antibiotics was begun.

Hospitals are no fun. You spend a lot of time trying to rest in a bed that is magnificently adjustable, but feels more like a machine than a bed. Most of the discomfort is the restriction in movement when there is a line running from a vein in your arm to an IV pole. This becomes particularly cumbersome if you have to go to the bathroom a lot. The pole has to become unplugged, the wires untangled, and a modicum of modesty maintained in your hospital gown while waddling past the open door of your room. The sounds coming from the bathroom cannot be helped. Human biology gets ugly at times.

My doctor certainly wasn’t. Ugly, that is. She was a very young and pretty Asian woman with a cheerful disposition. Blood had been drawn and she was waiting for the cultures to reveal their microbial character. Meanwhile, her strategy was to glean as much information from me as possible and fill me with antibiotics.

The strategy worked. A few hours later my fever began to go down and the ache in my muscles began to dissipate. I was given some morphine which helped me sleep during the night. I continued to have to get up and go to the bathroom a lot. There must have been a considerable amount of fluid being pumped into me with the antibiotic. Each time I went to the bathroom, the screen saver on the computer would catch my attention: a black doctor with a strong resemblance to Wesley Snipes with his hands held out urging that hands always be washed.

The doctor and nurses all agreed. There had been a dramatic increase in infectious diseases. It was most certainly caused by global warming, which is turning the clock on our planet back to its conditions in the Eocene when greenhouse gases, in particular carbon dioxide and methane, played a significant role in controlling surface temperature. Bacteria during the Eocene, which lasted from 56 to 34 million years ago, must have thrived like crazy. Bacteria love warmth and moisture.

And me. But then, I am bacteria. Bacteria built this city. “We carry stores of DNA in our nuclei,” observed noted biologist Lewis Thomas, “that may have come in, at one time or another, from the fusion of ancestral cells and the linking of ancestral organisms in symbiosis.” These ancestral organisms to which are refers are bacteria. Which begs the question: then why do they make you so sick?

Pathogenic bacteria, the kind that invade an organism, are not an enemy. They don’t act that way out of malice. “Pathogenicity is not the rule,” says Lewis Thomas. “Disease usually results from inconclusive negotiations for symbiosis, an overstepping of the line by one side or the other, a biologic misinterpretation of borders.” “Pathogenicity may be something of a disadvantage for mist microbes, carrying lethal risks more frightening to them than to us. The man who catches a meningococcus is in considerably less danger for his life, even without chemotherapy, than meningococci with the bad luck to catch a man.”

I was released from the hospital last Friday and prescribed some antibiotics to be taken orally. I felt weak, but the fever was gone, the headaches sneaking in and out of my head like children stealing candy, and the pain in my muscles was mostly gone. My intestines still ached and burned, and the diarrhea continued unabated. But it sure felt great to be home.

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