Traversing the Midlife Minefield

Midlife mind on the page…

Et tu, Flu? March 13, 2008

Filed under: essay,health,Uncategorized — amazonratz @ 12:17 pm
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Ohhhh, I am so sick of the flu. I have been diagnosing people with flu for about 6 weeks. Every time I think it’s over, another new case shows up. Not to mention that the vacation that my husband and I were supposed to take in February (optimistic fools!) was spent in bed coughing, racked by fever and chills. I continued to cough for 3 more weeks, despite early treatment with an anti-flu drug.

We Americans are just not cut out for this. We like our illnesses like we like our hamburgers–fast and exactly how we expected them. A few lucky souls will get over the flu fairly quickly, on their own. But most people are coming in angry—at me—that they are still ill after 3 or 4 weeks.

In many cases, their flu symptoms were atypical, so they were either mistakenly offered an antibiotic by their health care provider or they absolutely browbeat the clinician into giving them one. Without the correct, non-antibiotic anti-flu medicine, the symptoms can drag on for weeks. So after 2-3 days on the antibiotic pills, horror of horrors, they are NOT better. Then the rage really kicks in, fueled by unmanageable schedules, thwarted plans for spring break getaways, and unreasonable leave policies that either a)keep them at the desk while they infect their coworkers b)cost them vacation time because they are sick or c) result in unpaid leave, a stressor in itself.

The office waiting room is packed with miserable, irritable, coughing folks who have, by and large, grown up in a time when many illnesses are preventable or easily and quickly treated. They believe the 5-day antibiotic they got on day 3 of their viral cold cured them (most colds go away in about 7-10 days anyway, with or without treatment) Antibiotics are seen as a panacea, and honestly, who hasn’t experienced the miracle that 24 hours on antibiotics can effect on that bladder infection or strep throat?

This is what they expect from us, and this is what we cannot deliver. The vaccine was minimally effective this year, and the extra-long winter in our region is making things worse. We’ve learned recently that the influenza virus is a wily little bugger that comes complete with its own little winter coat.

The older patients, the ones who lived through flu epidemics of the past, are more philosophic. They nod when I show them the quickflu test vial, with its magically appearing pink lines—a line above the blue control line means Influenza A, a line below means B. Resigned to “wearing it out,” they accept my cough syrups and anti-inflammatories and go home to drink lots of liquids and rest. They know that only time will cure this thing, and they’re glad of our care and monitoring. Some of them remember that many people used to die from the flu–some still do, though in lesser numbers. This year, with this batch of flu, we have seen more post-flu pneumonia, more of those patients going on ventilators, and more deaths than usual. Despite all this, most people will eventually recover their energy and stop coughing.

It’s the younger folks who are bewildered, the ones who can’t figure out how to carve out time to be sick, that find fault with us for not returning them instantly to the rat-race that is their lives. They are not philosophic at all, merely impatient, and slow down very little during the flu, which in turn prolongs their symptoms. Most of our world moves at a hectic, ever-quickening pace, and we are used to putting our heads down and lengthening our stride to cope. Confronting an entity such as influenza that demands our time and energy, that insists that we slow down and take time to recover naturally causes a lot of psychic discomfort. It is this discomfort that is spilling over in my exam rooms.

The flu—and once you’ve had real influenza, you realize all of those other little illnesses you used to call “the flu” were but shadows of the real thing—WILL have its way with you. Remember, it had its way with perhaps 100 million people worldwide in 1918. We are fortunate to be a more heavily armed adversary in 2008. Influenza exists. You’ve got it. So stop being angry, take your medicine, crawl in bed and rest. In all likelihood, you’ll be feeling better soon.