H1N1: an unforunate memoir

The flu situation this year is starting to remind me of the one in 2009. We haven't had a really bad flu season in between. In fact, last year we didn't have one at all until about February, and then it was mainly kids with RSV and pneumonia.

But 2009 was the year of H1N1, which I caught before the vaccine was available, and it made a lasting impression. People toss around "the flu" too lightly. "Oh, I had a touch of the flu." Or, worse, "I have the stomach flu." THE STOMACH FLU DOES NOT EXIST. But that is a rant for another day. I had just moved from the cardiac ICU to the ER and was only halfway through my orientation, so it wasn't a particularly awesome time to get sick, but everyone was so freaked out about flu that my new employers practically begged me to stay the hell away from them.

I learned that I had only thought I'd had the flu before. No, I had had upper respiratory infections and possibly a viral syndrome or maybe even bronchitis, but I had no IDEA what the honest-to-God influenza was. And it happened so fast. I went to work at 7pm feeling tired but all right, and by 10pm I was wrapped in a warm blanket with the shaking chills. I could literally barely make it home. I crawled into bed in my scrubs and outdoor coat and shook. Thank God I was still married then, because I absolutely could not take care of myself.

The real influenza is like nothing I had ever experienced or even seen before that. You feel so sick that you become convinced you are going to die, and also you no longer care whether you die or not. It's like being hit by a train. And then I got just about every secondary bacterial infection you could dream up, including bullous myringitis, which I didn't even know existed before that. (My husband took me to the doctor when I told him, "I bet if I banged my head against the wall really hard, it would rupture my eardrum and stop this PAIN." I was serious. Blisters on your eardrum are nothing to ever, ever have.)

The landscape was similar, too: the "get a flu shot or wear a mask" thing at work, the crammed ERs, the scary epidemics and flu deaths in populations that normally don't die from flu. The real flu is scary from every angle: public health, my own job, tragic patient stories...it's just not a good virus. My hospital has already had to open closed wings for, variously, pediatric patients and general medical patients. 'Tis the season when I spend all my time starting IVs on pudgy toddlers with pneumonia. I HATE THAT SEASON.

My point? The flu is bad, m'kay? Please, wash your hands, and never ever touch your face. Touching mucus membranes with virus-laden hands is the best way to directly give yourself a whopping dose of virus. And please, please STAY HOME IF YOU ARE SICK. Come to the ER or your doctor's office only if you have some dangerous or intolerable symptom like you can't breathe or, you know, you are about to poke a hole in your own eardrum.