Wednesday, July 01, 2009

I Become a Statistic in the Worldwide H1N1 Pandemic

Entry for 1 July 2009:

The yearly international SPR conferences end with a banquet at some interesting and characteristic local site. This year the banquet was also a costume party in a rustic restaurant along one of Santiago's little rivers. (From sheer overwhelm, I decided I would just have to pass as myself: black hat and pony tail: not totally in the spirit but generally acceptable.) I’d had a nice time talking to Clara Hill and Leigh McCullough and visiting with Leigh’s Norwegian grad students. However, as the evening went on, the cough I’d had since I woke up that morning got worse, my head started to ache and I felt very tired and unwell. I lined up with the crowd waiting for the first bus back, then had to wait get a taxi back to my hotel. By the time I got back to my hotel it was 2am and I felt chilled to the bone.

Diane and Nancy had gone south to Chillan with Gloria and weren’t due back until early Sunday afternoon, so I slept in, got up, ate breakfast, and went back to bed and slept another three hours. It was clear to me by this time that I’d come down with the flu: fever, cough, headache, and aching muscles. When the others arrived about 2pm, I warned them off. After some discussion, Gloria and Juan (her husband) took us to a fancy new medical clinic. It was a rainy Sunday afternoon, and the place was packed with people, young and old, mostly miserable. It could have been an emergency room in the US. We were told that it would be a four-hour wait, so Gloria and Juan left us to it. We put on our face masks and settled in with our reading material. We were surrounded by suffering people -- a large number of them children -- and those who were there comforting them. We were witnessing the universal language of distress, support and soothing. At least half of us were wearing face masks, put on with varying degrees of care, and were doing our best to cough discretely behind them.

Eventually, after about three hours, they called us and a nurse took my vital signs. We then waited another hour for the doctor. The doctor, who spoke no English, was the most gentle, mild, humble doctor I have ever met in my life. He asked about my symptoms, and with Diane’s translations and my two years of high school Spanish as well as frequent gestures, we managed to communicate this information to him. We explained that we were scheduled to fly back to Scotland tomorrow and that we didn’t think I was healthy enough to do that. He agreed with this assessment and said he would give both of us medicine for the flu and a form for the airline to allow us to reschedule our return. He disappeared and came back with the medicine, which was two 5-day doses of Tamiflu (Diane's prophylactic because of her probably exposure) and a form filled out (of course) in Spanish, much of it handwritten. We asked when he thought we would be able to travel back to Scotland, and he said “Martes, Miercoles, o Jueves”, that is, “Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday”. This seemed almost too good to believe so we questioned him, and he reaffirmed this view. After completing the papers, he bowed to us and left. We gathered up our staff, went out to pay our bill (US$80, no charge for the Tamiflu), and had Gloria call us a taxi to take us back to the hotel, where I took my Tamiflu and went to bed.

Then next day was a holiday, the feast of San Pedro I think. The Tamiflu was amazing: my fever and aches went away, and, most surprisingly, my cough didn’t get worse. Just to be on the safe side, we decided it would be a good idea to wait until Wednesday for our return flight. When the Iberia folks didn’t answer their phone, Diane and Gloria went to the airport to try to book our return flight; however, they said we’d have to wait until Tuesday when their office in the city center was open. Then Nancy left to go back to the US, Gloria and Juan went back to Chillan, and I slept quite a bit. Gloria, who is a bit of a micro-manager (I think that comes from teaching pre-school teachers for 30 years), got her cousin Cecilia to get in touch to help Diane with the rebooking.

On Tuesday, Diane got up early and went with Cecilia to the Iberia office to be there when it opened. The person told them they had no flights until 15 July. Cecilia took Diane out for a cup of chocolate, then went to LAN Chile ($3300 each for one-way back to London), and finally back to the Iberia office. By this time the man there had read the paperwork completed by the doctor, and pointed out that the paperwork was actually a 7-day H1N1 quarantine order. Instead of leaving Chile tomorrow, we were going to be stuck here for another week! He then booked us on the first available flight after the quarantine expired, for the 7th of July.

Once we got over the shock, we tried to figure out what had gone wrong. First, there is a difference in Spanish between “el martes que viene” (the coming Tuesday) and “el martes proxima” (Tuesday of next week); the doctor had meant the latter, but we had heard him as referring to the former. Second, we were both anxious and desperate to get home, both which interfered with our competence in Spanish. Third, we had interpreted the doctor not testing me for swine/novel H1N1 as a good sign, but it turned out that I am part of a tidal wave of H1N1 cases that hit Chile this past weekend, a mixture of seasonal (it's winter here) and "novel" (H1N1) strains; at this point health authorities have given up testing.

As a result, I am restricted to my hotel room for seven days. I have a somewhat spotty wireless connection in my hotel room and so I am able to work some. It is now Wednesday. The Tamiflu continues to work wonders, I have been getting plenty of sleep, we are watching In Treatment every evening on HBO en EspaƱol, and I’ve spent much of my time so far rearranging (and in some cases re-rearranging) appointments for the rest of this week and most of next week. I haven’t been able to reduce the 1000+ pile in my inbox so far but at least it’s no longer growing so quickly. Diane is trying to keep from going insane from boredom. And I’m trying to finish a very late manuscript for Psychotherapy Research. It’s a weird kind of half-sick, half-work, half-vacation. Right now it feels like it will never end. And after all the hassle, inconvenience and expense, the worst thing is that it may not be swine/novel H1N1 and I may have to go through the whole thing all over again when the pandemic really hits Scotland. But I'm sure I'm in the count already!

1 comment:

Becky said...

So sorry to hear about your illness. It's bad enough to have the flu, but to have it while traveling, with the communication challenges, and without your own stuff isn't at hand (and paying for the privilege too) has got to be miserable!
Hoping you're better soon!
Becky