Scenes from the Illiad: Flu outbreak causes epic tales of woe across Washington region


Flu (Ryan Inzana for The Washington Post)
February 1, 2013

Chad Fowler has the flu.

It started at a tattoo parlor on Saturday. He was getting his forearm inked with an avatar from a video game, when suddenly he felt this compression on his chest, as if he couldn’t breathe. At first he thought it was his nervous system reacting in this weird way that it previously has to tattoos — this tingling sensation, this pressure. He thought it was that, but it wasn’t, because the next day he woke up in his Washington home and he had contracted the plague.

Now it is four days later.

How do you feel, Chad?

“I feel terrible.”

How do you feel terrible?

“You know how in flus, there are phases, and it’s like you go through two or three different phases? It started out with the lung thing, like the not-being-able-to-breathe thing. And then it turned into the sneezing-headache thing. And now it’s the desperate-coughing thing.” The sinuses. The sweating.

His wife is sick, too. It’s like a joint extracurricular activity they’re pursuing, in between trying to pack up all of their worldly belongings and move to Europe, where Chad has accepted a technology job with a German firm.

“I have an array of three different types of nighttime and daytime medication,” he says. “I have a completely unfounded feeling that liquid DayQuil works the best. I’ve also tended to gravitate toward the Theraflu.” It is, he says, “like drinking sour flax.”

His last week in Washington. And the city is under siege.

* * *

***

There have been 535 influenza cases reported by District hospitals during the current flu season, according to the D.C. Department of Health. Those numbers do not include the people who refuse to see doctors, the people who are indeterminately ill (perhaps not with the flu) or the people who probably have the flu but won’t admit it because they are too busy talking about how drinking Kombucha keeps them eternally healthy. Last year the number was 97.

The city smells like a wet glove, like the sharply medicinal inside of a Halls cough drop bag, like the pillowy dry cotton of a family-size tissue box. The city smells like liberally applied hand sanitizer, like the stink eye thrown by office ladies when their co-workers refuse their hand sanitizer. The city is haunted by the ghosts of the Robitussin, Tylenol, and Alka Seltzer Cold and Cough that are currently out of stock at the Walgreens down on Lee Highway.

Across from the Walgreens, the Giant is out of Airborne, Sinex, DayQuil (original flavor) and NyQuil (cherry).

Next to the Giant, the CVS is out of Advil Cold and Sinus and NyQuil Liquicaps. “Buy any two select cold remedies, get $3 ExtraBucks,” a sign advertises.

Cure yourself in bulk. It is that kind of illness.

The city is watching back-to-back episodes of “Criminal Minds” on A&E, is trying to get a head start on the February book-club book, is tweeting that its arms are too tired to hold up the February book-club book. The city keeps calling its wife and saying, “Can you bring home some Gatoraaaade?”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention publishes, every week, the FluView: Weekly Influenza Surveillance Report Prepared by the Influenza Division. It includes a map of the country. The hardest-hit areas are red and orange. Things have been getting better, steadily over the past week. But still. Almost the entire country is red and orange.

* * *

***

“I went to a MinuteClinic. But there were six people in line ahead of me, and [a sign] said the technician was required to have a lunch break.” Sangeeta Rao didn’t want to mess around. She went to an urgent care clinic instead. She came out with six prescription medications.

“This is for my throat.” She points to the first of many boxes lined up on her dresser. “And this is for my throat. This is for my nose. This is for my ears.” The eardrops must be dribbled in, one ear at a time, as she lies flat on her side and waits for the medicine to sink in.

Sangeeta has been sick for five days. It’s Arkansas’s fault. She was there on business and the day she flew out, she heard on the news how all of the schools in town were closing because of influenza. Today she managed to make her bed. And then she rested. She managed to scramble eggs in the kitchen of her Arlington County townhouse. And then she rested. She has tied a cheerful scarf around her neck; she is wearing a little bit of makeup. She looks more put together than most people look when they’re healthy, and this is very deceptive until you realize: Sangeeta might be a puppet entirely propped up by a conglomeration of soothing medications. Sangeeta has become a walking antibiotic.

* * *

***

In 1918, the influenza epidemic that swept the nation and the world killed more people than World War I. More than 600,000 in the United States.

The word “influenza” comes from the Italian verb “to influence,” and it refers to the time when humans believed illness was influenced by the stars. The first modern usage of “influenza” didn’t occur until the mid-18th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, leading one to wonder what word our forebears used to describe feeling as if they had been methodically pummeled with a ball-peen hammer.

The most common symptoms of the flu are fever, chills, body aches, coughing and irritation with people who claim to have the flu but who obviously just have a cold and are being whiny babies about it.

Unlike in 1918, there have only been a few tragic fatalities with this particular flu pandemic. We typically don’t die from the flu. We just wish we would.

* * *

***

The Flu in Love: Scenes from a Relationship

Interviews conducted, separately, by telephone.

JOE TYSK (government worker): “Sunday evening, I started off just being really tired and achy. I wrote it off to just being tired from the weekend. . . . Monday I had a bad sore throat. And chills. And chest congestion. And a cough. I had to leave work early.”

REBECCA CARELLI (high school assistant communications director): “I came home today and immediately wiped down the remotes and washed all the sheets and towels. I’ve wiped everything with 409. He’s got the Purell right in front of him.”

JOE TYSK: After being asked about his choice of illness entertainment. “I’ve watched a lot of ESPN. I watched ‘Big Trouble in Little China’ — I hadn’t seen it for years. The special effects. The kicks are not even near the face and people are flinching. That is not a good movie.”

REBECCA CARELLI: Explains that the last time she had the flu was a few years ago during Snowmageddon. “It will not happen again. A 102-degree fever in a snowstorm with no power? No.”

JOE TYSK: “She’s probably going to dip this phone in Purell when I get off of it.”

* * *

***

This is about sick days. America’s lack of them, American’s unwillingness to take them. That’s what articles are telling us. If we would all stay home and stop coughing on the spreadsheets (We’re looking at you, Pamela), then none of us would be in this mess.

No, it’s not. This is about a shortage of flu vaccines, about people being too busy to properly care for themselves.

No, it’s not. This is about the last remaining frontier — our immune systems — over which we ultimately have no control. We must wash our hands and succumb, take the Airborne and succumb. We must recognize how small and pitiful we are compared with vastness of the universe, as we endure the trickle of our eardrops, as we dream of freeing ourselves from the sofa and the dreaded fleece throw.

“It always seems like once you get through the horrible shivering fever phase, you start getting better,” says Chad Fowler, who still has the flu.

“I think I’m getting better now.”

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.
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