Families say flu scare comes with a dose of craziness

By Donna St. George
Sunday, October 25, 2009

Glenn Dance does not have swine flu. But when he took the family cat to the veterinarian last week, he was greeted in the parking lot by workers in surgical masks. They knew that his wife and daughter had the flu and told Dance that he was not allowed inside.

Dance, who lives in Great Falls, obliged. Then he went along when he was asked to don rubber gloves to sign his pet's paperwork. And again when they said to keep the pen -- and wait in his pickup -- as Cleo was whisked away for a 90-minute work-up.

"It was like a scene from 'E.T.'," he decided -- except that it was a scene from the strange times of swine flu.

With flu cases and anxiety surging across the region and with President Obama declaring the H1N1 flu a national emergency, the usual drumbeat of family life has been infused with a mix of the scary, the odd, the humorous and the surreal.

Parties and play dates have been canceled. Children have been sent home from school. Flu vaccine has seemed as hard to get as sold-out concert tickets, only more frightening to miss out on. Families say coming down with swine flu can feel a little like being visited by the plague.

Lisa Cuomo, 39, who is eight months pregnant, had her swine flu scare Oct. 6 when her 6-year-old son landed in the emergency room with a high fever. Afterward, she developed flu symptoms, too, and posted on Facebook: "It's H1N1 -- Stay away from us!"

Friends took her at her word. They brought soup to her home in Northern Virginia but made quick drop-offs on her porch, skittering away without the usual embrace. "They rang the doorbell and called me as they drove away," she said.

Even after her child was fever-free, she kept him home several more days. "I thought, 'We can't send him back to school. People will be scared to death,' " she said. The experience was pretty isolating, if understandable, she said. "I felt like we should have a big 'S' on our house."

Strong reactions

With worst-case flu stories dominating the public imagination, the fear of contagiousness has created new expectations about exactly what qualifies as being sick.

Rafe Petersen said his preschool e-mail group list in Chevy Chase lit up at the news that a parent had dropped off a child who appeared slightly sick but who the parent did not think was truly ill.

"People went nuts," said Petersen, 39, a father of three. "The reaction was, 'How dare you!' "

This sort of upset would not have happened last year, Petersen said. But as families try to sort out the confusing risks of swine flu, "I think people are on edge, and I think there's a little paranoia and a little hysteria."

Starting last weekend, two of Petersen's three children developed flu symptoms, too -- first his 6-year-old, then his 2-year-old. Then he did, too. The family's pediatrician said they didn't need to come in for a test to determine whether it was swine flu or seasonal flu. Either would be treated the same way, the pediatrician told Petersen.

After being cooped up in the house for days, they finally felt well enough to venture out to a park one morning. It was strangely empty. "Normally you see a ton of kids out there," he said. "I think a lot of parents are holding their kids back."

Julie Power, for one, has declared a ban on Chuck E. Cheese. "It's buggy enough in the best of times," said Power, a mother of twins in Bethesda and co-founder of momstowork.com. She also points out that although most kids are being dutiful about hand sanitizers and coughing etiquette, she has noticed some delight in flouting the rules and flat-out coughing on each other.

"It's like a new version of germ warfare," she said.

In Alexandria, flu claimed one of the Krupicka family's biggest annual events: a Halloween blowout.

First 5-year-old Gigi spiked a fever Wednesday. Then came mom Lisa Krupicka and 7-year-old Janelle. By Thursday, the family had canceled the weekend bash that 200 people were to attend, a tradition for 14 years. "Even if we felt better, I really wouldn't want to infect anybody," said Lisa, 38, whose husband, Rob, is an Alexandria City Council member.

Toll on sports teams

Flu is also taking a toll on area sports teams, sometimes wreaking havoc with practices and game rosters.

Travel soccer coach John Heltzel, 45, a Manassas father of four sons, two of whom have had flu, said lately he gets an e-mail before every practice that some player is down. He said one Virginia travel team had to forfeit last weekend because so many players were sick, unusual in the must-play world of club sports. "It's kind of a do-or-die every game," Heltzel said.

Complicated choices have arisen inside the home, too.

Wendy Eaton, 43, tried to separate her children, keeping her sick 7-year-old largely holed up in her Chevy Chase bedroom, under mom's watch, while dad tended to the healthy 3-year-old. By swine flu's day five, the sick child missed her sister. Missed her friends. Missed soccer.

Her mother had found the girl dressed in her soccer uniform two days earlier, insisting that she had to be there for her team. "It's hard to be locked down" but important to do, Eaton said.

Heather Pettway, 39, of Potomac spent much of last week hunting down vaccine for the two siblings of her 4-year-old daughter, Avery, who has leukemia. She made call after call, even posted on Facebook, to get the injectable vaccine. Finally, a fax sent directly to a pediatrician made the difference. "I was starting to get panicked," she said, "Tears. Everything. It was awful."

Part of the swine flu scare might stem from the seeming randomness of who comes down with the illness.

In Bethesda, Alicia Hatcher, 44, said her 7-year-old, Caroline, had a play date and sleepover last weekend with a close friend, even sharing her lip gloss during a game of beauty parlor, only to learn a day later that the friend had contracted swine flu.

Hatcher quarantined her daughter. The girl missed school. Church. Gymnastics. Hatcher made sure her other children did not see their friends either, just in case. Days went by. Caroline continued to do handstands around the house. No flu. "It baffled all of us," she said.

Cindy Hargroves, 48, said that after her 12-year-old daughter, Meredith, developed flu symptoms in early October, they learned that one friend was sick. Then another. And another. All were in band class. Blowing into instruments.

"Blowing germs all over the place," said Hargroves, who lives in Great Falls.

Wide reach

In her hard-hit corner of the world, swine flu's reach is wide. Hargroves said one recent day, her middle school principal noted 147 absences. Another day, of the nine girls expected to show up for at a Scout meeting, four had flu or had just recovered.

Their middle-school talent show lost at least three acts.

In the Dance family, LeeAnn, 47, and her 16-year-old daughter, Casey Malone, learned they had swine flu last Monday. Casey missed her last cross-country meet of the season and five days of class at Langley High School, a bad break for a student with two Advanced Placement courses, plus pre-calculus, physics and Russian.

It fell to dad Glenn Dance, 52, to buy groceries. Get the family's 9-year-old from the bus stop. And shuttle the cat to the vet with what turned out to be a sinus infection.

By the time the visit was over, the workers with masks and gloves seemed somewhat apologetic. Dance laughed and took Cleo home.

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