“That was it,” I thought bitterly, as the minutes dragged on and the BC HealthLink recorded message to please hold repeated itself for the fifth time. “That was where I got it.”
“It” was of course H1N1, and when the public health nurse finally took me out of telephone hold purgatory, she confirmed that yes, I had “it”.
Between that rush-hour coughing experience coming home the afternoon before and my decision to call BC HealthNet at its 811 number the following morning, the worst had started to happen -- aching bones, aching head, fever, shivering. Reluctantly, I forced myself to go to to the government’s H1N1 website just to reassure myself that I didn’t have it.
The 811 line was busy, very busy. I waited over half an hour after the initial triage before a nurse finally answered, listened to my symptoms and delivered the verdict (“You wouldn’t believe the number of people calling this morning with cold symptoms,” she first told me by way of apology): “You’ve got it alright.” And then she passed sentence: bed rest, plenty of fluids, salt-water gargling and seven days of quarantine. As she listed the precautions that would be needed to avoid infecting other members of the household (bleach, frequent wiping of surfaces I touched, no physical contact but stay two metres away), my mind kept going back to that coughing stranger behind me on the SkyTrain, wondering if I could have done anything different. Finally, I forced myself to pay attention as I realized she was telling me to call again if the symptoms didn’t get any better after a few days. I agreed, she asked if I had more questions. I said no, thanked her, she told me to take care of myself and to see my doctor after the quarantine period, and hung up.
I looked across at my partner and said, “I’ve got it,” and lay down on the couch, sweating and shivering.
I’ll spare you the details of my experience with H1N1. It’s not unique -- thousands of British Columbians have either had or will soon have H1N1 or Swine Flu. In my case it lasted a little longer than average -- five to six days. I lost 5 pounds (Hmm, The Swine Flu Diet? Nah, it’ll never catch on...) and sorely tried the patience of my partner, who had to interrupt a very busy week to take care of me, but I survived, as do most H1N1 cases (only nine deaths in British Columbia to date, of whom eight had underlying medical conditions).
H1N1 is being taken more seriously than previous flu outbreaks because it’s so new that we don’t have any natural immunity. Even if the symptoms are mild, once you get it, you’ve got a good chance of spreading it to someone else. Enough people get sick with it and infect others, and you’ve got a serious pandemic. Hence the seemingly draconian quarantine - stay home for seven days and avoid contact with others.
We were lucky. My partner and I have an exceptionally large apartment for downtown Vancouver. We were able to arrange things so that I kept to the living room for the week (except for necessary trips to the bathroom of course). Separate cell phones and separate laptops have their benefits. It felt weird going to the door of the room to fetch the bowl of soup she’d left, but we treated the situation seriously, and with patience (especially for her), we got through it. But I can’t imagine doing it in a Yaletown shoebox-size condo.
It’s now eight days since I first noticed the symptoms. Supposedly, I can now go out and rejoin society, being no longer contagious. But I’m still cautious, and my behaviour has changed. Now when I cough or sneeze, I instinctively turn my face into my shoulder. Don’t even ask to shake my hand. And I hope you don’t get offended if I wipe that doorknob you just touched, or get up and find another seat if you start to sniffle. Just taking precautions, you understand.
For more information: The BC government’s H1N1 site at www.gov.bc.ca/h1n1/ should be compulsory reading for every resident of the province. It’s well-arranged, clear and concise. They even have a Twitter feed (twitter.com/h1n1bc) and a Facebook page (www.facebook.com/h1n1informationbc).
To find out where you can get vaccinated: http://www.health.gov.bc.ca/flu/ i