“How I handled swine flu”

Writer Patricia Pearson shares her family’s experience with the H1N1 virus

Source: Best Health Magazine

Fatigue was the first sign

It began with Geoffrey. Three years after I’d neurotically stocked the basement with supplies in order to survive a feared avian flu pandemic while in quarantine, my son got too tired to watch baseball. He is nine, and is never too tired to do anything before the sun goes down. But this past June, he shrugged off a couple of Blue Jays baseball tickets a friend had offered so he could nap on the couch instead. Odd.

That night, he was spiking a fever. I don’t know how high; he’s so rarely sick that by this time in his life I’d lost track of which parent I might have lent our thermometer to, or whether I had left it at the cottage. Geoffrey is the sort of child who is so robust he would have survived infancy in the Middle Ages. Never did he even have an ear infection. But now he was hot to the touch and soaked with sweat.

I gave him Advil to bring down his temperature. The next morning, he said his body ached. Juice, and more Advil. (Children should take acetaminophen or ibuprofen, not ASA, when they have a viral infection, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada; ASA in this circumstance increases the risk of Reye’s syndrome, which attacks the brain and liver.)

Confusing symptoms

The ‘swine flu’ had been in the news for a month by then, but there was no reason to assume it had come to our neighbourhood in downtown Toronto. On the other hand,I knew seasonal flu was over. And 98 percent of the flu swabs reported to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta during the week Geoffrey fell ill revealed this new flu virus, officially referred to as pandemic H1N1 influenza virus.

I didn’t know what to think. If this was the pandemic virus, why weren’t the symptoms mild, as the World Health Organization (WHO) had been insisting at that point? Rumours and contradictory reports seemed to swirl in the media.

The third day, Geoffrey insisted on going to school because he was looking forward to a field trip to a reconstructed pioneer village. He seemed energetic, no fever, so my husband, Ambrose, and I let him scamper off’and he promptly threw up on a volunteer parent, to whom I now owe a bottle of wine or some other profuse gesture of thanks.

More than "just a cough"

Home Geoffrey came, all pale-skinned and fatigued. By now, I was learning this flu could cause symptoms that were unlike those of the seasonal flu. People throw up, or toss it out the other end, so to speak, in addition to the usual coughing and chills. For a day, Geoffrey slept, ached, battled nausea and watched a BBC miniseries about Robin Hood.

Then he woke up the next day with a deep and fluid cough. Just like that, overnight, he was barking like a seal.

‘I’m calling the doctor,’ I told Ambrose.

‘Oh, come on,’ he said. ‘It’s just a cough.’

But to me, its swiftness and depth were the warning signs I had read about when I was following the news in 2006 about avian flu, although I didn’t know if it applied to this new bug. I just remembered noting that once a novel virus took hold in the lungs, things could get ugly real fast.

Swine flu hits home

Later that same day, the pediatrician diagnosed Geoffrey with human swine flu (but didn’t swab him) and put him on a powerful antibiotic for a secondary bacterial infection in his lungs. Her theory was that his body immune system had been knocked out, and was vulnerable to other opportunistic infections. He was developing pneumonia.

The infection must have been bacterial, as she suggested, rather than viral, for he rallied on the antibiotics and felt better in days. Ambrose and I sighed with relief and carried on for two weeks…until it was Mummy’s turn.

Like my son, I’m not one for getting sick. Blame it on hardy Scots genes and adequate sleep, because I can’t think what else would account for my persistent failure to get infectious colds and flus. Or earaches, or sinus infections or anything else, thus far, beyond having a low-functioning thyroid. (Instead,I get mentally ill, suffering periodically from bouts of anxiety’hence the supplies laid in for a possible pandemic flu. Irony of ironies.)

I don’t know if I responded in latent fashion to my son’s flu, or whether I somehow got infected separately, but a few days before Canada Day my body suddenly felt as if it were comprised entirely of ancient chicken bones. ‘I told you it felt achy,’ said Geoffrey. No kidding. I felt brittle enough to crack, and Advil didn’t help. The only thing that eased my pain was immense amounts of fluid: water alternating with Gatorade.

Keeping myself stable in this fashion, I managed for a couple of days. Then I triedto exert myself, by driving five hours from Toronto to Ottawa for a family getaway. By the time we arrived, I was so flushed and feverish that I couldn’t think straight. I was literally in a stupor, and so freezing cold on a hot, humid night that for the first time, I felt scared. The Public Health Agency had told Canadians to ‘be on alert for complications,’ one of which was feeling better and then having the fever abruptly return.

But what was my body fighting? It roared off into wonky furnace mode with nothing else giving me a hint’no headache or sore throat. One minute in a sweater, the next covered in wet cloths, but otherwise perkily reading a novel in my mother’s guest room.

Weird aches and pains

I skipped the Canada Day crowds so as not to infect anyone, for by now the WHO had identified certain groups, such as pregnant women, as being vulnerable to severe complications. Mine weren’t severe so much as bizarre. About six days after I first felt tired, my eyeballs were too painful to slide to the left or the right. I could carry on my affairs perfectly happily if I kept staring straight ahead, but if I wanted to, say, look around the kitchen for the coffee filters, or glance about the living room, I braced for pain.

Not good. Way too weird. I was also starting to cough. My mother drove me to a walk-in clinic, where the doctor tapped, prodded and listened, and found infections in my lung, ear and sinuses. He scribbled a prescription for a powerful antibiotic, 1,000 milligrams per day. This, as with Geoffrey, was assuming these were secondary bacterial infections, as a virus won’t respond to antibiotics.

After that, my kids endured the most boring holiday of their lives, as days of lethargy ensued. I lay in bed or on the couch, feeling faint crackles of pain across my chest and in my ear like the flashes from a receding thunderstorm. One day my throat was so sore I couldn’t swallow. On another, I threw up. On a third, my mouth swelled for no apparent reason and then subsided 12 hours later.

The family flu

When we returned to Toronto a week later, the virus was sweeping through Ontario summer camps, and my husband fell ill. In addition to fever and fatigue, he grew stiff, his hands swelling as my mouth had. He never saw the doctor. Did he have H1N1 too? Or was it just a sympathetic response, with the pair of us taking joint naps for the rest of July? Had my 12-year-old daughter, with her fatigue and daily headaches that spanned the same time frame, also been infected?

We can’t know, because swabs weren’t being done for anyone in Toronto who didn’t need hospitalization. There is a lot that isn’t known about this new virus, and by the time you read this, it may have mutated and become more virulent, with new risk factors and complications. “Constant, random mutation is the survival mechanism of the microbial world,’ Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the WHO, said at a summer conference. ‘Like all influenza viruses, H1N1 has the advantage of surprise.’ It may get worse, or sputter out. ‘Between the extremes of panic and complacency,’ Chan declared, ‘lies the solid ground of vigilance.’

Stay well.

This article was originally titled "Blindsided by swine flu," in the October 2009 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience’and never miss an issue!’and make sure to check out what’s new in the latest issue of Best Health.