When infection requires more than Bactine

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., November 12, 2001) -- Infection. Until recently, the word meant little more to me than something you prevented by putting Bactine on a cut or a scrape. Somewhere along the line, I missed the part about infections that could lay you low or knock you down or, as in my case, put you in the hospital for over a week, threaten life and limb along the way, and leave you hobbling for months afterwards.

I never made the connection between cuts you needed to wash so they didnít get infected to the life-threatening bacterial infections that apparently are all around us and that apparently everyone knew about except me. (I must have been absent that day.) The fact that the infection was in my knee, and that I had an only coincidental scrape on the outside of my knee, only muddied the waters for me and made it seem like the timely application of Bactine might have helped prevent this near-fatal episode.

Of course, for the past six weeks, weíve been getting a nationwide education about the ins and outs of infectious disease in the form of anthrax. The fact that the news of the Florida anthrax case broke the same day I was admitted to the critical care unit at Berkshire Medical Center only further clouded my understanding of what was happening to me. I didnít have anthrax; no one purposely infected me. What I had, explained one doctor, was a case of strep throat that decided to migrate from my throat to my knee -- a very good place to be from the point of view of the streptococcal bacteria, but a very bad place from the angle of the owner of the knee.

That a few days into my hospital stay President Bush began his efforts to smoke Bin Laden and Al Qaeda out of their caves by bombing the heck out of Afghanistan, thus providing me with a global analogy to my medical situation Ė my white blood cells were the Northern Alliance; the powerful antibiotics which had a hard time killing the enemy deep in my knee were like the U.S. bombing raids which couldnít reach deep into the terrorist hiding places in the mountain caves; my body, wracked in pain, sickness, and severely wounded, was like New York City or, in my most grandiose moments, even Western civilization Ė was of small consolation. I didnít volunteer for the role of human analogy to World War III, but I suppose, in a pinch, if it helped in the war effort, it was my patriotic duty to take on that task.

From early in my hospitalization, several people asked if I planned to write about my experience, or even if I had already begun taking notes or if I had already begun an article. At the time, writing about it seemed like the last thing in the world Iíd want to do. I wanted to get through it and leave it behind and forget about it for the rest of my life. In spite of the good efforts of the mostly heroic, kind and competent nursing staff at BMC, living in the hospital for eight days and nights was one of the worst experiences of my life. (Now this may suggest to some that Iíve lived a rather sheltered life, but you go ahead and get a strep infection in your knee and be hospitalized for eight nights and see what itís like and then talk to me.)

My infection and my hospitalization are not things I particularly want to relive. The pain, humiliation, and violation of human dignity that comes with illness and hospitalization is still too raw to face directly. In any case, all I need to do is look down at my still-swollen knee, or try to take a few steps with the help of a cane on my sore, stiff leg, to remind me that Iím still living with the aftermath and probably will continue to do so for months if not for the rest of my life.

Of much greater interest than my own experience in the hospital were the responses elicited in others by oneís medical misfortunes, responses which, as I experienced them, bring out both the best and the worst in people.

Early in my hospitalization I received a call from a spiritual leader whom I consider a dear friend. I was thrilled to hear from him, until he made an idle, half-joking reference to "divine retribution." His point was that I shouldnít be thinking in those terms, although given my illnessís proximity in time to the Jewish High Holy Days -- during which G-d allegedly settles our accounts according to our actions -- that indeed was exactly what I had been thinking about since the moment my knee began to throb.

To his credit, he later apologized to me for even broaching the topic in my time of distress. Indeed, he should have known better. But later in my hospitalization, he made up for this lapse by brilliantly clarifying my ambivalence and confusion over some wild thoughts and feelings that had been spinning around my brain.

Early on, I had felt like I was in danger of dying, but I kept these feelings to myself. I was feeling very sick and sorry for myself, and was somewhat embarrassed by thinking about death, but nevertheless I spent hours praying and talking to G-d and angels and to my late grandfather, calling upon them all to help me survive.

At the same time, I felt stupid doing all this, as if it were just so much bad melodrama or self-dramatization. After all, other than the hint offered by my brief, initial stay in the critical-care unit, no one had explicitly said anything about my life ever having been in danger. Clearly I was sick, but clearly I was also carrying things a bit too far.

Then, a third of the way through my hospitalization, a doctor who I saw only once made explicitly clear that indeed I was seriously, dramatically ill. She dropped the name of Jim Henson, the late Muppeteer who died from an infection closely related to mine Ė one apparently for which I was being closely monitored. I knew little about the specifics of Hensonís case, but just enough to know that he died from some mysterious illness. I didnít need to know any more in order to burst into tears and realize finally that, as my friend so eloquently and precisely termed it after I related this all to him, unbeknownst to me, my subjective experience of my illness matched the objective reality of my condition.

Another friend called a few times and came by towards the end of my stay in hospital. His take on the whole deal was that this must have been quite a "humbling experience." He repeatedly intoned the term, almost like a mantra: "Wow, what a humbling experience," "man, how humbling," "you must feel humbled."

Needless to say, I wanted to kick my friend where it counted, except I couldnít move my leg. Other than the indignities that come about with hospitalization Ė the lack of privacy, the paper-thin gowns you wear, the incessant prodding and poking and sticking of body parts -- there was nothing particularly humbling about being sick at all.

This wasnít, after all, the result of some hubris on my part, some kind of stretching of my limits Ė like, say, an accident due to downhill skiing or skydiving. And anyone who knows me can attest that I live very simply and humbly inside my body. In fact, Iím rather estranged from my corporeality, and all this experience served to do was to further alienate me from my physical shell while confirming my sense that itís just a time bomb ticking off the days to kingdom come. Disorienting? Yes. Unpleasant? Absolutely. Humbling? That implies the need for being knocked down a few pegs. I already live at the bottom of that ladder, and I have no desire to climb it.

In the end, the greatest consolation came when I read Bob Dylanís response to an interviewerís question about his brush with mortality a few years ago in a recent issue of Rolling Stone. The interviewer asked Dylan if the painful, debilitating infection that laid him up in the hospital and nearly cost him his life had "altered" his view of life in any way.

"It was like I learned nothing," Dylan said. "I wish I could say I put the time to good use or, you know, got highly educated in something or had some revelations about anything. But I canít say that any of that happened. I just laid around and then had to wait for my strength to come back."

Other than having the time and inclination to finally read "Moby Dick," that pretty much sums up my life in the wake of infection. That once again Bob Dylan put it into words better than I ever could, now man, thatís humbling.

[This essay originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on November 15, 2001. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2001. All rights reserved.]

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