Monday, November 2, 2009

I Have H1N1 Swine Flu

I just got home from the doctor to learn that I have H1N1, or better known in Italy as "La Suina". Many people in Florence have "La Suina", but mine is a severe case that has worked its way into my lungs and has caused my lungs to nearly close down. Not being able to breathe is a very frightening feeling.

The fever persited for 2 days, so I could do nothing but lie down. I was very disoriented and lost track of time. I was lucky to have some Ambien, without which I could never have slept, with my lungs being so congested and my cough being beyond painful. Over the past few days I've been feeling like I'm going to die, but this was the first day that I've had enough strength to walk to the doctor. I've never had such weight on my lungs and never have been this paralyzed.

I don't know how I am writing this. It's just mind over matter, I guess.

Yesterday I spent hours breathing in the steam from a pot of boiling water, trying to break-up and spit out all the fluid in my lungs. I've been in a daze. I can hardly breathe. I've wanted to go to the doctor, but when you can't move, you can't move. I couldn't make it from the bedroom to the bathroom without losing my breath. It feels like emphazima. Can't breathe.

After 4 days of this, I finally had the strength to walk to the doctor's office today. I dressed real warm and put on an extra scarf, gloves and down vest. I've been so afraid of getting pneumonia....I've been trying to keep my lungs real toasty. I walked slower than a snail, just taking one step at a time, feeling at times that I was just going to fall onto the ground. Breathing is difficult and it feels like there's something lodged in my chest.

I just got back.

I planned to arrive at the doctor's office an hour early. I did. But there were already about 20 people sitting in the waiting room, with no receptionist. The building, which is a palace in Piazza Santa Croce sure didn't look like a palace on the inside. It felt like my grandmother's house on 94th Street. Everyone was coughing. It sounded like a TB Ward. I couldn't believe it. There were no seats left. I wondered if this was a good idea. I'm already deathly sick. How could this evironment ever make me better?

If there wasn't a receptionist, then how would I know when it was my turn? I asked one of the waiting patients how this works, and she told me that I would have to verbally make an announcement to the whole waiting room to find out who is "l'ultimo" (the last person in line). I got up the nerve to yell out my question "Chi è l'ultimo che aspetta la dottoressa Ventura?" An old man raised his hand. This was the only way to know the "pecking order".

While I was waiting, I browsed the library of books on the shelves in the waiting room. Most of them had bindings that were worn and yellow. There was a medical encyclopedia from 1964 and the most recent medical book was from 1994. This was just the confidence I needed.

Doctor Lucia Ventura is the doctor that I chose to be my doctor when I was accepted as a citizen into the "Azienda Sanitaria" (Italian healthcare sytstem). I wanted to visit her for months, just to introduce myself and set up my medical history in her files, get a check-up and get myself established with her. I sure didn't want to wait to be sick to see her for the first time. But I have been procrastinating my visit for months. Too bad, because this was going to be a very comprehensive visit.

After 2 hours of waiting, my turn finally came up. I had no idea what to expect. I was praying that she spoke at least some English, but she didn't. So I was anxious. But I aced it. I did good. I was able to explain everything and have a productive visit. I told her all my medical history and felt like I had taken another giant step in adapting more to my new culture.

Dr. Lucia Ventura was one of the most compassionate doctors I've ever had. What she might have lacked in sophistication, she sure made up for in her maternal disposition. I couldn't help feeling protected by her. I sure could use a bit of mothering.

As I introduced myself, she immediately said "Dio, che brutto bronchite che tu hai". (God, what a brutal case of bronchitis you have.) I responded "Davvero? Lo può dire?" (Really? You can tell?) After I explained the symptoms and how long this has been going on, she lifted my blouse and listened to my lungs and asked me why I waited so long to come to her. I told her that I couldn't have come sooner because I was unable to move until today. "Hai la Suina". (You have the Swine Flu). She asked me why I didn't call an ambulance. I told her that I didn't know if it was bad enough to call an ambulance. She said it is.

We discussed my medical history and she typed notes into a program on her laptop. In order to emphasize what a healthy person I am, I showed her my "Libretto di Idoneità Sanitaria Per Attività Sportive" (which is this special booklet that is stamped by the Istituto di Medicina dello Sport di Firenze showing that I have passed the medical exam that you have to pass to be considered an athete and to get your cycling racing license). She understood very well and was impressed. We had a long discussion about all the medications I take and the reason for them. When I go back on Friday, she is going to give me prescriptions for all the medications from the U.S.

She explained what I should expect, she told me to stay inside, keep drinking water, rest and gave me a prescription for some antibiotics and told me to come back to see her on Friday morning. She laughed gently when I asked her if I might die. I guess not.

Before I left, she asked me how I chose her as my doctor. I told her that the Department of Health gave me a list of about 500 doctors and I just picked the one closest to my house with the most visiting hours.

I slowly walked to the pharmacy, got my antibiotics and came home. My lungs feel so heavy. Just sitting up is difficult. Now I understand better the pain of emphasima that killed my mother. Perhaps God is just reminding me of the suffering that she endured.