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Swine flew

December 1, 2009
by Gary Tetz
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Since no promising topics were occurring to me at sea level, I decided to spice things up by writing this column while hurtling through the sky at 37,000 feet in a tube filled with strangers. If the pilots get distracted and overshoot Los Angeles by a few hundred miles, I might even get it finished.

It's proving difficult, however, to create exquisite, timeless, long-term care literature while surrounded by obvious swine flu carriers, row on row. This is the part of my plan I didn't think through carefully enough, as I'm stuck in the middle seat between H1 and N1. My travel companions are coughing, sneezing and-worst of all-breathing, emitting a lethal spray of ravenous, microscopic predators. I can see their foaming, virusy jaws snapping as they throw tiny grappling hooks onto my armrests and clamber up.

The swine flu changes everything, and yes, I'm going to keep calling it that. It's not that I don't care about pig farmers or feel a responsibility for sullying the pristine public image the profession has earned-of doomed, corpulent omnivores wallowing loin-to-loin in fetid slop until butchered and sliced into artery-clogging death strips. It's just that I think the name “swine flu” is much more fun to say.

It hadn't quite dawned on me what a national obsession this disease has become until I entered the terminal this morning. What I thought at first was an armed robbery in progress simply turned out to be my fellow travelers trying not to touch anything. Though all Americans have been previously deputized to stay on airport hyper-alert for anyone acting suspicious, it appears we've now been reassigned to catch sick people instead. The moment somebody coughs, those nearby scatter like frightened minnows. And then we look for a gate agent to tell.

Personally, I don't think it should be our responsibility to police our fellow passengers or become virus vigilantes. I'd like the government involved. Why not raise the threat level to “Orange and Achy”? Why can't those x-ray machines also beep if someone has a fever? Why shouldn't my TSA agent grab a throat culture while he's swabbing my luggage for bomb residue? I'd put these thoughts in the suggestion box, but I don't want to touch it.

At least the terminal gift shops care enough to offer protection, although a travel-sized serving of a popular painkiller or cold/flu remedy is priced just under that of a single-family home. I'm disappointed they aren't also selling disposable hazmat suits with respirators that plug into those descending oxygen masks we never get to use. Call me a naïve visionary, but I think there's a real market there.

I fear air travel has changed forever, and the threat of this vile disease has certainly caused me to modify some pre-flight behaviors. Even if both hands are full of oversized carry-on luggage, I no longer press the keys at the check-in kiosk with my tongue. I'm abandoning my popular tradition of hugging each passenger at the door of the plane. No longer will I sip from a stranger's water bottle, or eat peanuts from a flight attendant's palm. It's sad, really. A sign of the times.

The impact of swine flu, of course, extends far beyond the airport. It's transforming America-the ways we act and interact. We now avoid public places and fear all forms of human contact. I extended my hand to a healthcare executive recently and she recoiled like I'd offered her a live scorpion. In fairness, it actually was a live scorpion-but I had dipped it in Purell®, so I have no idea why she overreacted.

Maybe it's because the talk radio scaremongers are whipping the masses into a flu-shot fearing frenzy, even suggesting our President has slipped a few cc's of socialism into every dose. But anyone concerned about the government's ability to change behavior on a massive scale need look no further than the millions of impressionable children suddenly coughing into their sleeves, rather than their hands. Don't you wonder how this transformation happened so fast? And don't you see how easily that cough could become a salute?

For most of us, avoiding the swine flu has become a full-time, all-consuming obsession. So I can't imagine what it's like for a nursing home administrator to keep an entire building staffed and flu-free. The only thing worse than the call-ins must be identifying those who should have called in and didn't. How do you tell who's working sick when the symptoms-headache, nausea, shortness of breath-are the same for H1N1 as they are for survey?

Actually, this might be a good time to just replace all your caregivers with compassionate robots. Or maybe since the President has declared a national emergency, we could institute the Swine Draft to force eligible men and women into long-term care service. It would be 1969 all over again. Worried young people would wait fearfully to see if their number came up. Then would come the dreaded phone call. “Mom, I've got some bad news. I'm being sent up to Shady Sunbeam Nursing Home. Please don't cry. I'll write when I can.”

Epilogue: Now we've returned to earth in our flying Petri dish, and things are getting a little crazy down here. It's Halloween, and those sleeve-coughing kids are already coiffed, costumed, and roaming the streets. Not to be outdone, over in “Our Nation's Capitol,” lawmakers are dressing up a healthcare bill as true reform. It's shaping up to be a memorable night.

Gary Tetz is a legendary long-term care commentator based in Walla Walla, Washington.

To send your comments to the editor, e-mail mhrehocik@vendomegrp.com.

Long-Term Living 2009 December;58(12):38-39
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