I could talk for hours about how unfair it was; the big fat lie that health care workers didn’t get sick, as if we were some sort of magical beings with iron immune systems, exposed to every illness imaginable and walking away unscathed. The healthcare system was set up in a way that punished workers for being ill. You could call in sick for one day but if you were feverish more than a day you needed a doctor’s note saying that you weren’t lying just because you didn’t want to go to work and would rather play hooky. You needed a doctor’s note to tell the company what the thermometer and your upchuck reflex just told you. This meant, instead of resting in bed, the infected healthcare personnel had to drag themselves to the car with a bucket and drive themselves, feverish and vomiting, to an urgent care clinic, wait in the waiting room (infecting everyone else…dooming them to join in the agonizing misery), and see a doctor who after a 50 second interview and a thermometer reading would exclaim, “yep, you have the stomach flu” and write on a palm sized piece of paper “stomach flu…not to return to work until 24 hours after loss of fever”. Then the doctor would sign his/her name and the healthcare worker would be expected to fork up the money for the bill, not having met their insanely unrealistic insurance deductible. They had not been to work, they just obtained a piece of paper that said they were not allowed to go to work. So, now the money for the bills at the end of the month would be more scarce than usual, and on top of that, for the doctor’s expert 50 second opinion, the worker now had a 1 or 200 dollar bill. It might not seem like a big deal to most but for someone who was living paycheck to paycheck with each dollar promised to some monthly payment due before it was even made, this kind of ritual could really tank a person’s existence. Add children to the mix and it was not an option. Single moms on a CNAs salary were not going to take food out of their kids mouths or spend the school supply money to obtain that little doctor’s note that said they had a fever. Thus was born the lie that healthcare workers did not get sick.
For 4 days i cared for those who were feverish, complaining of body aches, and puking their guts up, and on the fifth day i joined them. Living on the homestead, i’d come to understand why people sent for the priest so quickly in the olden days when someone fell ill. There were few modern comforts to be enjoyed during illness and i often wondered dramatically if i was going to survive. There was no hot water unless it was boiled, no heat unless the space heater was turned on and moved about the room in rotation. You could soak in an epson salt bath to address your aching bones during fever if you could make it to the shed to get the epson salt, lift the bath tub and carry it into the house, boil the water for the bath, and muster the strength to tip the tub to drain the water at the end. It wasn’t worth it so i just laid there. Living alone on the homestead, things like tea and soup required making. Heat required attention and effort. Even drinking water had to be carried from the shed in 3 gallon jugs. I laid in the bed and waited to die.
At first i became incredibly tired. I couldn’t keep my eyes open and i felt sick to my stomach. I decided to lay down but i didn’t make it to the bed. I laid on the floor, grabbing the couch throw that had been hanging on the rocking chair. I wrapped it around me and slept, face pressed against the cool floorboards. When i woke, both dogs were nestled against me but i was not in a condition to enjoy their comfort. I frantically searched the tiny house for something to puke in. My septic system was limping along as it was. I was not going to try my luck with flushing upchuck. I grabbed a metal mixing bowl from the kitchen. Up came my dinner. Mom’s beloved soup. At first i thought it was over. I had puked. It was done. I just wouldn’t consume any more food and everything would be fine in a day or two. But i was wrong. Oh was i wrong. I didn’t feed the dogs that night. I didn’t let them out to go potty until midnight and i didn’t make it to the door to bring them in until 4 am. I puked my guts up until there was nothing left but stomach acid. After the 30th time i stopped counting. At first i was in awe but after the number 30 my thoughts turned to survival. I had to hold the bowl up as i puked into it because if i turned my head down the vomit came out my nose and i couldn’t breathe. I struggled to not swallow though my brain told me to. When i swallowed, sometimes it went down the wrong way so i tried not to. But when i just kept puking and puking 5 or 6 times in a row i needed a break to breathe and out of desperation i would begin swallowing hard to try and stop the coming reflex from being triggered again, even if just for a second to catch a quick breath. As i laid on the floor of the bathroom, sitting quickly before each upchuck, raising the metal bowl to my chin with shaking hands, the hours of operation of the dollar general, the only store in my town, had not been on my mind. I thought that at some point it would end. I thought, “this can’t go on forever.” But i was wrong. When my stomach was emptied of contents i threw up acid alone. It burned my throat and chest after each time. Sometimes it burned the passages in my nose. It felt like i had swallowed water swimming and was drowning in my own stomach juices. I couldn’t swallow any water to wash the acid away because that would just come up as well. So i sat there and endured the burn. Eventually i realized i needed help. This was not going to stop on its own. The patients had all been given anti-nausea tablets by the nurse, ordered by the doctor. I knew the dollar general would have some but they were closed. They did not open until 8 am the following morning. That was a long time to wait. I asked myself if i could make it the thirty minute drive to the nearest city where there was an all night walmart who could help me. The answer was no. I would crash the car trying not to swallow my vomit into my lungs or miss the bucket. Would the bucket even fit over the steering wheel? I was in no condition to drive. Eventually, i left the bathroom floor and crawled to my bed. The dogs were outside. I didn’t think i could make it to the door so i left them out there. It wasn’t a cold night. I was in such a state i couldn’t even worry about whether they lived or died. I was very dehydrated. My lips were chapped. My mouth was slimy with thick saliva. I wanted water so badly but i could have none. I wet a towel and wrapped it around my shoulders in the bed. I put another over my face, peeling it off every time i needed to sit up and vomit. I had to trick my body into feeling like i had somehow given it water. I made my skin wet because i could not put water in my mouth. It helped a little bit. At least i felt like i was doing something to remedy the thirst. I ached for water. It seemed there was nothing better in the world than the thought of cool clean water. “Water water water, water water water water…” i mumbled. I began to make plans for the following morning. I had to save enough strength to get to the car, open the gate, drive down the road, get out of the car, and purchase anti-nausea tablets at the dollar general at 8 am. I would leave at 7:50. I just had to make it to 7:50. I woke every twenty minutes, sometimes to vomit and sometimes just because i was thirsty or my bones ached. Sleep was thin and delirious. My thoughts turned to Jesus. He had died on the cross, crucified brutally, muscles and tendons torn, bloody and beaten, the weight of his body tearing flesh further, thorns pressed into his scalp…i thought to myself, “if jesus can bear being crucified, i can bear dehydration.” Each time i wanted to cry i turned my thoughts to jesus, his bloody body hanging on the cross. I stayed focused in this way for a number of hours but around 6 am the sky began to lighten just the littlest bit and i could taste the nearing of 8 am with each passing minute. I mumbled continuously about water, “water water water water water water water water…” stopping only to take a breath or upchuck more vile greenish yellow liquid. I soaked the towels in water from the sink faucet, not ringing them out thoroughly as i had before. The bed sheets became sopping wet, and probably the mattress too. My clothes stuck to me in the dampness. I didn’t care. All i could think about was water and 8 am.
At 7:50 i made my move. I left the dogs in the house, running loose. I crawled through the yard, dragging my bucket and car keys behind me, one of the towels still sitting around my neck. I made it to the door and hoisted myself in. I was going to get help. There was going to be life after this. I was going to civilization where they would help me. This was going to end soon. I puked one more time in the bucket and drove the car towards the gate. My head felt funny. I was there but not really there. I knew i was driving but kept forgetting where. Then i’d snap back to reality and remember where i was going. I had a very high fever but i couldn’t keep the fever reducer down. That was going to change soon. 8 am was coming. It was coming. I left the gate open. I had gotten it open. I still had to get out the car at the store. I didn’t want to waste my energy closing it. So i left it open and said a prayer to God to keep trespassers from walking through. I managed to make it all the way to the dollar general without throwing up again. Water, beautiful water. Finally, 8:00 am shone in beautiful bright numbers on the clock in the car.
A woman came and unlocked the door. I must have looked a strange sight with my disheveled hair, my bath towel cape, my bucket, and my soggy shirt. I must have looked a little bit zombiesque because she looked at me as if she had seen a hoard of flesh eating monsters approaching the doors. She disappeared back into the store and i mustered my strength one last time. Leaning on the basket with shaking hands i asked the employees i found in the front of the dollar general, “please…anti nausea tablets…”. The woman pointed. The man decided to help me and took me directly to the little purple box in the middle of the aisle. I thanked him. I waited until he’d gone and then i tore into the box, pressing into the little foil package to release one beautiful pink chalky little tablet that was going to restore my ability to drink water. I chewed and swallowed it. It stayed down. Slowly, my nausea dissipated as i shopped. The woman said, “anything else?” I said, “yes, water, lots of water.” I could not lift the 3 gallon jugs in the shed. I was looking for something portable and oh how good it would taste to tear into it in the parking lot. So close now. So close to clear clean cold beautiful water. Mine all mine. I bought a 24 pack of mini water bottles and the last two boxes of anti nausea tablets in town. I slid down the side of the car in the parking lot and wrenched open the cap of one of the water bottles i had ripped out of the package. I tried not to choke. I tried to drink slowly but it was so good. It was so so good. I had water running down my face and soaking into my grimey shirt. I didn’t care. It was water. I would need the anti nausea tablets for 4 whole days just to hold anything down. Eventually i made it to the walmart in kerrville and bought another box. I decided they were a must to have in the purse at all times. It would take 2 weeks to catch up on all the chores i had abandoned during my introduction to the stomach flu. I would never look at water without gratitude again. I would remain a self-appointed hand washing and infection control practices enforcement officer in my field, as it was the only piece of the puzzle i could control. I would begin stashing coconut water and anti nausea tablets in the nooks and crannies of the tiny house for any future times when i was stranded in the country with sickness. I wished not to repeat the experience.