Kim Nelson: Whoopin’ It Up

I have sympathy for the first person to die in a zombie movie. Nobody wants to be Patient Zero.

At a previous job, I would travel to various cities for large conferences several times a year. I would spend 10 hour days running around a hotel, working at a registration desk, and handing out materials to nearly 800 people over the course of a week. It was fast-paced work, and I enjoyed the rush of being on my feet and meeting lots of people while inhabiting a new city. I had just arrived in sunny San Diego for one of these meetings when I started to feel the beginnings of a sore throat and cough. Of all the times to catch a stupid cold, I thought to myself. I was pretty confident that it would pass in a day or two and I’d still get to enjoy San Diego; I have a hearty immune system because whiskey kills germs.

The conference began, and I threw myself into work. These events can get really chaotic, with hundreds of people coming at you with random questions or requests in the midst of the regular business of changing out signs, replacing speaker tents, and checking on conference rooms. I pumped myself full of Dayquil from the gift shop and soldiered on. Being so far away from home, and stuck with such long work hours, I couldn’t go visit my doctor so I had to tough it out. Near the end of the week, I was surprised that I still felt sick; I usually bounced back from illnesses quickly, but this virus was apparently tougher to shake than the usual cold. I had planned to stay through the weekend to explore San Diego so I did, visiting Balboa Park and the world-famous Zoo to see my favorite animal, the Giant Panda. I flew home on Sunday and, when I was still coughing and achy on Monday, scheduled a doctor’s appointment. The doctor thought I might have the flu and prescribed me some stronger medication. As a precaution, he did a few more tests and said he’d be in touch with the results. After leaving the doctor, I headed back to the office to close out the San Diego meeting while simultaneously prepping for the next meeting, which was in Seattle the following week.

While dealing with a stack of boxes in my cubicle, I received a call from my doctor. “So, it turns out that you have pertussis,” he told me. Also known as whooping cough. This came as a huge shock to me, as I had no idea that I was a 19th century British orphan. He called in a prescription for a z-pack and told me that I should warn anyone who I had been in contact with recently, as it is highly contagious, and let them know that they should get tested or immunized as soon as possible. So that would be, let’s see: my boyfriend, my mom, my co-workers, the hotel staff, the hired temps, the people on my plane, the people at the zoo, the 800 meeting attendees (who flew back home to destinations all over the country), some of the only living Giant Pandas on the planet… Did I miss anyone? Seriously, was there anyone left in the country that I hadn’t possibly infected yet?

They call whooping cough the ‘100-day cough,’ and that shit’s no joke. I had been immunized 9 years prior to catching it, but because I was approaching the point of needing a refresher (my doctor told me that the DTap booster is recommended every 10 years), and the rate at which pertussis (along with many other previously obscure diseases like measles and mumps) is currently spreading, I hit the retro disease jackpot.

I spent the next few days quarantined in my apartment, working my way through my z-pack and working from home in preparation for the next big meeting. My phone rang, and instead of it being my boss or my regular doctor, it was someone from the Center of Disease Control. They had a very strong interest in my diagnosis. Shit had gotten real.

“We hear you have recently tested positive for pertussis.”
“Yes, I did.”
“Did you travel recently?”
“Yes, I did.”

As you can imagine, they were not thrilled to learn that not only had I just flown cross-country, I had plans to do it again in the next week. When I told them I had just come from California, I could hear the click of the pieces coming together in the CDC rep’s brain like the final twist of a Rubik’s cube.

“Ahhhh, that’s probably where you got it. Southern California is experiencing a large pertussis outbreak.” I shook my fist at the heavens and cursed Jenny McCarthy’s name. Damn you, anti-vaxxers! Damn you all to hell!

He then told me that if I absolutely had to travel again soon, I needed to wear a surgical mask to keep my contagious illness from spreading. I mean, what girl wouldn’t be thrilled at the thought of walking through O’Hare Airport and boarding a plane while wearing a surgical mask? I started to wonder how I would pull this off without feeling like a total freak. I started to consider embracing the concept head-on and donning a full Michael Jackson costume.

A few days later, during a follow-up call from the CDC, they cleared me from mask duty because I had been on medication long enough to no longer be considered contagious. That was a huge relief, and I flew to Seattle mask-and-glittered-glove-free. The meeting went smoothly and luckily I did not pick up an any additional communicable diseases on my second trip, just a newfound fear of touching doorknobs and a budding addiction to Purell.

I do hope those pandas were OK.

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