COLUMNS

H1N1 not quite the bogeyman

DeWayne Bartels

“Dad, the doctor says Kevin has H1N1,” my daughter-in-law said.

It took a second for the phrase “H1N1” to sink in.

She was calling from the emergency department at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center Oct. 25.

“How can the doctor know? They can’t have tests results,” I said.

The doctor said Kevin had all the symptoms, all of them — especially difficulty breathing and high fever. The doctor told his mother he did not need to have a blood test or a nasal swab to verify it.

My heart sank, and not just because I’m Kevin’s grandpa. There was more to it — such as the fact that Kevin lives at my house. H1N1 was no longer just some abstract thing I wrote stories about.

Kevin is not the grandchild I would have expected to be hit by H1N1. He’s just far too honery. He has a T-shirt that says, “This is my timeout shirt. I wear it all day.” He is a handful.

Kevin came home asleep and slept a long time. He did not want food or liquids. Trying to get him to eat or drink was a battle, something unusual for this little boy.

Kevin was sent home with a prescription for Tamiflu. We all took our temperature. No other fever in the house. But, a couple of us, including me, had developed a cough the day before, a raspy one.

Was H1N1 coarsing through me and everyone else in the house? Grandma was already wearing a face mask.

I was concerned for awhile. But, concern turned to thoughts of opportunity. The reporter in me took over. I suddenly realized I had an inside story on H1N1.

By the next morning both of Kevin’s parents had a fever, as well as our 13-year-old. Me, I felt good. After consulting the health department Web site I went to work. I had no symptoms. I made sure to tell my co-workers I had H1N1 in the house. None of them ran away. I worked well into the night feeling good.

At home I was greeted by varying degrees of fever, aches and complaints.

Tuesday, I awoke tired but feeling OK. The rest of my housemates felt rather puny.

At work I was asked by co-workers how things at my house were, but no one ran away from me or wore masks.

I was finding this flu is not nearly the bogeyman some make it out to be. I wasn’t afraid to go home, except a nagging fear that more laundry and dishes awaited me since everyone else was sick. Sick or not they sure dirtied clothes and dishes at a prodigious rate.  

I began to get curious about reactions to H1N1. A Web search took me to the Neiman Foundation For Journalism at Harvard University. They had a section devoted to reaction and over reaction.

“When people initially become aware of a risk, they overreact. They have a temporary short-term overreaction. People pause what they’re doing, become hyper-vigilant, check out the environment more carefully than they normally would and—this is perhaps the most important characteristic of the adjustment reaction—they take precautions that may be excessive, may be inappropriate, and are certainly premature,” the site said.

The knee-jerk reaction to a potential crisis is extremely useful, the site said. Apparently, people who over react come out the other side calmer and better able to cope.

“We want people to have this reaction early rather than late, and the way to accomplish that is to guide the adjustment reaction, rather than trashing it, as it seems officials often do and journalists sometimes do,” the site said.

Well, I guess I fit that mold because I don’t see any reason to try to instill panic in my readers, especially after my exposure to H1N1.they had an answer to that reaction. 

“The problem isn’t panic. The problem is denial ... Denial is not useful in that people in denial don’t take precautions, but it’s preferable to panic. People who are panicking do themselves harm. Those who are in denial don’t accomplish much, but at least they don’t make things any worse. Denial is nature’s way of protecting us from the horrible effects of panic and, whereas panic is rare, denial is extremely common,” the Web site said. 

“We need conscious effort on the part of both the sources and on the part of journalists to protect people from denial by seducing them out of denial.”

Panic is good it seems is the message I should be sending. But, in all good conscience I just can’t do that with H1N1. Now, on the other hand I have no problem telling people they should panic if confronted by Kevin. 

By Oct. 28, Kevin’s fever was broken. He was getting back to his old self. As I write this his father just uttered, “I’m going to get a tranquilizer gun.”

It sounds like Kevin, not the H1N1 Flu, is back to being the bogeyman at my house.