You are currently browsing the monthly archive for December 2006.

(Note: you have to sing the title like the lyric in Burn.)

So, it’s practically the 365 day of 2006. Which means it’s over.

Yay.

I can’t complain; 2006 saw many firsts for me. I moved out on my own into a condo and have successfully lived alone for just over six months now. I went to Alaska for the first time (on a cruise, which was also a first) (also got snogged in the elevator by one of the bellhops who apparently had a crush on me (unbeknownst to me) made another first) and saw icebergs and glaciers and eagles flying freely over my head. I had what was my first (and better be the last!) arm-related surgery.

There’s probably more but that’s all that’s coming to mind right now.

On the other end of the spectrum, there was a lot of chapters closed. I moved out of the parental nest (and god, I don’t want to return) and we packed up and moved my grandmother from her house of roughly 30 years (after 8 years of trying to settle my step-grandfather’s trust) and we no longer have the “family home” to go to. That was rough. If the move hadn’t been like the seventh circle of hell I might have been a lot worse off emotionally about it.

I’ll say it. I turned 25 in 2006. I’m a quarter of century old and I thought I’d be a lot farther in life (like, career, love, health, etc) but I’m not. In a way I’m okay with that, because for all my ambitions and dreams I’ve got a lot of really bad realities (ie: emotional/mental health issues) that tend to want to snuff me out. The first part of last year was spent in a really dark depression (It started in Sept ’05 and went through March ’06.) and while this year’s funk is honestly not as dark (there have been moments) there have been things that have snapped me out of it and made me realize it’s not as bad as it looks.

At one point or another you participate in the timeless tradition of making resolutions for the upcoming year. There’s all the standards, the ambitions, the deal makers.

I hate resolutions. I never seem to make ones I can keep. I guess because I make ones I know aren’t truly that possible in any way.

(This from a girl who’s life’s goal since kindergarten is: Marry a rock musican.)

There’s lots I would like to accomplish in 2007. Don’t get me wrong. But I don’t see basic needs, like getting a job that’s not something temporary and actually has a future, overcoming my terror and learning to actually drive a car all by myself, keeping my weight down, and staying/eating healthy as “resolutions”. They’re things that need to be constant goals, something that you really have to accomplish and/or maintain, and shouldn’t find yourself sitting there as the clock winds down on 2007 realizing “oh, I screwed up again. oh well!”

Even the goals like “read more”, “watch less TV”, “take up a new hobby”, etc… those really aren’t resolutions. Well, maybe they are to someone, but I don’t know what the new year will bring, what I will find myself interested in.

(Hell, I took up knitting after wanting to learn for years, just because I had to kill the time when my dad was in the hosptial hovering between life and death for a month. Who knew I’d actually learn and be good at it? How would that have turned out if I’d made a resolution years before that happened and failed to accomplish it?)

I suppose I can make one resolution. I know I can easily keep this one!

My resolution for 2007: sleep.

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I’ve been trying to think of something to write. And a lot of my memories are more… snippets if you will. A lot of the crazy things that happen to my family are more “you had to be there”, because they just don’t translate into type.

And some of the strange things that have happened to me, I’m just not at liberty to share. C’est la vie.

Today was my last physical therapy session for my left arm. I have three lovely stitches popping, the kind that are supposed to dissolve and they’re quite the painful little buggers. The asisstant is not in at the doctor’s office (see, the PT clinic and my doctor are right next to each other, adjoined by a bridge over a small gully with a creek) so I can’t have them removed til Tuesday at the earliest.

This triggered a memory, which is actually more of a really long story I’ve retold several times in my life. Mainly because if you saw me today, you’d never ever know unless I told you.

As a child, I was the chubby kid. It comes from my father’s side, really. That and being a truly picky eater. But something you cannot predetermine is what can be controlled by exercise and what is genetics.

You know the girl. The one growing up that is already far beyond endowed then any other girl in the class, let alone the school.

Yup, that was me.

Early on in life, probably in elementary school, I heard there was a surgical procedure that could reduce the size of these things (I wasn’t fond of using the actual term at the time) and would instantly make my life a lot less hellish. I figure I was around 8 when I heard about it.

But I said nothing. I didn’t even know how to broach that subject with my mother. I mean really, how do you say, “Please take me to some doctor and have these huge pieces of flesh cut down!”

I have a condition known as costochondritis, which amounts to have a form of arthritis in the intercostal tissues that connect your ribs. As far as I can figure, it hit me full-force around 7 (that’s another story) and really flares up in times of stress. There’s no true way to understand the amount of pain unless you physically experience it. Last Christmas, for example, I thought I was having one long heart attack. (Nope, just a costochondritis attack.)

Between the ages of 14-16, these got increasinly worse. By this time, I was measured as a 44DD. Yep, a 44DD bra at the age of 14. Much to my misery, believe me.

Shortly before I turned 16, the pain of these attacks, combined with the weight on the front of my chest, was turning towards back problems. I was very much hunching over to hide myself; I would get very self-conscious about these damn weights hanging from me. Unbound by a bra, they practically went to my knees.

It certainly wasn’t my fault I was cursed with these genetics, but to feel utter disgust at your own body is a rough thing to endure.

At the doctor’s office, discussing my worsening back pain, my doctor grew quiet. “You know, there is a procedure called a ‘breast reduction’. Have you ever considered that?”

I about fell off the examine table. I nearly screamed “DO IT! DO IT NOW!” but I was a little more restrained. After years of bottling up my desire to have said procedure done, it all came pouring out of me. I think I shocked the doctor and my mother on how much I already knew.

The first doctor mom and I checked into was a woman who practiced on the East side of Portland. Her office looked like it had literally been lifted out of Beverly Hills and set into the some-what worn hosptial building. We were ushered into a room and I was told to strip the top half of me and pictures would be taken.

Cue confusion.

Pictures were taken, photos of previous paitients were shown, very little discussion about repercussions or what would actually be done was made. It was like she had already operated on me and was just waiting for the insurance company to cut the check.

We were shown the door, looking dazed and confused at what had just happened.

A few days later, the insurance company called the house. They were confused as to why a doctor had just filed a claim, saying I was to immediately have this procedure, stood 5’6, and was age 21.

At the time I had barely turned 16, and I stand around 5’3, in my heeled boots.

The woman doctor had attempted to lie to my insurance to get them to pay her. God only knows what kind of botched job she would have done on me. Mom immediately informed them it was all lies and we put everything on hold.

I was miserable. My dream seemed snatched away.

School ended for the summer. We had a funeral to attend, a woman who had been like an adoptive grandmother to me. After the service we were talking to her daughter. Somehow my problem came up.

“Oh,” she said, grinning. “You want to see Dr. Busby. He did my procedure and I’m sure he could help you. They call him ‘no-scars’.”

Hope renewed, we made an appointment. I believe it was in June. We were welcomed in to a nice, warm office. No minimalist and coldness like the other office. Shown to a room, the doctor came in and greeted us.

He discussed the procedure, why women have it done, the risks and benefits. He showed me several albums of pictures, before and after of his patients. I wanted to cry. I wanted this done tomorrow!

Because I was only 16, I might be told I had to wait. Major surgery on a body still growing is risky. Seeing how miserable I was, how huge I was, how my health problems had started to mount, Dr. Busby said he was willing to operate.

I was taken in and shown a video about the prodecure, the before and after, and what risks there could be. Due to the size I was, and depending on how much they would take away, I wouldn’t ever be able to breastfeed.

I told them I didn’t care. I wanted to be healthy, and happy. If I ever did decide to have kids, that was a really long way off and I could deal with the consequences.

I think we went back for one more visit before the deal was made. In July I would get my wish.

In the nearly ten years since this was done, and considering I didn’t have a journal at the time, I’ve written and told this story several times. Some of the details are now hazy.

I remember we had to be there at 7am. We’d had dinner at Red Lobster with my godfather and his wife the night before. No food allowed after midnight. I’m pretty sure I slept. I wasn’t scared at all.

At the hosptial they checked me in and made me down a tiny antacid pill. A nurse attempted twice to put an IV in my arm, but ended up putting it in the back of my right hand. The nurse knew a kid I went to high school with. No one at school except my best friend knew how I was spending my summer vacation.

I sat around watching the funeral of a Portland police officer on the TV in the ward. Eventually the doctor came in and drew all over my breasts in green pen where he would make incisions, what would be removed, and everything else he would do.

That was a little odd.

I waited around some more. Finally it was time.

There’s something unnerving about laying in a bed and being wheeled down long, gleaming hallways with huge florescent lights overhead that blind you. We reached the OR and I had to scoot over to the table. Most undignified in a hospitial gown.

Someone asked me if I’d ever been to Disneyland. I don’t even know how we got started on that. I was talking about it, they put the mask over my face, I breathed in, I was out…

My own groans awakened me in the recovery ward. I kept putting my right arm above my head, sound asleep, and setting off the moniter that was watching my blood pressure. A nurse kept coming over and putting my arm down, but I kept doing it.

Some guy in the next bed over, seperated by a curtain, was talking on and on about a motorcycle. I kept drifting in and out. I could tell there was something extremely tight wrapped around my chest but I didn’t care.

Eventually I was awake enough to be moved to the room I would spend the night in. It was policy to spend the night. I didn’t want to but I couldn’t argue. An orderly barely 18, male and cute, pushed my bed up to my room.

That was embarassing. I looked like hell and just had my boobs done. Lord.

For the next four hours, any time I tried to move I puked. They made me get up to use the bathroom, which is procedure, and I puked.

You do not understand that your center of gravity changes drastically when you have this surgery. My head was spinning and I couldn’t balance for love nor money. (I have fantastic balance and this frustrated the hell out of me to no end. Also, I hate throwing up.)

Finally I lasped into sleep and the puking stopped. Mom settled in to watch the five channels on the TV and I dozed on and off. Every hour on the hour a nurse would appear and bug me, asking about pain and checking me over.

That night was one of the worst nights in my life. I wanted sleep but they were just doing their job, checking to make sure I wasn’t going to explode or fall apart.

My departure the next day was held up. Dr. Busby was late to remove the bindings and bandages, the drains that were to collect the blood and fluids. I was impaitent. For the first time in my 16 years I could cross my arms over my chest. Granted it was akward, being as I had mummy-like bandages around my chest, but I could do it.

Don’t ever take that simple act for granted again.

Eventually he arrived. One of my drains had basically wiggled its way loose during the night. Thankfully those were hospital sheets. He checked everything, all the sutures and stitches and signed the release papers.

If they would have let me I would have run out of there, I was so hyper and excited to finally be rid of my source of pain and self-consciousness. But they don’t. I had to be rolled out in a wheel chair.

But I was free.

It took nearly a year before the swelling subsided. For a while I thought he had just stappled rocks onto my chest because that’s how hard they were.

During the healing, one of the stitches that was supposed to dissolve popped through. It had to be pulled, which was a simple visit to the doctor, but that damn thing was painful. The stitches in my elbow reminded me.

In case you were wondering, he cut roughly 500 grams and a little more of tissue. From both. That’s over a pound of flesh from each. (Where’s Shylock?) It is amazing the difference two pounds make.

At that time I went from a 44DD to a 42B. I was the youngest patient he had ever performed the procedure on. And he really was ‘no-scars’; they’re there but you would have to know where to look. I’ve had no complications, a full recovery, and they’re basically the same. I’m probably a C now, but still. A C comapred to a DD?

I’d never go back.

How to avoid being poisoned during the holiday season.

In case you did notice… or didn’t… there was no column from me for this month yet. Where was I? Out of town, helping the elderly (read: my grandmother) string a billion twinkle lights (that don’t twinkle) and wrap presents like an elf until I ran out of clear tape.

So. There was no column.

This week? I make it up to you, by writing an extra long column! I think. We’ll see how this turns out.

Again, in case you didn’t notice or live under a rock, the holidays are upon us! Eeek run for your lives! Aside from the over-eating and possible food poisoning at Thanksgiving, you get killer toys, insane relatives, family free-for-all cage matches, and creepy Uncle Bob walking in on you while looking for the bathroom. Generally, just a terrifying time of year.

When this is supposed to be a joyous time of celebration and togetherness (and all that other crap) why the hell are we using living decorations that are poisonous?!

Oh, you didn’t know that? Well, let me tell you.

Mistletoe: Basically a cheap way to get a kiss, I really think it’s an ugly plant. It’s a semi-parasitic plant with small, leathery leaves and small, white berries. To sustain life, it grows on other plants, hence the parasitic notation. Druids were all about mistletoe, believing it could bestow health and good luck and protect children from the fae-folk. It was also has properties in medicinal use, but everyone pretty much knows it from the Christmas tradition (which no one can tell exactly where it originated, but most blame the British for some reason) of if you’re caught under a sprig hanging from the ceiling, you have to kiss someone. Ew. And on top of that, the berries are poisonous. The recommendations are to keep it out of reach of children. Or you could buy the “plastic” variety with fake berries. Even better, don’t buy any at all! Unless you really want a kiss, then you need that headband thing with the mistletoe attached to it.

Jerusalem cherry: Also known as deadly nightshade, I’d honestly never heard of this being a holiday decorating item. But it came up, so here’s the story. Called the “Christmas cherry”, its green leaves and bright red fruit look pretty “Christmas-y”. In truth, it’s become a weed. The poison is found not only in the fruit, but also in the leaves and stems. Basically, the entire plant should have a “warning” tag strapped to it. Don’t leave this around the kiddies and pets, whatsoever.

Holly: Ah, everyone knows Holly! No not the girl. The plant. This one you can blame the Romans for…mostly. The Druids were big on this plant as well; putting it in their hair to remember cruel winter did not kill off all living life on the planet while the sun was gone. The Romans on the other hand gave the creation of Holly to Saturn, god of agriculture. I bet holly covered every living and non-living inch of everything during the raucous Saturnalia festivals during Winter Solstice! (Which was the 21st, if you’re paying attention!) On the religious side, you get holly miraculously growing leaves out of season in order to hide Jesus, Mary and Joseph from Herod’s soldiers. That one I’d never heard. One I had heard was the old “On Christmas eve, English virgins hung holly on their beds to protect their virtue from Christmas goblins.” Yeah, that’s gonna help. A legend from Germany says holly braches were woven to form Christ’s crown while on the crucifix, and his blood turned the once-white berries crimson. Which is kind of ironic, getting to it, because the berries are what’s poisonous.

Azaleas: Part of the genus Rhododendron, I know we’ve got some of these in the backyard, but I’ve never seen them in holiday decor. But then, I know there’s Christmas Azaleas, so go figure. I’m assuming the brightly coloured blossoms and the sheer multitude of them is what got them into the decor trade. There doesn’t seem to be any neat legend about Jesus or even Santa Claus tied to them. Bummer. Just know every single part of the plant is a no-no. A lot of the time pretty equals poisonous.

And now for the really big shocking part: Poinsettias are not poisonous! No I’m not making it up! I wouldn’t say go ahead and eat your fill, because it will make you sick, but compared to holly and mistletoe, the poinsettias are all show.

But why poinsettias? This you can finally blame on the Spanish conquest of Mexico! (Yes I really wanted to say the Spanish Inquisition, but no one suspects the Spanish Inquisition!) The poinsettia plant is native to Mexico (duh) and was cultivated by the Aztecs. They just liked making dyes and fever medicines from it. It was the Spaniards who jumped all over it and used the plant in the introduction of Christianity. Franciscan priests used the poinsettia in their nativity processions, and another legend involving a little girl giving a bouquet of what she thought was weeds to the Nativity scene at the altar which then burst into bloom resulted in poinsettias being tied to the Christmas scene. Flores de Noche Buena (Flowers of the Holy Night) are mostly known to be a brilliant crimson red, but they actually come in 100 varieties, and at least a dozen colours. Because they bloom only at night, the greenhouses that keep the supply up force them into artificial darkness. Cheaters!

There you have it: Four dangerous holiday decor items, one that’s been cruelly mislabeled, and a bat in a fir tree. Maybe in 2006 I’ll find something bigger and more dangerous to write about. (read: Bird Flu anyone?) May you and yours have a lovely holiday season, and please don’t eat the berries!

(originally this was posted on 12.22.2005 at my short-lived column Plagues, Pestilences, and Other Plights on Inside Pulse. This was the last column ever written in this series.)

Er… Happy Thanksgiving!

Ah, the holidays are upon us. For those who go in for all that tradition, you’re probably traveling home and gathering with the family for the over-eating pig-out food fest that is what Thanksgiving is generally know for! Oh and that being ‘thankful’ bit too.

But certain doom awaits thee if proper precautions are not taken! That gigantic turkey sure make look inviting, but it could be bursting with not juicy white meat but dangerous bacteria! Instead of looking at family albums and playing Parcheesi with Uncle Sam, you’ll all be waiting in line for the bathroom or the paramedics.

Food-borne illnesses are very common. Illness results from eating food contaminated with bacteria or other pathogens such as parasites or viruses, and differ from a food intolerance or food allergy. Typical food poisoning characteristics range from upset stomach to more serious symptoms: diarrhea, fever, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and dehydration. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 76 million people contract food-related illnesses, a year. Of these, almost 5,000 die.

You’re really eyeing the turkey Aunt Marge cooked now, aren’t you.

Among the helpful tips at WrongDiagnosis.com’s food poisoning prevention site are:

• WASH YOUR HANDS! With warm water and soap! Before and after preparing raw foods! Clean surfaces well before preparing food on them, as well as having separate cutting boards for raw meat and vegetables!

• Refrigerate foods promptly! Don’t let them sit out while you sit around playing gin rummy with grandma Louise! Bacteria multiply rapidly between 40°F and 140°F. Set the refrigerator for 40°F! Keep cooked food above 140°F!

• Use a thermometer to be sure you’ve cooked foods for the feast to the proper temperature!

• Never defrost food on the kitchen counter. Use the refrigerator, cold running water, or the microwave oven. Conversely, reheat cooked food to at least 165°F.

So. Now you have a great guide to escaping any food poisoning this holiday. Of course, you can’t blame me if you do get poisoning… I tried to warn you! Happy Turkey Day!

(originally this was posted on 11.26.2005 at my short-lived column Plagues, Pestilences, and Other Plights on Inside Pulse. Expect others to follow in due course.)

I don’t remember this from the Disney movie…

Keeping in the theme of deforming syndromes… you can blame Oprah for making me pick Sirenomelia as this week’s topic.

Sirenomelia, or “mermaid syndrome”, is a very rare and usually lethal malformation that results in the fusion of the lower limbs of the fetus. Caused by afailure of normal vascular (blood) supply from the lower aorta while in utero, the child is found to have what resembles a “fish’s tail” instead of two separate legs and feet.

Recorded cases in history show that sometimes there are variations: Sometimes there is a single femur; other times both are present. Sometimes there are feet, sometimes there are none. Almost always the rotation of feet and knees is reversed, with the sole of the feet and the popliteal region facing forward. Basically, the feet resemble the “fin” of the “tail”.

There are always urogenital deformities. The child could be born without a bladder, simplified to non-existent external genitalia, and an imperforate anus. There are also spinal and vertebral column anomalies as well. Most babies die of this disease before birth or within twenty-four to forty-eight hours of delivery because of the bladder and kidney complications. The condition is such deforming that there’s usually little chance of survival, let alone a normal life.

This defect is “sporadic”, occurring in 60,000 to 100,000 live births, basically about as rare as conjoined twins. Sirenomelia is also more common in male babies. I’m not quite sure how they figure that, considering most of the time the genitalia is missing or barely there.

This picture shows a gross malformation of Sirenomelia. I would seriously say it’s not for the weak-stomached and entirely unsafe for those reading at work. From what I’ve seen, picture-wise of Sirenomelia, that was an extremely bad case. It also doesn’t even look like Sirenomelia, but that’s what it’s classified as.

This site roughly details three cases of Sirenomelia, complete with pictures and x-rays. Again, not exactly work-safe, but the x-rays are completely fascinating and show quite clearly the internal deformation that this defect causes.

Amazingly, there are said to be two living survivors of Sirenomelia:

Tiffany Yorks, now 16, was born with what doctor’s believe to be Sirenomelia (although some argue it was actually Caudal regression syndrome) and began treatment at 25 days old. Her legs were separated with the use of MRI images, and she was found to have separate thigh and shinbones, which really helped her case. As of 2000, she has had 13 reconstructive and plastic surgeries to give her a chance at normal life. She lives in Florida.

Milagros Cerron was born in April of 2004 in Peru, suffering Sirenomelia. In February of 2005, a four-hour operation to insert silicone bags between her legs to stretch the skin was successfully completed, followed in May by another surgery to separate her legs. This second surgery was successful. Down the road she faces genital reconstruction surgery, which doctors hope they can replace rudimentary anus, urethra and genitalia. (I’m thinking this was the baby on Oprah’s show.)

Finally, one last close up picture of severe Sirenomelia.

So, now I go back to fretting about what to write about next. If you guys ever have any suggestions or actually have a disease or condition you’d like to learn about, drop me a line. I’ll even mention your name!

(originally this was posted on 11.10.2005 at my short-lived column Plagues, Pestilences, and Other Plights on Inside Pulse. Expect others to follow in due course.)

Joseph Merrick: Victorian Superstar!

Happy Hallowe’en! Yes, I’m early, but at least I’m on time. In honor of the high holiday of frights, I chose this week to do the column on one of the more frightening but highly sad cases in modern medical history.

Let’s clear up the misinformation first. You may (or may not) have heard of a man called Joseph Merrick (aka “the Elephant Man”) who made history when David Bowie played him on Broadway in 1980. No, honestly, Mr. Merrick made history back in the late 19th century by starting out in a freak show and ending up the equivalent of a modern-day celebrity in Victorian London. He even became a favorite of Queen Victoria!

Merrick was born in 1862, and began to show signs of his disorder between the ages of 2 and 5. His mother was rumored to have suffered the same condition, but she died when he was 11. His father and stepmother ended up taking the boy into their care, but his step-mom gave an ultimatum of “him or me”, and she won. Joseph drifted until he became a sideshow attraction, eventually ending up abused and abandoned before making his way back to London.

In London, he was discovered by Dr. Frederick Treves at a train station. Dr. Treves treated Merrick at London Hospital, where he became a permanent resident. He had one wish in his life: to be loved by a woman. It was basically never to be, and the option he’d thought up (living in a home for the blind, so a woman would fall for him but not have to look at him) didn’t work, and he died in 1890 of suffocation.

How did he suffocate? Well, Mr. Merrick couldn’t sleep “normally” like you or I. He had to sleep with his head raised. His head was so grotesquely deformed and heavy it wouldn’t allow him to breathe if he was laying out flat. Bummer.

At the time, the diagnosis didn’t really exist, and it was suggested up until 1971 that he suffered “elephantiasis”.

Elephantiasis is the severe swelling of body areas often caused by worms that are transmitted via mosquito bites. The worms tend to lodge in and block the lymph nodes that drain into the lower extremities, producing massive enlargement and deformity of the legs and genitalia.

The good news? You can’t catch elephantiasis in the US. The bad news? You can catch it in parts of Africa, South America, India, and Asia. India, Nigeria, Bangladesh, and Indonesia account for 70 percent of infections, with Nigeria being the second on the list with 22 million cases alone. Yeah, this would be when you want to be careful should you think ‘Oh, I think I’ll make a trip to Nigeria today!’

There are a lot of pictures on the internet of people suffering Elephantiasis. Most of them I cannot show you, because these parasitic worms really like the genital areas and I’m not sure what exactly I’m allowed to post on here. I’ll play it safe. Here is a link to one poor fellow from Fiji (entirely NOT work safe, whatsoever!) and here is a link to some others.

I know it’s easy to lapse into teenage high school boy laughter at these, but really, it’s not funny and pretty sad to think these poor people suffered such awful fates.

Right now you’re praying “please let there be a treatment!” aren’t you. Incase you accidentally get some worms in your leg or scrotum. Well, there is, but it has toxic side affects. The treatment goes after the worms, to kill them, and secondary treatments work on the infections already existing and prevention towards recurrence. As of yet, there is no vaccine to prevent infection.

Now you’re asking me “But just what the heck DID the Elephant Man have?”

It wasn’t until a DNA test of hair and bone samples was done in 2003 that it was determined that Mr. Merrick suffered Proteus syndrome. Named for the shape-shifting god Proteus, it is a congenital disorder that causes skin overgrowth, atypical bone development, and tumor appearance over half the body. Thankfully very rare, there have been only a handful of more then 100 cases actually confirmed worldwide. Children with this disease are born looking “normal” and it isn’t until later when the tumors and growths begin that the diagnosis can even be considered. They grow rapidly and cause major deformity and shorten the lifespan of the patient.

While some affected individuals may suffer from learning disabilities as a result of these growths, many people with Proteus syndrome are of normal or above-average intelligence. It’s the stupidity of the humans who shun these individuals because they are different that doesn’t help
matters.

There really isn’t a “treatment” per say for Proteus syndrome. Tumors can be removed via surgery, but new ones will grow in to replace them or massive blood loss and/or infection can kill a patient. There is the Proteus Syndrome Foundation, which helps connect people and families living with the disease with treatment information and options, as well as a support network.

So, next time you hear someone say something about the Elephant Man, politely correct them with all the stunning new facts you’ve just learned! Sweet dreams, everybody!

(originally this was posted on 10.31.2005 at my short-lived column Plagues, Pestilences, and Other Plights on Inside Pulse. Expect others to follow in due course.)

Just because you got a good deal at Sears, doesn’t mean they’re a bargain.

While researching this week’s column, I saw something really interesting at wrongdiagnosis.com: Diseases contagious from __________

‘Wow’, I thought. Because really, it’s practically a guide to anything you might catch from say pretty much anything you might catch something from. The general obvious ones are sex, animals, rodents, water, and food. But then I saw it.

Diseases contagious from towels.

Harmless old towels? Why would they ever out to be vengeful against humankind? Sure, sometimes we wash them in boiling water and I’m sure some don’t appreciate where we use them, but still. Is that enough harm to wreck havoc against us?

Either way, this makes a great column, so let’s explore!

The next time you use a towel improperly, you might fall victim to one of the following that’s lurking on your towel:

Barber’s Rash
“Skin infection in facial hair areas”, also known as “Folliculitis”. The underlying medical cause of this “rash” is Staphylococcus aureus or Staph Infection if you will. Staphylococcal infections can be notoriously hard to treat, and having one in your face… well… sucks to be you, dude. Treatment is usually oral antibiotics. Don’t be rubbing your face in a dirty towel, or with a towel used by someone who has a rash all over his or her face, ok?

Conjunctivitis
“Contagious eye infection” aka “Pink Eye”. Oh yeah, I had this a lot as a kid; I think if anything in a five foot radius had this, I got it. Mainly because I couldn’t keep my hands out of my eyes. You try having such pale blue eyes any hint of light makes them water. Enough about me! Conjunctivitis is “a group of diseases that cause swelling, itching, burning, and redness of the conjunctiva, the protective membrane that lines the eyelids and covers exposed areas of
the sclera, or white of the eye.” Not really a pretty picture, you know. Symptoms include “pink” eye, irritated, reddened, crusting, gritty, itchy eyes, swollen eyelid, eye pain and/or discomfort, light sensitivity, yellow discharge from the eye, or your eyelids glued shut after sleep. God, no wonder I disliked kindergarten so much. Treatments include several types of antibiotics, eye drops and ointments, Penicillin, and warm water washings to remove the crusting.

Gonorrhea
“Neisseria gonorrhoeae”, a sexually transmitted disease. Yeah, you don’t wanna be rubbing that filthy towel where it counts, do you. We’re just lucky this STD is curable, although the “common” part really sucks. The bacteria can infect the genital tract, the mouth, and the rectum, and can also wreck havoc in a woman’s cervix, womb, birth canal, and fallopian tubes. The end result for a woman might include pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility, or ectopic pregnancy. This is where you pay close attention to the symptoms! Which, I get to inform you, women especially might not see any of! Up to 50%! Geez. The list is long, so you get a link and a stern order to read up on Gonorrhea. Treatment is basically antibiotics, which range from Penicillin, Sulphonamides, Tetracyclines, Ceftriaxone, Cefixime, Ciprofloxacin to Ofloxacin; avoidance of rubbing your eyes and sexual activity, and careful hygiene to avoid contagion! Which means no towel sharing!

Impetigo
“Contagious skin rash from bacteria”. Did anyone see last season’s Next Top Model? (No I cannot explain why I got stuck watching that.) Anyway, one of the models got this and her face looked like it was dying, the skin peeling away and looking like a zombie had bitten her. Impetigo is caused by different streptococci strains than those that cause strep throat and is most common among children age 2-6 years. Bummer kiddies. Symptoms include skin rash with pus and discharge, pimples, blisters, itching rash, dried scabs, excessive scratching, and a blistery rash that spreads. Sometimes on your face! Treatments include topical antibiotics, lotions, and antiseptic lotions, oral antibiotics, washing infected areas with warm salted water, and good personal hygiene.

Scabies
“An infestation of the skin with the microscopic mite Sarcoptes scabei“. Infestation is common, found worldwide, and affects people of all races and social classes. Scabies spreads rapidly under crowded conditions where there is frequent skin-to-skin contact between people. Like in hospitals, institutions, child-care centers, and nursing homes. Symptoms are mainly rashes and itching all over the body, and infections that form in the skin from all the scratching. Ew. Treatments include lotions and ointments, sulfur, lotions to sooth the itching, hydrocortisone creams and washing every dang piece of linen and clothing you own in hot water.

Tinea
“General term for various fungal skin afflictions” aka “That’s NOT ringworm, buddy”. Basically, not only can these fungal afflictions affect your skin, but also they can infect your nails. Symptoms include ring-like raised itchy patches, blisters, scabs, and temporary scalp hair loss at site of infection. Nail fungal infections include green or gray nails, and thick or brittle nails. You’ll look like you’re wearing Hallowe’en makeup effects on your hands. Treatment includes antibiotics and antifungal creams, oral antifungal medications, good hygiene, and avoidance of synthetic material and moist skin.

Trachoma
“A chronic follicular conjunctivitis that leads to scarring in the conjunctiva and cornea.” Can lead to blindness. Seriously, who ever thought this could come from a towel!? Early symptoms are red and/or watering eyes with swollen eyelids and sensitivity to bright lights. About 7 to 10 days later, small red lumps appear on the eyelids. About 3-4 weeks later, you get multiple lumps on your eyelids and they grow bigger. The fourth stage is when it spreads to the cornea and eye, giving you nasty eye pain, corneal scarring and dimming vision that gets progressively worse until you are flat out blind. No picnic. Luckily treatments are available and include antibiotics, eye creams, surgical correction of eyelid deformity and corneal grafting. Basically a bunch of eye surgery once you reach 3-4 weeks of the condition.

Trichomoniasis
“Sexually transmitted parasitic infection.” Oh yeah, more bugs! Trichomonas vaginalis is a microscopic parasite found worldwide and is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases, mainly affecting 16-to-35-year old women. Again, most of the times you don’t get symptoms, and men are the ones who really don’t get any, but they can include itching, burning, pain, irritation, painful urination, discharge, and odor. The two treatments are Antibiotics and Metronidazole, plus you get to inform any sexual partners and make them get the same treatment. Woo! That’s a buzz kill, isn’t it! Failure to get treatment can lead to re-infection.

So there you have eight different ways you can catch a disease through a towel. Makes you want to boil every towel you own in scalding hot water, then have a priest pray over to exorcize them of anything left. Maybe that’s just me.

Until next time, be wary of any towel that’s not your own!

(originally this was posted on 10.14.2005 at my short-lived column Plagues, Pestilences, and Other Plights on Inside Pulse. Expect others to follow in due course.)

“Most of them died instantly. A few had time to go quietly nuts.” – Dr. Mark Hall, The Andromeda Strain

I’m taking a detour today and not focusing on just a single virus… instead I’m going to give you a bunch of “reader participation” examples! Actually, I’m just going to recommend and review some “killer virus is gonna kill us!” movies you can enjoy while sitting on the couch in your underwear at home with an extra large tub of microwave popcorn crammed in your lap.

Yeah it’s one of those weeks.

So let’s get started!

12 Monkeys (1995)
Understanding this movie is not required. Really. The plain and simple truth is Earth is a wasteland after a deadly virus was released on the unsuspecting population, leaving humans to try surviving underground and the animals to rule topside. Poor “crazy” (is he really?) Cole (played by Bruce Willis) becomes a time traveler sent on a mission to discover and stop the Army of the Twelve Monkeys. Only, apparently we still suck at time travel and the poor guy is bounced around and keeps landing himself in mental wards. Unfortunately, he just ends up in love with psychiatrist Kathryn Railly (you can’t tell me you didn’t think the love note he sent her wasn’t cute!) and runs into Jeffrey Goines, (Brad Pitt in his only Oscar-worthy role!) who really holds the keys to what the 12 Monkeys really are (PETA on psych drugs) and makes the whole movie worth renting.

The movie’s “disease”: It’s spread by airborne contact. The bad guy keeps it in a vial, letting unsuspecting people smell the vial, because you can’t see/taste/scent it. Yeah, crazy lunatic. Crazy (smart!) lunatic.

28 Days Later… (2002)
Yeah I know, you’re asking me “a zombie flick?!” But really, it involves a virus! Basically, almost the entire mass population of the UK is wiped out, and what’s left learns to fend for life and limb. Jim (Cillian Murphy) runs around full frontal naked after surviving the outbreak, and teams up with Selena and Hannah in crazy madcap adventures to somehow flee to safety. Unknowingly, they don’t realize the rest of the world is alive and well and watching the absolute carnage in the British Isles. Along the way they meet a psychotic Army Major who keeps an infected solider as a watchdog. Do they survive? Is there a cure? Really it’s more of a “choose your own adventure” depending on which ending you choose to watch.

The movie’s “disease”: It seems to mimic the graphic “bleeding out” and is transferred by body fluid contact. Depending on the version, there might be a cure, there might not. Makes you want to wear goggles 24/7.

Outbreak (1995)
As I’ve mentioned before, Dustin Hoffman saves California! Basically, a monkey captured in Africa and brought to the US (where’s PETA?!) starts infecting unsuspecting people who just think monkeys are harmless cute things! Serves them right! Anyway, Hoffman and Russon and Gooding Jr. (oh my!) battle to find the cause, cure, and uncover the EVIL MILITARY GUYS! The monkey is the same one from the Friends TV show, I swear.

The movie’s “disease”: It’s basically a mix of Marburg and Ebola. In the opening bits, you see a military operation to “burn out” the virus in an African village. The virus is spread through airborne contact and there’s also a scene of an accidental “stick”, which shows it’s also spread through body fluids. Nasty.

The Andromeda Strain (1971)
Easily one of the best virus movies ever made, and has the suspense to back it up. Based on Michael Crichton’s novel (read it!) a mysterious virus wipes out an entire tiny New Mexico town, having hitched a ride on a US Army satellite. The only things left living are a baby boy and an old man. What the hell is it and can we stop it before it spreads? Yes, it’s old but by god it’s some of the best movie work ever about a killer virus.

The movie’s “disease”: Seemingly, it’s “alien”. Nothing is known about it, nor how it spreads, why it chooses to kill whom it does. Or is there some HUGE government cover-up in place?!

That’s just 4 movies. Four I think that are actually watchable in a way that doesn’t make you want to tear your eyeballs out. Well, ok Outbreak is bad in a “oh this is actually a comedy not a drama!” way, but hey! Besides, the ladies will be all over Cillian Murphy’s nakedness. (I wasn’t… and I’m a girl.) Rent one of these for the weekend and enjoy!

Yes, next week will be an actual column, I promise.

(originally this was posted on 09.29.2005 at my short-lived column Plagues, Pestilences, and Other Plights on Inside Pulse. Expect others to follow in due course.)

Ebola’s wacky African-German sister.

Since I started with Ebola (which for some reason I keep wanting to type “eBola!” like it’s some weird version of eBay…) I figured I’d continue in the vein of filoviruses and hemorrhagic fevers by writing about its evil twin sister, Marburg!

Hey, I like to be consistent, you know?

Marburg virus was first recognized in 1967, when there were simultaneous outbreaks in Germany, in laboratories in Marburg and Frankfurt, Germany, and Belgrade, Yugoslavia. The initial cases occurred in laboratory workers handling African green monkeys imported from Uganda. I tell you, you’re not supposed to play with monkeys you don’t know! First infected were the workers who handled the lab monkeys, which in turn spread the infection to medical workers who tried to treat them. Of the 25 initial infected patients, 7 died. Everyone else suffered really horribly but lived to talk about it.

From there, cases popped up in Kenya, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and right now is blazing away in Angola. Yes, in the year 2005 there is a large outbreak of Marburg that is ongoing, having so far killed 150 people.

Just like Ebola, no one knows the origin host of the disease. We know it can be spread from animals. Some scientists theorize bats carry it, but that’s still unproven. It is still unclear just exactly how Marburg “jumps” species though; human-to-human contact is how it spreads once
it’s past the infected animal.

Different from Ebola, there were two men in 1980 that became infected after visiting a cave in western Kenya. The cave was investigated by placing sentinel animals inside to see if they would become infected, and by taking samples from numerous animals and arthropods trapped during the investigation. It was theorized that perhaps the virus lived in the rock walls of the cave, and spread to elephants that took shelter in the depths of the cave. Or perhaps bugs in the cave somehow became infected and monkeys who ate the bugs were infected secondarily. Either way, the animals used in the testing of the cave never became infected and the virus was never found. It evaded science once more.

This virus moves quickly. Quoted from the New York Times: “On Day 3 of the infection, fewer than 200 viruses are in a drop of blood. By Day 8, there are five million.”

The symptoms and eventual outbreak in a patient are pretty similar to Ebola. 5-10 days of incubation, then onset of fever, chills, headache, and myalgia. Around the fifth day after the onset of symptoms you get a rash on the chest, back and stomach, followed by nausea, vomiting, chest pain, a sore throat, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. Jaundice, inflammation of the pancreas, severe weight loss, delirium, shock, liver failure, and multi-organ dysfunction follow, sometimes resulting in death.

Unpleasant way to die.

Worse then Ebola, there can be medical complications after you “survive” Marburg. Orchititis, recurrent hepatitis, transverse myelitis or uvetis. Other possible complications include inflammation of the testis, spinal cord, eye, parotid gland, or by prolonged hepatitis. Really, what it boils down to (all them big words) is the fact you do not want to be a guy and get Marburg. It will hit you where it hurts the most.

Treatment… yeah right. See Ebola. Sometimes they give transfusions of fresh-frozen plasma to replace the blood proteins important in clotting. A controversial treatment is the use of heparin (clotting blocker) that prevents the consumption of clotting factors. Some researchers believe the consumption of clotting factors is part of the disease process. Because you can “bleed out” with a filovirus, it becomes apparent that when you’re gushing blood the clotting factor is gone. If you can regain the clotting, you might be saved. Either way, it’s a gamble.

The nifty links section:
The CDC’s page on Marburg Hemorrhagic Fever
WHO’s fact sheet on Marburg
Wikipedia: Marburg virus

Lessons we have learned? Men, don’t catch Marburg if you want to have children. Don’t venture into strange African caves. And don’t laugh at Marburg. She’ll kick the crap out of you.

I can’t wait to see what I talk about next time.

(originally this was posted on 09.15.2005 at my short-lived column Plagues, Pestilences, and Other Plights on Inside Pulse. Expect others to follow in due course.)

“Shall I cough on you, George?” – Outbreak

If you’re a big movie fan, and also the least bit interested in viruses of a medical, not computer, nature (Ooo someone shoulda done The Matrix meets Ebola! Beat that, Keanu!) then you probably saw the mad-cap comedy of completely unrealistic medical science known as Outbreak.

Starring Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Patrick Dempsey, it was a movie about the US military moving against an unknown virus that had infected an entire town in California and how Dustin Hoffman saves the town from being nuked and thus prevents the entire world from…whatever. Oh right, the virus that started with the monkey from Friends!

The movie is horribly flawed (the “cure” for the virus looks like slushy orange juice; Orange Julius will save us all!) and is a lot of pure Hollyweird guessing, that’s for sure. But some of the elements are true. Basically, you are watching the cinematographic version of Hemorrhagic fever.

There are multiple types of Hemorrhagic fever. I’m starting with the most “known”, the name of which you’re more than likely to have heard at least once on the television news. Ebola. You’ve seen the news reports of devastation in African countries, the images of bodies in plastic bags being laid to rest in a huge common grave, large death tolls in remote villages. That’s the real Hemorrhagic fever.

Ebola is one of two members of a family of RNA viruses called the Filoviridae; the other is Marburg. Ebola was initially recognized in 1976. Named for the Ebola river in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), it is broken down further into four sub-types: Ebola-Zaire, Ebola-Sudan, Ebola-Ivory Coast, and Ebola-Reston. The first three sub-types are known to cause outbreaks in humans. Ebola-Reston caused disease in nonhuman primates, but no known cases in humans.

In 1976, people in areas of Zaire and Sudan started getting sick. Some died quickly, others lingered. Villages started getting sick. Shamans and village medicine men didn’t know how to treat the illness. Prayers to the gods were not working. More people were dying. Villagers traveled to the nearest hospital, sometimes days away, and begged for help. These unfortunate people were usually too far-gone with Ebola, and died in the hospital. Because the medical personal had no idea what they were dealing with, they were infected. Outbreak.

Of the 318 cases in Zaire, 88% of them were fatal. Of the 284 cases in Sudan, only 53% were fatal. There is no explanation, no reasoning, to understand who survived and who died. There is no known cure for Ebola. As you can see from this chart which shows the known outbreaks of Ebola since 1976, almost always more then half the infected die. It is known that patients who die usually have not developed a significant immune response to the virus at the time of death.

To this day, no one knows where Ebola “lives”. What that means is, somewhere in Africa this virus lives. Be it in an animal species or just somewhere in the flora and fauna, perhaps in an ancient cave. No one knows. The only way we know it’s “returned” is when a human is infected and an outbreak starts. Infections with Ebola virus are acute because there is no carrier state. Monkey A could have Ebola and monkey B could be virus-free.

Ebola can be transmitted in several ways: People can be exposed to Ebola virus from direct contact with the blood and/or secretions of an infected person or animal. The virus is often spread through families and friends because they come in close contact with such secretions when caring for infected persons. Even objects, like needles, that are contaminated with infected blood can expose people to Ebola. Prick your finger with a contaminated needle and you have a high change of being infected.

“Nosocomial transmission” refers to the spread of a disease within a health-care setting, like a clinic or hospital. This happens a lot during Ebola outbreaks. In African health-care facilities, patients are often cared for without the use of a mask, gown, or gloves. Hello! That’s like practically begging to be infected. The sad fact is people do not understand how this virus spreads, or that they too can get it, or any number of reasons. They are also not as well equipped or informed as we lucky persons who live in civillized nations. Thankfully, the CDC and WHO are working to change that, to teach hospitals and clinics, to help them change their procedures and stop the outbreaks.

Incubation period of Ebola ranges from 2 to 21 days after infection. The onset of the virus is abrupt and sudden, and characterized by fever, headache, joint and muscle aches, sore throat, and weakness, followed by diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach pain. A rash, red eyes, hiccups and internal and external bleeding may be seen in some patients. Diagnosing Ebola in an individual who has been infected only a few days is difficult because early symptoms, such as red eyes and a skin rash, are nonspecific to the virus and are seen in other patients with diseases that occur much more frequently. It is only when a person has a bunch of the above-listed symptoms and there is a likely possibility they were in contact with a person or animal that has Ebola that, bingo, “You have Ebola!”

Why do people die? This is what Hemorrhagic Fever does to you: You bleed under the skin, in internal organs, or from body orifices like the mouth, eyes, or ears. However, although you may bleed from many sites around the body, patients rarely die because of blood loss. Severely ill patients may also show shock, nervous system malfunction, coma, delirium, and seizures. Sometime you also have kidney failure. Your body overloads, you fill with the virus that blasts through your blood and other bodily fluids, and you’re an absolute mess.

The downside to having a positive diagnosis of Ebola is there is no treatment for Ebola. No drugs, no shots, no cure. You live or you die. All you get is “supportive therapy”: fluids, oxygen, and treatments for complicating infections. The basics any patient receives. That’s really all they can give you.

The last big outbreak of Ebola was in 2004. 20 cases were reported in southern Sudan, resulting in 5 deaths.

The prevention of outbreaks of all strains of Ebola, its sister Marburg, and every type of Filoviruses is very hard, next to impossible, right now. Because we do not know the identity and location of the natural reservoir of the virus, no preliminary measures can be established. When and where it goes off is still “random”.

If cases of the disease do appear, current social and economic conditions often favor the spread of an epidemic within health-care facilities. This means it is critical to get information, teach the health-care workers, and have them learn how to identify Ebola so they can report cases as soon as possible. The capability to perform diagnostic tests and be ready to employ practical isolation precautions must be established. These techniques include the wearing of protective clothing (masks, gloves, gowns, and goggles); the use of infection-control measures, including complete equipment sterilization. The isolation of Ebola patients from contact with unprotected persons. It is equally important that direct contact with the body of the deceased patient be prevented, as there are still live virus floating around in the blood/secretions, and infection rate is still high.

Now for the really fun links section!
The CDC page on Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever
The CDC page on Filoviruses
The CDC page on Viral Hemorrhagic Fevers
Outbreak postings since 2000
WHO’s information and listings about Ebola
Outbreak, the 1995 Dustin Hoffman film
WrongDiagnosis.com’s info on Ebola
GiantMicrobes.com’s stuffed plus of Ebola, you too can own this cuddly killer! (Someone buy me this and I’ll love you forever!)

Books on Ebola:
The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story
This is the book I told you about last time. Covering the true-life
outbreak of Ebola-Reston in suburban Washington, D.C. Trust me, when
you read the escaped monkey account, you won’t sleep that night.
The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance It covers more then Ebola, but is a truly fascinating, and terrifying, look at what little we know about viruses.
Virus Hunter: 30 Years of Battling Hot Viruses Around the World
This book is semi-autobiographical about CJ Peters, who witnessed first
had the outbreak of Ebola-Reston and has been waging war against
viruses around the world.

Till next time, when I attack Ebola’s “sister” Marburg, don’t go playing with any monkeys you don’t know!

(originally this was posted on 09.01.2005 at my short-lived column Plagues, Pestilences, and Other Plights on Inside Pulse. Expect others to follow in due course.)

Rodent poo CAN kill you!

Hello and welcome to what is, hopefully, more then just this single column about a big scary virus! Yeah, this is my first foray in several years into writing something for public consumption, so please bear with me. I’ll try to make it painless on your part.

I guess a little about me is in order: I’ve always been fascinated by medical whatnot, but never had a desire to do anything in the profession. I just like reading about it. I particularly like viruses, forensics, and various branches that shoot off involving those fields. I can’t quite remember how I got started on it, but it really grew into a full-blown interest when I read my first book about Ebola. That would be The Hot Zone, incase you’re interested. Great book, can’t recommend it enough. There’s this one scene with a monkey who’s escaped… go read the book.

I told Lucard I’d write a column about viruses, plagues, and generally interesting medical whatnot, and promptly got a job. Isn’t that how it works? But I keep my obligations, so here we go.

Thinking it over, I thought I’d start off with Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (Hantavirus for short) and that’s not just because I wrote a paper on it for high school. Actually, I thought of it because we’ve just had our 6th case ever (on record, that is) here in Oregon. Yeah, not a prevalent little virus, but a nasty one.

Of course, you were sucked in by the title, weren’t you? And probably still wondering, “why did she say poo could kill me?” Let me give you a little background first, and maybe that’ll explain why I chose to phrase it that way.

Hantavirus is a viral infection that occurs naturally in mice, rats and other rodents. Normally transmitted by infected rodents through urine, droppings, or saliva, humans can contract the disease when they breathe in aerosolized virus. That means virus that’s gone air-borne. I can hear the loud “ewws!” now. You wouldn’t normally, I hope, huff rodent poo (unless you’re some sick weirdo) but the sad fact is people who had zero clue about Hantavirus have died from it and they weren’t sticking their noses in rat droppings for a good time.

Waaaaaaaaaay back in 1993, down in the “Four Corners” area where New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado & Utah join, a mysterious illness started to kill people. It started with a young, physically fit Navajo athlete who suffered shortness of breath. Rushed to the hospital, he died rapidly and it was discovered that the young man’s fiancée had died not but a few days earlier of the same symptoms. The New Mexico medical office discovered five others who had also died after acute respiratory failure in the same ways. It was now obvious that this was more then just coincidence.

The CDC teamed up with the Navajo Nation, the health departments of the “Four Corner” states and the Indian Health service, and mounted an intense investigation into what had killed these people so quickly. I mean, these were young, physically healthy humans who dropped dead for no obvious reason.

Basically what happens to you when you catch Hantavirus is you probably feel like you have the Flu or a bad cold. You ache, you feel rotten, you miss work. From anywhere between four and ten days later, you begin to show the “late” symptoms of Hantavirus. Coughing and shortness of breath, which are signs of your lungs filling with fluid.

In essence, you begin to drown. On the inside.

During the “Four Corners” investigation, with the help of elders of the Navajo nation it was discovered that this assumed “new” virus was not new whatsoever. It was just an unrecognized strain of Hantavirus. The Navajo elders helped the CDC with their memories of previous incidents that had cropped up as far back as 1959, but there was no name for the virus. 1993 was just one more year in which, due to heavy spring rains, the food grew in an over-abundance and caused the rodent population to skyrocket. And then some people would die. Talk about an illustration of the food chain!

There are actually two major groups of Hantaviruses. The first group is found only in the Americas and is comprised of the following: Sin Nombre, which is the true name of the virus that caused the outbreak at “Four Corners” in 1993; Black Creek Canal which comes from the cotton rat in Florida; Bayou Virus in Louisiana that is carried by the rice rat. New York-1 virus has been linked to the white-footed mouse there. There are also the Prospect Hill, Rio Segundo, Rio Mamore, and El Moro Canyon viruses, but those four have yet to be linked to any illness in humans.

The second group is a lot worse, and even though drowning in your own lungs isn’t a pleasant way to die, the Hantaan, Puumala, and Seoul viruses of the Hantavirus strain actually cause hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome (HFRS for short.) If you’ve ever read anything about Ebola or the other strains of Hemorrhagic fever, then you know it’s a really nasty way to die. Just add renal failure on top of “bleeding out”. The “nice” news, and that’s putting it lightly, is that only 10% of cases with these strains die. Of course, I’m getting ahead of myself, for Hemorrhagic fever is another column another day.

HPS has also been found elsewhere in the Americas, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Panama, Paraguay and Uraguay, as well as Costa Rica and Mexico. Luckily these cases have not been associated with the disease in humans so go ahead and keep your travel plans.

Now that I’ve gone and freaked you out and caused you to be all afraid of any form of rodent poop you come across (you’re already wearing a respirator aren’t you?) so let me give you some really helpful information on what to do to avoid catching Hantavirus!

If you do live in one of the areas that I’ve mentioned above, familiarize yourself with which rodents they are and what they look like! This will really help incase there is a problem, and medical personal will be better able to treat and prevent a bigger outbreak if they know what they’re dealing with.

A really great way to start is to rodent-proof your home or workplace first off. One reliable way to tell if you have an infestation is droppings. I’m not talking if you find one or two droppings, I’m saying if you find a whole bunch of poo in a lot of areas. Some common ones that you might find droppings around are in cupboards or under the sink, along walls, or on top of wall studs or beams. Places where you store food or your pets’ food. Storage rooms, sheds, barns, or cabins loaded with boxes, bags, and old furniture. These little critters love to run in places that offer them some protection from predators, so a thorough search is really an important part.

This is not just for your home, but for your workplace as well! Warehouses and restaurants are obvious places to look because food may be plentiful there, but rodents also can call office buildings home just as easily. Look for droppings in protected places, such as closets, storage rooms, or inside boxes.

If you do happen to come across a rodent infestation, watch for the early symptoms: fatigue, fever and muscle aches, especially in the large muscle groups-thighs, hips, back, and sometimes shoulders. There may also be headaches, dizziness, chills, and abdominal problems, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. If these are joined 4-10 days later with coughing and shortness of breath, immediately seek medical attention! Heck, seek medical attention if the early symptoms start right after you’ve uncovered a rodent infestation. The life you save could be your own!

Really the simple moral of the story is this: see a bunch of rat poop, stay away or get the proper gear to clean it up, then get an exterminator out there to rid you of the rats.

Some great links with more information about Hantavirus:

The CDC’s page on Hantavirus, its history, and information about the disease and prevention.

WrongDiagnosis.com’s information and statistics on Hantavirus

Hantavirus.net, which says it all. Your place to find info, a FAQ, links, and all other assorted info about Hantavirus.

And there you have it. An entire column about how mice poo kills. How ever will I top this?

(originally this was posted on 08.18.2005 at my short-lived column Plagues, Pestilences, and Other Plights on Inside Pulse. Expect others to follow in due course.)

I’m one of those people you have to literally shove into something. Think of it akin to a person being shoved out of an airplane and told to open their chute and survive on their own. You’ll find out very fast you can do something.

Okay, so maybe not as dramatic as that. But still. You have to shove me.

Let me take you back to when I was around 4. There is a local pool built on a lot adjacent to the high school. It is an indoor pool, of course (there are outdoor pools in Oregon but it’s a pretty weird sight) and mom signed me up for lessons.

I’m a rock solid Earth sign and happen to like my feet on terra firma thank you. But something about water has always fascinated me and any amount of time I can spend in water I love. (Which is usually in a sink. Mom used to have to go looking for me and she’d find me in the bathroom playing in the sink. I used to commandeer my grandmother’s kitchen sink for hours at a time with make-believe games in the sink. Freak.) Swimming was an excellent choice.

I can see flashes of this particular event in my mind’s eye very clearly. Some are rather hazy. What do you expect from a memory over 21 years old?

At the end of each lesson, the instructor would remove the large, low, flat metal stand that was sunk into the pool for us to stand on so we wouldn’t drown. Then we were to jump into the shallow end, dog paddle to the teacher, dog paddle to the wall and climb out. End of the lessons always went this way.

Even at the age of 4 I was a very… strong-willed person. I loved swimming (as you can guess) but I also loved going home.

One particular day, as we were lined up on the wet tile that surrounded the poolside, I encountered a roadblock to my plan of getting home a.s.a.p. I don’t remember his name, and barely remember that he was a scrawny blond boy who was wrapped around himself in a snivelling, shivering way.

He was next in line before me and refused to jump off the edge to end his lesson.

It probably wasn’t as long as I imagined it, being as a 4 year old really doens’t have much concept of time, but it was taking too damn long for him to get it over with. Didn’t he know he had nothing to fear? The teacher would catch him if need be! It wasn’t far! Besides, he’d just spent all the time in the water!

In a moment of frustration, I pushed him off the edge.

Yup. Four year old me had just pushed a child my age off the edge of a pool to get him going.

I stood there passively watching the kid flail in the water, freaking out and probably screaming, and wondering when the hell he’d get out so I could jump in and finish my lessons.

The teacher, a ever vigilant guy probably in his 20s, of course rescued my unwitting classmate and returned him to the safety of the poolside.

I, on the other hand, was escorted by the arm to the side of the pool near the office door and given a stern talk about water safety and how we ‘don’t push people into the pool, no matter what!’

My mother was sitting in the narrow catwalk-like balcony far above the pool. She had watched the whole scenario unfold. Pinned with the fearful realization that “oh my god my child just pushed another into the pool!?”

She eventually met me in the changing room, as I was dismissed without further ado, and escorted me home, praying the entire time that we would not run into the little boy’s mother. We didn’t.

Revenge came upon me many years later.

Around 7, again the summer swimming lessons were in full swing. Instead of being the impaitent, domineering child when it came to the pool, I was far more weary. We had moved into the middle of the pool, where my feet no longer touched bottom and it became quite apparent that you could drown in said water.

My teacher for these advanced lessons was Kurt. A typical 80’s college guy, who wore a Speedo and was never without his 1980’s style sunglasses. He had a different pair for every damn day. (We even bought him some with the American flag painted on them at a Fair later on, just because they were so Kurt.)

He was saddled with my fearful and wary ass every day for as many weeks as the class was. Constantly he would have to tell me “You can do that.” It probably would have been a lot easier to just hire him as a private tutor for swimming lessons, when I look back on it, because I was sorely hogging attention from the rest of the class.

Kurt got me to the point where I could jump off the edge of the pool, dive to the bottom to collect flimsy plastic rings, and generally not drown. Those foam kickboards were instantly glued in my grip and he’d have to pry them forcefully away to get me to do anything that required more then a dog paddle.

My mom begged the staff at the pool to let Kurt continue teaching me in the next level of classes, since he was apparently the only instructor who could get me to do anything other then grip the kickboard and float there. Eventually they relented and agreed to let me continue on to the next level in Kurt’s instruction.

There is actual home video of me during these swimming lessons. I am a chubby, blonde seven year old in a blue suit, drapped in an over-sized beach towel that belong to my dad at one point. Rubbing the water from my eyes and generally screaming “NO I DON’T WANT TO!” at various points until Kurt wheedled me to the point where I had to.

No, this is not the revenge of which I speak. But it’s coming up.

You see, Kurt only taught beginning swimming. At the end of those classes, there would be no more he could do. He knew this and had the foresight to find another teacher in the intermmediate classes that could handle me.

I believe her name was Karen. Honestly, I’d have to watch the home video to find out. She was also the typical college student, teaching bratty kids to swim for money on summer break. Her hair was short, kept that way probably for competitive swimming and she wore the tank suits that most swimmers wear.

She didn’t have the finesse that Kurt did when she wanted me to do something, but still, she got me to do it.

I was given empty Clorox bottles to use as floats and my beloved kickboard was taken away. We moved onto advanced swimming, like the “Dead Man’s Float”. I did remarkably well, as long as she pushed me.

To graduate this level of classes you had to do one thing: you had to jump off the high diving board.

I don’t like heights. Well, when you can see what’s below you and you’re about to jump off something, that I don’t like.

Karen was determined and matched me head on in stubborness. If I wanted to pass I had to jump. I tried to get her to let me jump from the side of the pool, because I could certainly handle that.

“The high dive or nothing,” was her reply.

The day came. The rest of the class jumped one by one off the diving board. Kurt watched with my parents as Karen climbed up behind me to the diving board and inched us out to its end.

Arms around me, she jumped us off into the waiting water.

I passed her class.

I would like to thank Kurt and Karen for putting up with me. In subsequent years I went on to be a decent swimmer, unafraid of the deep end. I frequently jumped from the diving boards (even the really high one once in the olympic-sized pool in town. My god what was I thinking?!) and could dive properly from the side of the pool. I could relatively pass any swimming test that was required for someone to swim in the deep end (I can’t swim a straight line doing the side stroke to save my life but I can do it!) and I even entertained going into synconized diving at one point.

I have not been in a pool since my teenage years, though. The fact that I was horrified at how I look in a swimming suit coupled with the fact that I have tattoos my parents do not know of have pretty much killed any chance of me being in a swimming pool. That and chlorine destroys my hair to straw.

Maybe one day I will return to the blessed water-filled adventures of my childhood.

For now, the kitchen sink is my playground once more.

At 16, I spent 10 days in London, England. It was a “last gift”, if you will, from my beloved grandfather. Before he died that year, he had told me he would send me on a trip, somewhere outside the United States.

I think his intention had been to send me alone with some group, like People-to-People. Which is not my cup of tea. If I’m going some place I’ve never been I tend to want to explore on my own and not keep a demanding and rigid schedule.

So, instead of that, the immediate family went. Mom, dad, and grandma. Plus me. A 16 year old, blood-red-haired me. Stuck right in the middle of my hardcore “I wear only black clothing.” phase.

Good times.

We did a lot in those ten days. One of the most interesting bits was the fact that we decided to visit the world famous department store, Harrod’s. Being the first week in December, the Christmas decor and celebrations were in full-swing around London. And Harrod’s didn’t disappoint.

As a kid I had visited many a mall Santa. You know the drill: stand in line for what seems like forever, finally get to sit on Santa’s lap, tell him maybe three things you want, pose for an extremely over-priced photo, get a tiny candy cane in a cellophane wrapped, NEXT!

With its rich traditions and decidedly different history compared to America, England’s version of Santa is similar but different.

And when it comes to Harrod’s everything’s A-list and over the top.

I took it into my head that I was going to stand in line and see Father Christmas at Harrod’s.

“Okay… good luck.” My mom departed, leaving me standing in a line that was remeniscient of a ride line at Disneyland. Complete with markers hanging over head that read “X hours til front of the line from this point”. I think the one I started at was 1.5 hours.

Unlike the standard mall Santa where you stand in a line on public display to the hoardes of mall shoppers, at Harrod’s this year you entered a strange and wonderful tunnel-like room. On either side were windows with various scenes from the “story” they were presenting that year; I think it had to do with teddy bears and woodland creatures trying to find Father Christmas or something. Some of the scenes had moving figures and I guess there was a backstory you could read.

What intrigued me the most was the fact there were several girls, around my age and older, wandering up and down this snaking line of mothers and their children. They were dressed in costumes similar to something like Bo-Peep or Litttle Miss Muffet. You know, the tightly laced bodice with the short and immensely poofy skirt with all the crinolines underneath.

They were carrying large box-like trays. Like the ones the cigarette girls used to carry. But instead of cigarettes they were filled with gingerbread men, candy canes, other types of cookies and candy. And they were passing the goodies out! Just handing huge gingerbread men and candy canes out by the handful to the waiting children and mothers to eat while they stood in this line!

Not to mention another girl wandered up and down the line handing out half-sized bottles of Evian water! EVIAN!

Okay so I was more then a little impressed with this setup. Compared to the cheap tiny candy canes you get from American Santas, this was lavish!

At some point I began to notice mothers were looking at me in that funny “what the hell are you doing here?” way. I was alone in the line, sans children of any sort, and I’ve always looked older then my age. And I’m sure when I spoke to the magical girls handing out loads of free food the American accent was a dead giveaway.

I guess I should point out what I looked like: The as-forementioned blood-red hair, which reached my just past my shoulders at this point. I was dressed head-to-toe in black. Black shirt, black hooded sweatshirt. A pair of Indian velvet pants that were semi-reminiscent of something a harem girl would wear (that I had recently purchased in a boot-sale outside St. Martin-in-the-Fields) and a pair of laced-to-the-knee 3.5 inch heel leather boots I had bought at Shelley’s outside Oxford Circus. My major find at a shop in Covent Gardens had been a necklace probably made in India of of silver set with large half circle black stones that draped my neck.

Probably a bit ostentatious when seeing Father Christmas for the first time.

It’s really no wonder why the mothers were giving me strange looks now, isn’t it.

So, after what seemed forever (but was greatly eased by all the candy and cookies and Evian) I reached the front of the line.

“How old are you?” the girl in the Bo-Peep-like costume who guarded the curtained door asked me. I told her. “And you’re waiting to see Father Christmas?” She gave me an incredulous look. “You know, you can smoke and drink over here at 16.”

Yeah, with my parents with me? Not likely going to happen.

We chatted a bit more before she was informed that Father Christmas was ready to see me. (When entering the darkened hallway, I realized there were two doors. Two Father Christmases. Figures.)

I entered a tiny room that was swelteringly hot, after the frigid area the line was qued in, and found not only a jolly Father Christmas sitting on a golden bench, but two or three other people.

Father Christmas’ handlers.

Father Christmas greeted me and immediately noticed my hands. “Black nail polish? Are you a vampire?”

I don’t remember quite how I answered that one.

He bade me sit beside him on the bench and asked if I’d been good, what I wanted for Christmas, how I liked London. I’m pretty sure I answered as best I could; I think I was still rather dumbstuck by the vampire question.

The handlers brought out a digital camera on a tripod, posed me with Father Christmas and took our picture. They were all merry people, more then obviously amused at the 16 year old girl in black clothes from America who was sitting with Father Christmas.

I guess it wasn’t a common occurance. At least I gave them something to talk about?

It was all over in a matter of minutes. They run a tight ship at Harrod’s. Father Christmas bade me farewell, thanked me for visiting him and England altogether, and started handing me things.

He handed me a small hardback book about the story that was displayed outside in the line, a regular-sized candy cane, a button that I believe said I had visited Father Christmas at Harrod’s (“and all I got was this lousy button”.) and sent me on my way back to the real world. A handler told me the picture would be ready for purchase in a few minutes.

I was ushered though a door and it was over.

Mom found me standing there slightly bewildered looking, holding all the goodies from Father Christmas, three mini bottles of Evian, a gingerbread man, and a look of “what the hell just happened?” plasted on my face.

The picture ended up being something like 15 pounds, but was a nice 8×10 digital print. In a little cardboard folder. With the Harrod’s logo on it. Not a cheap little Polaroid taped onto a piece of paper.

That’s how I met Father Christmas and he asked if I was a vampire.

Past, Present, & Future

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