If you are old enough, you might remember the mid-70’s TV-movie called “The Boy In The Plastic Bubble.” Starring a young, ex-Sweat Hog named John Travolta, it was a ripped-from-the-headlines story of a kid whose immune system is so out of whack that any exposure to any pathogen – bacteria, virus, fungi -- was potentially life-threatening. Or you may have caught the classic Seinfeld episode on the same subject, “Bubble Boy.” George gets into an argument about Trivial Pursuit with a dyspeptic boy in a bubble he visits. Of course the bubble gets ripped open and George is blamed.
What a sad fate, you’re saying, to be so susceptible to every bacteria or virus floating around that you have to live in a sterilized bubble. Well, recently, as a T-10 para who is prone to infection, I’ve felt exactly like that: a man in a bubble without the bubble.
We all get infections, right, often appearing out of the blue. The last one I got, just a few weeks ago, put me in the hospital and scared the hell out of me. On a quiet Saturday morning came the fever, chills, and vomiting. By the time I landed in the ER, a rash appeared on my right calf. A couple of hours later, the whole leg looked like raw meat and I felt like, ah, dog remains. For days. Maybe you’ve had this particular kind of bacterial attack that inflames the subcutaneous layers of skin – it’s called cellulitis.
The problem was, my very competent medical team a) couldn’t identify the offending bacteria causing the cellulitis, and b) didn’t really know how to treat it. When you ask your lead doctor what’s going on and he says, “We have no idea,” you know the fun has just begun. It was like throwing darts at a board. Vancomycin, reputedly the biggest bazooka in the antibiotic arsenal, couldn’t kill it. They started mixing antibiotic cocktails: Vanco with other drugs like Zosyn, which caused me to break out in hives, then with Flagyl , then with Flagyl and Astreonam. Four days into this nightmare, the last trio began to work and the infection receded. I finally left the hospital with all parties still scratching their collective head – what is the hell was that?
Soon after I got home, the New York Times ran a piece on the “microbiome,” the 100 trillion – yes, trillion – microbes that hang around our bodies. There are, they report, over 500 species of bacteria alone that live in the human mouth. Most of those bugs, in the mouth and elsewhere, are apparently beneficial, but not the pathogen that infested my leg. The entry point for this scoundrel was probably the small, extremely clean problem wound on my ankle, but where did it come from before that? The down comforter? The dog licking my leg in the middle of the night? The doorknob touched by the cookie-selling Girl Scout, then touched by my wife, who then touched me?
A germaphobe, re Wikipedia, is a person with “a pathological fear of contamination and germs.” Think of the TV character, Monk. But what do you call a person whose pathological fear of contamination is unarguably well-grounded? Should I start wearing a mask, avoid all human and/or canine touch, use my elbows to eat a burrito, and cover this key board with bubble wrap? God knows what might happen if I get on a plane or go to a ballgame. The secret may be to steam-sanitize my wheelchair and never get out of it.
You think I’m kidding but an episode like my encounter with that nameless leg-chewer can easily turn a concern into an obsession. Of course, preventative measure #1 is no skin breakage, anywhere, ever. No nicking your ankle getting out of the bathtub or bumping your knee in a crowded elevator. And a completely sterile toilet routine that would make an ICU nurse proud. And never touch your dog, cat, or pet armadillo again without surgical gloves.
It’s taken me sixteen years of paralysis to finally see things clearly: no matter what the good-bacteria-loving scientists say, this is war, an endless battle to the death, and the moment you let your attention waver, you’re going to get hit from behind. Bacteria never sleep, even when you do. And they are smart – they mutate at the drop of a hat.
I have to stop now so I can get the bubble wrap to cover my keyboard. I, for one, am sick of being sick.
© 2012 Allen Rucker |