I’ve had the flu three times in my life: February ’77, March ’86 and February ’93. I’ve had the stomach flu at least half a dozen times, including the week after I marched for my doctorate in May ’97. But given my IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) issues, the stomach flu’s nothing compared to full-on influenza.
I get my flu shots regularly these days, but twenty years ago, I knew nothing about protecting myself from the illness that has caused the deaths of 36,000 people on average every year. So it was during my second year of graduate school at Pitt. It was a particularly bad flu season in Pittsburgh — in fact, in the whole northeastern US — the winter of 1992-93.
What made that winter particularly terrible for me was the fact that I had four discussion sections of US History to 1877 students to teach that semester, 120 students in all. Not to mention the requirement of showing up for every one of Bill Stanton’s lectures, in which more than 200 students attended twice a week. I was in constant contact with students that semester, with office hours, my first letters of recommendation and students needing makeup exams.
I risked exposure to these unkempt, hygienically-challenged students at least four days a week from the beginning of January on. By the third week of February, I had a section in which six out of eighteen students had shown up with the flu or flu-like symptoms. They sneezed, coughed and breathed their way through my Friday morning class, leaving their biohazardous tissues on the conference table or in an overflowing garbage can.
My first symptoms showed up by the end of the day that last Monday in February. At first, I thought that I had caught a cold. I kept working full-tilt on my quantitative methods project to fulfill my last non-class-taking requirement before any potential PhD comprehensive exams next year. It was only a potential prospect, as I was also working with Joe Trotter and then graduate advisor John Modell on a deal to transfer my graduate school credits to Carnegie Mellon, in order to finish my history doctorate there.
So I barely noticed that Tuesday and Wednesday that my lymph nodes had swollen, my teeth started to hurt, and my body temperature seemed off. I attributed it to another cold snap, and had the nerve to even play a game of pick-up basketball up on the hill Tuesday afternoon. By the end of the day on Wednesday, though, I felt it all. I was way too hot one minute, cold and shivering the next, sweating all the while. My rose was red and running like a mucus faucet. And every part of me ached, like I was in the midst of going through three years’ worth of puberty, all at once, and all at the age of twenty-three.
I went home, hoping to be better in time for my discussion sections at 2 pm and 3 pm on Thursday. Even though I felt even worse, I went in to teach that next day, barely able to wait ten minutes for the 71B bus outside of my place on Highland Avenue. The two sections that afternoon were a blur, as my mouth was dry and my mind was a swirling mess.
The only medication I had was two packs of two-year-old Theraflu and some Advil. I’d taken one pack of the Theraflu before my sections that morning, which may have been why I felt like my mind was floating and my kidneys were flooding at the same time. My monthly TA paycheck for teaching was due to me via a direct deposit into my PNC Bank account at 12:01 am that Friday. Only then could I go get some more chicken noodle soup and safer Theraflu to take for my flu-ridden body.
I stood at the PNC Bank ATM at 12:05 am that Friday, February 26 — the one on the corner of Highland and Penn Avenue in East Liberty — shivering and looking from side to side in case some wannabe thug was on the prowl. I managed to get fresh meds and soup at Giant Eagle, and fell asleep at 1 am. Somehow I woke up six hours later, woozy, somewhat refreshed, and hoarse. I still taught my other two sections at 9 and 10 am. Then I went home to rest, because I was to be part of some PAGPSA gathering (see my post “James and the PAGPSA” from November ’12 for more) and presentation on campus at 6 pm that evening.
What did I learn from all of this? To stay away from sickly students, for one. To drink and take lots of vitamin C. That I should take the time off when I was really, truly sick. That flu shots were ninety-five percent effective at preventing people from picking up the flu of a given season. Most of all, that I was truly a part of this world, and that flu could kick ass in my super-strong immune system as well.