MY HISTORY OF getting sick just prior to going on vacation began years ago when I almost ruined the first international trip with my partner, Tony. Days before we were to leave for France, I came down with a horrible cold accompanied by a severe sinus infection, and the doctor advised me not to fly. “So, are we going or not?” Tony said, like a 12-year-old preparing himself for disappointment.
That was just the first time my congested nasal passages threatened to sideline a highly anticipated getaway. Now we’re about to take a big trip at the beginning of March, and I absolutely cannot be ailing. Not this time.
I have never been accused of being a hypochondriac or germaphobe. I have always freely shared water and food, hugged and kissed friends and relatives with abandon, and wrapped my palms around dirty subway handrails when there was no room to sit. That is, until the beginning of this year. 2013 began with flu running wild through New York, and I suddenly transformed into a Purell-toting member of the Howie Mandel-Woody Allen club, where our motto is, keep away from me you germ-infested person.
My anxiety level spiked over any possible exposure to malicious microbes. Oh my god, I just touched that door handle. Calm down. Just don’t touch your face. Uh-oh. I have an itch in the corner of my eye. Wash your hands!
When a waiter’s index finger lightly brushed up against one of the tines of my fork as he lay my plate down, I used the spoon instead. I announced to friends and family to warn me before they saw me if they felt a sniffle coming on, so I could decide not to see them. I chose to forgo all large social functions, where it would be impossible to keep track of any potential carriers.
Tony lovingly warned me months ago. “You better not get sick.” I had officially been put on notice.
This upcoming trip has been years in the making. Five years ago, we came up with a plan to go away for six weeks encompassing both our birthdays (we’re a month apart and celebrating big ones this year). We saved our money and last April I cashed in all our frequent flyer miles to book the difficult-to-get round trip business class seats. We’re beginning with his birthday in March in Sydney, Australia, and ending with mine in April in Hong Kong. In between there will be scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef, hiking and kayaking along the coast of New Zealand, the Lord of the Rings Tour (for Tony) and possibly even some bungee jumping.
It was being billed as The Trip of a Lifetime. Everyone kept affirming it: “Wow, this is the trip of a lifetime!” And it will be. But that only served to add to my already heightened anxiety. I constantly felt the pressure not to come down with anything this time. If I got sick, the entire trip would have to be canceled. It’s not like we’d be able to rebook a flight a few days later. And I doubt we’d again be able to put aside such a large block of time. This was an all in or all out proposition. Tony would kill me.
Years ago, the doctor had advised me to cancel our trip to France because my sinuses were inflamed. “Just give me some prednisone,” I told him. However, midway through the 8-hour flight I was questioning my decision, as the altitude exacerbated my symptoms, causing the pain and pressure in my ears to feel like my head was exploding. It was hell at 35,000 feet.
Then there was the long weekend in Florida that had to be cancelled after another sinus infection kept me grounded. There was also the occasion of my 40th birthday when Tony had booked a room in a very nice New York hotel for the weekend, so we could be tourists in our own city. I was only traveling 47 blocks uptown, and still I got sick two days before our cab departure up Sixth Avenue. And I’ll never be allowed to forget that Christmas getaway to Las Vegas when a particularly nasty sinus infection precipitated a frantic last-minute visit to the E.N.T., an emergency acupuncture treatment and a call to the airline changing our departure to the following day, Christmas Eve.
“Why do you always get sick before we go away?” Tony yelled.
I didn’t know. Bad nasal passages that don’t drain well?
Now was my chance for redemption. I had spent months planning the perfect adventure for us. Tony was so looking forward to it, and I wouldn’t be able to stand seeing that sad, angry look on his face if I ruined the big birthday trip. Not to mention we’d lose a substantial amount of money with a last-minute cancellation. Each blow of my nose was going to cost us $1,500.
Television and newspapers were buzzing about the nationwide flu epidemic. It was a topic of conversation all around town. Flu. Flu. Flu. The governor of New York had declared a statewide health emergency. I was freaked. Every day someone else I knew had been felled. One by one they succumbed, like a horror movie where I was the only human in town, trying to stay a step ahead of the zombies who were attempting to eat my brain, or in this case, breathe on me with their ghastly germs.
Rogue sneezes and coughs from passersby sent me reeling, agitated for days, waiting to see if I came down with any symptoms. I washed my hands every time I touched anything. If my hands weren’t dry and cracked, I wasn’t washing enough.
A few weeks ago, I ran into a friend on Seventh Avenue. He grabbed me and gave me a big hug and kissed me on the cheek.
“It’s so good to see you,” he said.
“You too,” I said, pulling away from him. “How are you?”
“Oh, I have this horrible cold.”
I saw my friend’s lips continue to move, but all I heard was the faint buzz of white noise in my head. I felt like that line in the movie Death Becomes Her, when Meryl Streep’s character is cautioned about the side effects after she drinks the potion, “Now a warning?” I fast-forwarded a few weeks, envisioning our luggage sitting by the door, Tony clenching his crumpled boarding pass as I lay on a gurney flanked by discarded tissues, attached to an IV, being attended to by a nurse.
After I walked away from my virulent friend, I Purelled my entire face. Had I really just rubbed my face with alcohol in broad daylight on the corner of Seventh Avenue and 15th Street? I had crossed over to a dark place and become a crazed germaphobe. I went home and waited for it, but after a few days I showed no symptoms.
I knew I was being overly cautious, but an ounce of Purell is worth a pound of Tamiflu.
Then, in February, four weeks from the day we were to leave, there was a scratch in the back of my throat. Don’t get crazy. It’s just the dry winter air. Have some tea. Then my eyes began burning. You’re fine. It’s just allergies, or dust—you are not sick! My body began to ache. My head was clogged. My temperature rose. THE FLU!
But I had been so careful. No gym, no movies, no crowded public gathering spots, minimal socializing, putting on gloves before touching door handles, carrying my own small pen in lieu of using the spore-laden one at cash registers, and placing a moratorium on hugs until landing safely back home at JFK in April. I even had a flu shot back in November, though it’s only 60% effective—naturally I fell into the other 40%.
How did this happen? I began a mental forensic investigation to try and figure out where I went wrong and how I was exposed. Was it that suspiciously nasal-sounding man in my building who exhaled in my direction as he walked by? Was it the consumptive woman on the elevator who coughed onto the back of my neck? The checkout lady at the supermarket who touched my cans of tuna after rubbing her nose?
I now have 10 days for my lingering flu symptoms (and yes, another sinus infection) to leave my body, and stay illness-free, before I board that Qantas flight for the 23-hour journey across the Pacific. Yes, it would really suck if we had to cancel, but I remind myself that my 16-year relationship is stronger than the flu. Tony would forgive me, eventually. Life would go on, evil pathogens and all.
So, once again, I fulfilled the prophecy of my pre-travel ailment. I tried to control my environment to keep from getting sick, and I got sick anyway. Apparently, you can do all the right things, and turn yourself into an anti-social, germ phobic lunatic, and still be exposed. At least this time I was fortunate it happened weeks before, instead of only days, giving me time to recuperate. But now that better be the extent of it. Just in case, I went to the health food store/apothecary up the street and loaded up on herbal extracts like elderberry, garlic and olive leaf as a defense against wayward germs and to bolster my immune system to fight them. I also began a new hand washing ritual: wash, rinse, dry, Purell, repeat. All the while, singing several rousing choruses of Happy Birthday To You.
Yes, I know, it’s crazy. But I’m not taking any chances. There are all sorts of viruses still lurking out there (ironically, one of them is a stomach flu from Australia). I don’t want to tempt fate. We haven’t left yet.
[Editor's note: As of publication, Jeff has a few days until he departs. And, a sinus infection. He will be traveling this time with both antibiotics and prednisone. He is threatening never to travel again.]