The Flunami Hits Like a Wave, Then it’s Gone


Like sports, the practice of medicine has seasons. For instance, summer is the season of injuries, bites and stings. People plunge from waterfalls, roll about in fire-ant hills, wreck motorcycles while wearing bathing suits (it’s as bad as it sounds), try to catch rattlesnakes and find themselves impaled on fishhooks.

Then, after the madness of Memorial Day, July 4th and Labor day, a magical,mystical thing happens. The emergency rooms become quiet. There is often a week, or two or even more when the insanity settles down and the waiting rooms are relatively empty. I love that time. I long for it during the sultry, alcohol-scented, sun-burnt, inappropriate swim-suit laden shifts of mid-summer.

This year it happened as well. There was a kind of pause, a low tide, even noticeable in the midst of the rising ER volumes across the country. Except this year, it was like when you’re at the beach and it isn’t actually time for low tide, and it suddenly goes out and you think it looks strange and fascinating. And you point out to sea. And someone yells, ‘Tidal Wave!’

Because now, after the calm of early Autumn, hospitals, clinics, emergency departments and all the rest have felt the unrelenting devastation of the Flunami. That’s right, folks, Influenza A, H3N2, is here and it has crashed on the shores of humanity. I’ve seen it, and it looks like a vast, ten foot wall of secretions and tissues, carrying in its wake entire pharmacies of cough and cold drugs, Rock and Rye, Hot Toddies, Neti-pots, unnecessary antibiotic prescriptions and work excuses.

Life in medicine these days is an endless litany of ‘fever, cough, cold, headache, stuffy nose, body aches.’ Or, in some cases, ‘cough, sore throat, stuffy nose, fever, cold, body aches and headaches.’ And sometimes: ‘I’m hot and cold and hurt all over and I think I’m dying. Oh, and I have a stuffy nose, cough, fever and headache.’ You get the picture. In the end, the days and nights of patients, doctors, paramedics, clerks and nurses are all filled with wheezing, cough and misery as people who haven’t been sick for a very long time suddenly re-discover the inestimable wonders of the flu.

I’m not trying to minimize it. I know how badly it can make a person feel. While I don’t ever actually recall having Influenza, I remember that sort of aching misery with other illnesses. I know that it disrupts holidays, travel, school, businesses and entire economies. I also know that in some cases, it’s very dangerous. The very young, very old and those already ill and weak are in danger from the flu.

However, for the overwhelming majority of humans, the current Flunami is a shaking, aching, sniffling, hacking inconvenience that will go away on its own, no matter what we do. In time it will wash across the land and back out to the vast green sea of human illnesses. As such, a visit to the doctor is generally a waste of time and dollars.

I know, maybe I’m betraying my profession. But in truth, while we’re glad to take your money, flu leaves us feeling a little inadequate, and your cough only shares the joy with the staff and everyone in the waiting room. And most of the time we’ll say this: ‘I’m sorry, you have the flu. I can’t do much for you.’ At this point I’m not even doing many flu swabs. (If it walks like a duck, you know.)

Sure, sometimes you need an inhaler, sometimes a little something for nausea. Occasionally, what seems like flu is pneumonia and requires an antibiotic. Some people, every year, do die from Influenza. But mostly, it’s just the human condition. To add to the general, achy woes, this year the vaccine is less useful than predicted at fighting the current strain; it happens, despite the best efforts of scientists.

Even the much advertised, much prescribed drugs Relenza and Tamiflu aren’t much help; while they may reduce transmission in some instances, they only make people feel better a day or two sooner at best; by only 14 hours in one study. Negative study results of the drugs haven’t been exactly forthcoming from the manufacturers, it appears. See for yourself:

Bottom line? Hang in there. Even the Flunami can’t last forever. Before long we’ll be attacked by insects and burnt by the sun all over again. And honestly, it will be a pleasant change of pace.

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