I’m not usually the type to worry about physical ailments. Given my hard-drinking, sedentary lifestyle, if I worried every time I did something bad to my body, I’d be Jewish by now. But I’ve been having cold- and flu- like symptoms for the past few days, and this time, for some reason, I’m becoming introspective. Maybe my Jewish Boyfriend’s sensibilities are rubbing off on me, maybe it’s a function of getting older and being aware of my mortality (yes, I know I’m 25, but one has to start somewhere), but I can’t help thinking of people in recent years who have been killed or permanently maimed by diseases with innocuous initial symptoms.
For example, in 2008, a 50-year-old radiologist who worked at my dad’s hospital died suddenly from flu-related complications. Dude had worked with my dad for 20 years during which he had been in apparently good health. Two days before he died, he’d had the flu but dragged himself to the hospital to treat a cancer patient with my dad. Within 24 hours, he was comatose in the critical care unit, hooked up to a respirator, and within another 24 hours, he was dead, simply because he had been too busy or arrogant to get his flu shot.
And then there was this boy in 2002 or 2003 who contracted meningitis just from hanging out, going to school, etc. I don’t remember all the details, but he got really sick really fast (within 24 hours), as people with meningitis do, and ended up having both arms and both legs amputated. Some magazine wrote an article on him and published some post-op pictures. Dude looked like a torso with four stumps of melted wax. The thing that scared me the most was learning that meningitis manifests initially with flu-like symptoms: headache, dizziness, fever, and soreness of the body. I got the meningitis vaccine a week after reading the article.
And then there are the incurable, fatal ailments, such as mad-cow disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, and kuru, that make you demented before killing you slowly. But I don’t have to worry about that. No sign of excessive extrapolation/worrying/dementia around here.
At this point, I’m trying to limit my anxiety to the realm of 21st-century medicine, but I can’t help remembering that George Washington died of common cold-induced pneumonia.