Tattered Jeans

Surviving typhus: When a flea almost knocks you out of the world

Surviving typhus: When a flea almost knocks you out of the world

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Secondly, I’m not keen on doctors. “White coats,” I call 'em because, well, they just seem, so white!
News_The Perfect Storm
In a way, it was "The Perfect Storm."
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Thanks to our carpenter friend, the bird feeders were gone before I got home. Birdseed, too.
In my Havahart traps, we’ve caught 10 possums and four raccoons and still counting! Photo by Katie Oxford
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Others wonder, “You think you might have gotten it in Louisiana?" I chuckle, remembering another question, “Isn’t Typhus from a Third World country?” Photo by Katie Oxford
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P and I recently returned from a sliver of beach I call heaven where for five days, we listened to the ocean and each other.
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News_The Perfect Storm
News_bird feeders
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News_couple on beach

Editor's note: We are thrilled to welcome back CultureMap city life columnist Katie Oxford. In her first column since her return, she explains why she has been away.

In a way, it was THE PERFECT STORM. A series of events evolved in just the right order so that by the eighth day of having fever of 104 and a headache that wouldn’t go away, it was time to say “uncle.” Not an easy word for a boots on the ground girl.

So on a cold day in January, I spoke words I never dreamed. “Tomorrow,” I said to my husband, “you probably oughta take me to the hospital.”

Looking back, I should’ve been there, done that already, but, the combination of never having been sick before, plus the mysterious nature of typhus (a bacterial disease contacted from a flea bite), had me stumped.

I wasn’t alone. After a second visit to the doctor’s office, where both times blood was drawn, I went home with the same instructions. “Take two Tylenol every four hours,” she said. “If you’re not better by Monday, I’ll start looking for something exotic.”

Exotic? Little did anyone know, I was already in watusi-land. Tylenol together with typhus was not the ticket home.

There were other factors in play. My prejudices. I’m not keen on hospitals. I shared my grandmother’s view (the wife of a doctor). “If you wanna get sick,” she warned, “just go to the hospital.” But, when you need one, it’s a damn good place to be.

Secondly, I’m not keen on doctors. “White coats” I call em’ because, well, they just seem, so white! They don’t like questions and when they do give you an answer, it sounds like a politician’s. I heard my grandfather (the doctor) once say to his daughter’s doctor, “She’s my only chicken in the yard, so now give me an answer and please speak English. By “English,” he meant, be honest and direct.

The next morning, my husband drove me to the hospital where I was put in ICU for four days. On day three, I opened my eyes and told him, “I’m not beating this thing.”

That’s about the time I remember Dr. C (from Argentina) asking a really good question. As soon as I told him there were bird feeders in our backyard, his eyes lit up. He pulled the bedcovers back, honing in on my stomach, where immediately, he spotted a “rash.” Then, he looked at my tongue. Another antibiotic was quickly hooked to the pole, only this time, the right one (Doxycycline), pumped through my veins. The watusi would slowly turn to a waltz.

The Recovery

One week later, I gratefully climbed into bed at home. It was two months later before a confirmation came from the Infectious Disease Center in Atlanta. When driving no longer felt like an “out of body experience,” as a humorous friend described it. But “Murine Typhus,” as it turns out, was a gift. Sent and received.

Thanks to our carpenter friend, both bird feeders were gone before I got home. Birdseed too. In my Havahart traps, we’ve caught 10 possums and four raccoons and still counting! For budget reasons, the City of Houston can’t pick them up, but for a fee, Critter Control of Houston can. Then they release them to a wildlife area. Or, so I’m told repeatedly.

I’m also told typhus is now out of my body AND brain, which frankly, I was more worried about. But for someone who’s “never sick” the disease was a doozy and strange too. Recovery was stranger. Certainly, it was slower than I liked but hence, another gift. Patience. There’s brilliance in our beautifully built bodies! They are awesome, really.

In 2008, there was a typhus outbreak in Austin of 30 cases. Oddly, one of the first of these happened to be a childhood friend from Beaumont. Claire knew I had typhus before the doctors. She kept calling a mutual friend asking, “Why haven’t they diagnosed her yet?!” (In Claire’s case, the diagnosis came instantly after a spinal tap.)

The second day home, I called Claire, now living in California. It was the first of several visits, laced with laughter too. It was comforting to have a comrade to compare notes with, especially when your case feels like cooties. Claire had been sensitive to light and sound, she told me. For me, not light but definitely sound. Even today. But I doubt typhus has anything to do with this.

Weeks later, my carpenter friend came by for a visit. We sat around a Lazy Suzy, shooting the breeze until the conversation turned deep. In Ronnie’s quiet, non-white-coat-way, he spoke truth.

“You know Katie, just like your brother Tommy's addicted to drugs, you were addicted to DOING too much.” Bingo.

Then, Ronnie said ...

“A doctor friend once told me that the body adapts to everything. It adapts and adapts but when it finally can’t adapt anymore, it gets sick.” Bingo again, I thought, and bless this carpenter, so caring.

In life post typhus, my hair’s falling out, my hearing’s not as good and my taste buds have changed. I’m allergic to hurry and people, who, cannot sit with themselves but can sit in Judgment. A lot. In either of these environments, I pick up my bed and move. Quietly.

Which brings me to the things I am not allergic to but rather, relish. Quiet. Not total quiet, the kind void of blowers. I’ve an increased appetite for things opposite arrogance. Consideration, kindness, common courtesy — the Golden Rule stuff rich in vitamins.

Finding New Space

P and I recently returned from a sliver of beach I call heaven where for five days, we listened to the ocean and each other. No CDs, DVDs, not even a microwave. Only waves from water. That great Gulf of Mexico that I gotta go home to — like an animal has to return to its natural habitat.

It was cold but I went swimming. Then I ran up to the house, calling for my beloved to come jump in too. P called it “crazy” but once acclimated, his shoulders settled below his ears and he enjoyed himself. When we walked out of the ocean still laughing, I thought of something Anne Lamott said.

“I go swimming every chance I get. It’s the most radical self acceptance.”

People ask now, “Don’t you get a VACCINE for that when you’re a kid?”

“You’re probably thinking of typhoid,” I say. “Typhus comes from a flea bite, in my case, a ‘fluke flea,’ I call it.”

Others wonder, “You think you might have gotten it in Louisiana?” I chuckle, remembering another question, “Isn’t typhus from a Third World country?”

So it goes. But at the end of each day, I’m grateful for a flea. A flea, that supposedly jumped off a possum (feeding on fallen birdseed), and ultimately, jumped on me. In one bite, brought me to full STOP. In time, turned a foot soldier into a Ferdinand.

I got rid of stuff. Metaphorically. I learned the value of simple. Now, before making decisions, I ask myself one question, is this going to make my life more complicated? Empty corners give me rest. Whether a corner or my face, plain, suddenly, seems beautiful.

Since that cold day I cried “uncle,” I’ve learned a lot. Mostly, Gratitude. If you’ve experienced having one foot off the planet, you know about this.

I’ve learned the sweet love of siblings, the lasting love of friends, the powerful love of partners and what I want most in this world, I may have. The sense that when I leave it, I loved, well.