Pneumonia bites

Early pneumonia, by Yale Rosen on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

My primary doctor wasn’t going to be available from 9 p.m. last night through 9 p.m. tonight. I put two and two together and realized she would be running the New York City marathon today. Way to go, Dr. S!

Luckily, I called her earlier in the day yesterday, with enough time for her to write a prescription for a chest x-ray and send a copy over to the closest imaging place. By noon, I’d held my breath for two views and was out the door, on my (very slow) way to a bowl of chicken curry pho and then home to crawl into bed. J and the boys lived their lives without me yesterday and are doing so today. (Poor J. The school/work week can’t start soon enough.)

By 3 p.m., Dr. S had heard the news: I have pneumonia. I took a very slow walk to the pharmacy, where I picked up my antibiotic, and a Crunch bar (there was a distinct lack of those in the Halloween haul this year).

By the way, I made sure the kids understood that this is a serious but common ailment which I have survived before, and which is wholly unrelated to cancer. I figured I owed them at least that much, since I’m visibly sick.

I was really out of it all afternoon. I managed to make and drink tea, but not much else. When J and the boys finally got home, I weakly requested a bowl of soup. 

It was not until a few hours later that I remembered to check my temperature. It was pretty high. This lack of basic self-care stands in stark contrast to the type of mother and wife I am, in similar situations not involving me. I took my temperature the day before, but yesterday I was apparently too sick to remember to.

J and Young J had a bat mitzvah party to attend, which left me in charge of Young A at bedtime. Bedtime is typically when Young A goes wild, releasing his last stores of energy before sleep. Last night, he was cooperative, quiet, and subdued. I was still contagious and didn’t want to read to him, so he read to me. He’s a wonderful, expressive reader, every bit as good as his older brother. (This week, we got wonderful reports from their teachers about their writing skills. Color me not at all surprised, but very, very proud.) We wished each other a good sleep, and he drifted right off without his usual shenanigans. Something to do, perhaps, with his usual bunk bed co-conspirator being out.

I have a lot of time on my hands, all of a sudden. Little or no energy yet for all the aspirational activities like reading (books are heavy, my eyes are tired) and writing (ideas in short supply, although I did just sign up for a poem-a-day in November challenge). 

What I’m doing is trying to reconstruct a timeline of my past pneumonias. There may have been one or two when I was a child in school. (Certainly there was a lot of bronchitis.) 


Late 1992 or early 1993. My senior year of college, in the middle of a particularly busy semester, it struck again, hard. Fever of 103. Delirium. Luckily I was in school close enough to be able to come back home for a week. I packed exactly one book for the week, an insanely scholarly and heavily annotated edition of Hamlet. It just so happened that in all six of the courses I was taking, across the English, French, and Italian departments, we were talking about Hamlet in every single class, for different reasons.

I sunk back into my childhood bed for a week, sweating through the fever and with coughs wracking my lungs, and read Hamlet. Every word. Every note. Every punctuation mark. I steeped myself in the book, like a teabag in a cup.

By the time I got back to class, I was the world’s foremost authority on the play. I probably knew things about it that The Bard himself did not. In my Literary Theory class, we began our discussion of Hamlet. My hand kept popping up as though it were a Jack-in-the-box. I had many, many things to interject, to add, to expand upon. Finally, the professor narrowed his eyes and said, “Excuse me, but which edition did you read?”


October 2008. Young J was nearly two years old and I had been his primary caregiver for almost a year, after leaving the career track to spend more time with him. You can imagine I wasn’t taking very good care of myself, because when was there time for that?

I’d had a sore throat for a few days. I drank tea and kept wishing it away. My friend W and I embarked on a craft project, freezer paper stenciling pictures onto t-shirts. I laboriously cut out a detailed tractor trailer stencil for Young J’s shirt, and a brontosaurus (or whatever-saurus it’s known as now) for J’s t-shirt. We painted them. They had to be laundered in a certain way, so W took the shirts and washed them for us. 

I remember the evening she came by to drop them off. It was right around this time of year. Not sure if Halloween was coming or had gone. But I happened to be making chicken soup for my sore throat and started feeling faint. When W rang the bell, it was all I could do to get down the stairs to answer the door. In retrospect, it’s a wonder I didn’t collapse.

J got home from work, and I got in bed. When I eventually checked my temperature it was exceedingly high, like 103. Young J had to be put to bed, and then we had a friend or neighbor come while we went to the ER. I remember very little except lying there and learning my fate. And learning that I’d need to follow up with a doctor. And realizing that I didn’t actually have one.

That is when Dr. S came into my life. I was lucky — unlike today, when she cannot see new patients for months, she was able to see me right away. Although I had already started antibiotics, I had a nagging problem — the strength of the coughing I was doing caused me to vomit every time. 

In the gentlest, lowest pressure way imaginable, she scribbled down something on her prescription pad. A homeopathic remedy, ipecacuanha. I should get it, she said, and dissolve five pellets under my tongue a few times a day. She wasn’t promising it would definitely work. It was on the order of a very informed suggestion.

Being a lifelong fan of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, I went ahead and bought some, marveling that this item could be bought at my corner drugstore. 

And it worked.

(Dr. S also told me to get plenty of rest and sleep. But that doesn’t come in pellet form.)


May(ish) 2010. I don’t know much about this one. Except by this time I had a three year old and a three month old. So naturally I was excelling at self-care and getting plenty of rest!


January 2012. This one really hurt, because we’d finally gotten out of the weeds of the newborn stage, and made plans to take a trip away from the kids. A real trip, on an airplane, to Puerto Rico, to mark my having hit 40. A few weeks before the trip, the sentence was handed down to me yet again. I was okay to travel, but our planned hikes and adventures were downgraded to mostly just driving around.


November 2017. I have gone nearly six years now without pneumonia. Why did it have to come back now?! Perhaps my body sensed the lack of grave health concerns currently, and wanted to take advantage. 

On the other hand, this time off from pneumonia has given my children time to grow, time to become more self-sufficient and they can even contribute to the general good of the household. (J is out grocery shopping with them. May God help him.) So my recovery has already been given a huge boost in terms of all the things I do not have to do/be/worry about. Self-employment is also a plus at a time like this.

One of the past pneumonias came on after I’d given up sugar for a month. I had mentioned this to Dr. S at the time, and her reply caught me off guard: “Maybe you need sugar,” she said.

Well, I’ve been avoiding most sugar now since mid-September. I think I’m done with that now. Just in case.


There you have it: my history of pneumonia in five uneasy pieces. 

I have never once stopped to consider how dealing with this recurrent health condition might have contributed to my mental attitude in dealing with a much graver one. In terms of similarities, it too seems to pop up at any old time — just like the melanoma I’ve been (so far) beating back with a stick. In terms of differences, it has taught me to appreciate conventional illness, which is symptomatic and viewable with an x-ray and does not require the involvement of specialists.

It’s an ominous-sounding word, pneumonia, and indeed when I told the porter of the building next door yesterday that I had it, color seemed to drain from his face, as though I’d just told him I had, I dunno, cancer. (In his experience, I’m guessing, people can die from pneumonia. I hope he’ll be happy to see me out and about again soon.)

(Dr. S at the moment is over 23 miles in to her marathon, with my friend T, a first-time marathoner, not far behind her. Tracking their progress from bed today has been a transcendent activity.)

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