November 12

World Pneumonia Day


It’s only a cough.

Keep telling yourself that.  It’s only a cough.  Not an indication of anything more serious.

In all your struggles to gather non-perishable food, to find an isolated place to live (plus hammer and nails and loose boards to secure the windows and doors), you’d forgotten to collect medications.

You have a first aid kit, certainly, with bandages and antiseptic cream to help treat the wounds you fully expected to incur after encounters with other survivors.  But no aspirin or cough syrup.

From what you remember — snippits on TV medical dramas, flu season segments on local news, postings on the MedFo website back when the Internet still functioned — the worst thing to happen was when cold or flu germs settled into your lungs.  The fever would spike.  Expelled mucus would turn a dark yellow or green or gray.  You’d shake with chills then break into fits of sweating, alongside shortness of breath and rapid heartbeats.

Well, those were some of the pneumonia indicators, if you remembered correctly.  You can’t actually be sure:  there’s no nearby doctor for you to consult.

The main thing you’re confused about is the timing.  Can a simple cold develop immediately into pneumonia, or does it happen gradually?  Is there an incubation period, where you feel healthy again — only to be struck with new or dramatically heightened symptoms?

Because you’ve been sitting on a tattered couch, wool blanket over your lap, boarded windows in front and a bare-cupboard kitchen behind, trying to convince yourself that you feel better.

Except for that cough.  A deep cough that seems to rise from the pit of your stomach.  Your stomach feels tender, too — was that one of the symptoms you forgot?  In addition, a soreness in your chest, like someone’s been punching you.

You’re nervous, which would explain your rapid heartbeats.  The more you monitor it, the faster the beats seem to flutter, so you stop holding your hand over your heart.

Instead, you hug your arms across your sore chest, hoping to fend off the chills.  It feels like your whole body is shaking.  Your teeth start to chatter.

All these symptoms are starting to converge.  When you next cough, a wet chunk of mucus rises from the back of your throat, sits on the top of your tongue.  Although you’re disgusted by the idea, you swallow it down:  you’re too afraid to look, to see what diseased color the mucus would reveal.

Your next shiver might be nothing more than a sign of revulsion.

Then you remember another symptom:  a deepening of the voice as the infection affects the vocal cords.  Since you no longer interact with other people, you’ve had no reason to speak aloud.   Perhaps you should try your voice again, to see how bad it sounds.

Of course, it may be weak from disuse.  Scratchy and unfamiliar, mimicking a sickly soliloquy.

And what would you say, anyway?  Woe is me, or  I wish things had turned out better, or We should have been smarter.

Instead, you simply ask the universe:  Am I sick?

The rhetorical question hangs in the air, your voice quieter and slightly deeper than you remember.  Not enough to make a definite diagnosis.

“That’s the least of your worries.”

You don’t remember trying to speak again, and the voice sounds even deeper and less familiar.  You hear a low, dry cough directly behind you, then a violent throat-clearing slightly to the left.

If only you’d been better at reading the signs.  You hadn’t shivered from pneumonia, but because someone opened the kitchen door, letting in cold air — and a host of intruders with hacking coughs and evil intentions.

You pull your blanket up to your neck, praying for warmth and solitude, vainly wishing your symptoms, and your uninvited visitors, would simply go away.