A BAD ROLL OF THE DICE: THE MEDICAL DOUBLE-WHAMMY

Okay! I have a guest post today. It’s my brother Pedro (his name is Peter, I call him Pedro), and I asked him to share his experiences with a seriously bad roll of the medical dice. When he was about 11, in the 6th grade, he came down with a disease known as mononucleosis. He recovered, but six months later, he came down with another nasty disease known as meningitis. Dang! That’s some bad luck, big brother! So, he was kind enough to share his experiences of the ordeal(s). He was young, so many of his memories are hazy, but he clearly recalls the more painful moments during this time span of infections. Myself, I would have been about 6, so all I remember is that my big brother was home from school, not feeling well, and we had to have separate eating and drinking utensils for him. Then I probably played with my legos.

Both mononucleosis and meningitis are serious and potentially deadly diseases. During his narrative, I will jump in and do my best to explain what he may have been experiencing. Take it away, Pedro!

I left school one day, feeling kind of weak. By the time I got off the school bus, the weakness and fatigue had increased. I went to school the next day, but the teacher sent me to the nurses office, as it was obvious to her that I was feeling tired. I had also complained of a headache. By the time I got to the nurse’s office, I ended up barfing on her desk. Mom had to come pick me up.

It is widely known that younger adults, and specifically children, are more susceptible to disease. This is simply because their immune system has not been around long enough to develop antibodies to the various pathogens that love to call human beings home. Their defense mechanism is simply not yet developed, like the rest of their bodies. Most young children have 6 to 8 colds per year, according to John Hopkins Medicine.

Mom and Dad thought it might just be a cold or a flu, but I began to gradually feel weaker, I had a fever, no energy, and I had trouble keeping food down. I had a pretty bad sore throat. The weakness is what I remember the most. After a few days, Mom and Dad took me to the Doctor. My lymph nodes had begun to swell and actually felt like little rocks. I barfed in the Doctor’s office. Mom says I cried when they drew blood from me, but you ought to see my brother try and practice blood draws.

Shut up.

Later that day, the Doctor called to say that I had mononucleosis. I had no idea what that meant. Mom and Dad tried their best to explain it to me, but to me, it just felt like a really awful flu.

Unlike most diseases that infect children, mononucleosis typically effects young children in the early and mid puberty stages of life. Adults can definitely be infected with mononucleosis, but in those instances, the symptoms are usually mild to moderate. There is no vaccine against mononucleosis.

Yeah, like a bad flu. But it just wouldn’t go away. I started to feel better, but only gradually. I was out of school for almost two weeks. At the beginning of the second week, I started to feel a little better. My lymph nodes had returned to their normal state, I was no longer nauseaus, and my fever lowered back to an almost normal temperature. But I was seriously fatigued.

There is no specific treatment for mononucleosis. Like a flu, bedrest, OTC painkillers and a simple diet will do the trick. The disease itself is usually caused by the Epstein-Barr virus, one of the eleven or so types of herpes that can infect human beings (hey… it doesn’t have to be sex… my brother was 11…) In fact, about 90% of the world’s population is infected with the Epstein-Barr virus at some point in their lives, usually with no ill effects.

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/12/101215121905.htm

The little virus is generally spread by contact with an infected person’s saliva, hence, it is often called the ‘kissing disease.’ My mother recalls the kids our age that lived in the house being sick just before my brother came down with mono, and if they were playing around, and shared a swig of soda pop, that might have done it. However, we all have to eat and drink, and we typically use utensils to do so, so Pedro could have caught it just about anywhere.

The virus usually attacks the epithelial (goop, mucous) that lines your alimentary canal (the passageway from your mouth to your pooper) in the pharynx, often causing a sore throat. Later, the virus goes to war and tried to replicate your B-cells (a lymphocyte, one of your system’s bodyguards). In most cases, your B-cells win this round, and develop antibodies, a sort of ‘memory’ of how to defeat this antigen (a substance, a pathogen, anything nasty that invades your body).

Viruses like human hosts. Viruses exist. Viruses can be easily transmitted. Some viruses are particularly nasty, aggressive, unpredictable, and opportunistic. Some of these viruses can kill over 600,000 Americans, even though there are precautions you can take to avoid them. If there is a vaccine against this virus, it would probably be a very good idea to get it. I don’t know what made me think of that. But I digress…

In the few days before I was supposed to go to school, my teachers started sending me stuff I had missed. I don’t know how people found out, but when I first got back to school, my friends were avoiding me like the plague. It didn’t last long, though, they could tell I wasn’t sick anymore, and I had a bunch of missed class stuff to catch up on.

Mononucleosis is not a reportable disease in Washington State, despite it’s prevalence to easily spread. It rarely causes serious problems, and it goes away with time. That’s not to say it’s an easy ordeal; like my brother said, it’s like a bad flu, only it last about two weeks.

I felt fine for a long time after that, with no lasting effects. But then, about 6 months later, I woke up Sunday, after going skiing on Saturday, with a sudden fever of 102 degrees. I felt cruddy and tired, worse than the mono.

Again, children and young adults have weaker immune systems. It was postulated, later on by his physician, that my brother’s mononucleosis, though he had recovered from it, was still doing lingering damage to his immune system as it rebuilt itself. The pathology is not well understood, but it has been estimated, by one study, that 1-18% of children who are infected with mononucleosis are susceptible to meningitis:

https://bmcinfectdis.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1471-2334-11-281

I was no better, in fact I was worse, Monday morning. My parents took me to Children’s Hospital. By that time, my fever had increased, my neck was terribly stiff, and I had trouble looking at bright lights. I had no idea what was going on.

Well, I’ve said it before. Seattle is a good place to get sick. Some of the best healthcare providers in the world are here. The sudden, rapid symptoms my brother was describing immediately cued the physician that this might be a case of meningitis. The definitive diagnostic to test for the presence of the disease is the performance of a lumbar puncture, better known as a spinal tap.

I remember laying on my right side. The doctor put anesthesia on my back, but it really didn’t do any good. Dad had to hold my legs down so that I wouldn’t buck and break the needle off in my spine. I really can’t describe the pain. Incredible pain. It was more like an electric shock. Thankfully, the needle was in my spine for only a few seconds.

A lumbar puncture is a medical procedure in which a needle is inserted into the spinal canal, most commonly to collect cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) for diagnostic testing. The main reason for a lumbar puncture is to help diagnose diseases of the central nervous system, including the brain and spine. In my brother’s case, meningitis. I love the movie Spinal Tap, but after hearing my brother’s story, the medical procedure is not something I’d look forward to.

There are protective layers covering the brain and spinal cord known as meninges. There are actually three layers of meninges: dura mater, the arachnoid mater, and the pia mater. I’ll take anatomy for $600, LeVar. The word meninges comes from the Greek ‘membrane.’ Then: ‘itis’ is the medical term for inflammation. Hence: meningitis. This puts enormous pressure on the brain and spinal cord, causing severe pain for the victim. The entire human body’s entire nervous system stems from this area, and the entire body will be in pain.

There are a few different types of meningitis. The most common are bacterial and viral. Either one, particularly bacterial, left untreated, can cause septicemia: the poisoning of the blood, frequently fatal.

I remember when the doctor pulled the needle out. There was an odd little kind of wet ‘pop’ sound. As the doctor took the specimen to the lab, a nurse brought me an orange popscicle. They offered one to Mom and Dad, but they passed. I was still in incredible, intense pain. Evidently, the testing procedure did not take long, as the doctor returned before I had finished my popscicle.

The ‘good’ news was that my brother had viral meningitis, as opposed to bacterial. There are vaccines against this virus, and my parents were good about keeping us up to date, but sometimes the little creature will find a way. Viral meningitis will generally go away on it’s own. Some virus do not.

It’s most likely that my brother, with his immune system still rebuilding itself after mononucleosis, caught the virus while he was on his ski trip. On the bus, in the lodge, who knows. Viruses are opportunistic pathogens, and can spread very easily. It’s too bad that my brother was not wearing his ski MASK. And staying safe while speeding down the slopes, practicing proper SOCIAL DISTANCING. Because viruses are REAL and can easily spread if you don’t take PRECAUTIONS.

Hey! Is this my story, or your rant about Covid again?

Sorry. Go on.

When we got home, and I tried to sleep, I couldn’t. The pain was incredible. It felt like a third-degree burn all over my body. Cold beverages didn’t help. Aspirin didn’t help. I was in misery. The folks called the hospital, and the doctor told them that I’d pretty much have to ride it out. It sucked.

Had my brother had bacterial meningitis, there is a good chance he would not be here today, or, at the very least, be severely crippled. Children that are fortunate enough to survive bacterial meningitis face a lifetime of medical problems: memory loss, cognitive difficulties, difficulty retaining information, motor-skill and coordination problems, headaches, hearing impairment, epilepsy and seizures, paralysis and spasms, speech problems, potential blindness; all or none to varying degrees. I understand now why my mother could never watch the Jerry Lewis Telethons. To see a child suffer is the worst image possible.

Unlike the mono I had, this one didn’t last as long. I gradually felt better in about a week. But those first few days were fucking awful. It’s impossible to describe the pain. You cannot comprehend it until you have been through it.

So, back to school I went, and once again, I was way behind on schoolwork, and my classmates steered clear of me. But, eventually, life returned to normal.

Meningitis is a reportable disease, as it is contagious. How myself and my parents, and anyone else at my brother’s school, managed to not catch it as well is… just a roll of the medical dice.

Thanks Pedro!

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