So when I was a youngster, I used to get Tuberculosis and Typhoid mixed up… I knew they were both bad diseases that I didn’t want to get. I remember snippets of having typhoid and being miserable when I was about five or six, and for some reason I have the strongest impression that I got it from eating eggs. (I don’t know if that’s true or not, and I refuse to look it up and find out.)
I remember when I was on my Servant Team in Nepal, ages and ages ago – Kipp and I worked at Shanti Bhivan (House of Peace), a Missionaries of Charity home for men, women, and children with physical and mental disabilities. There was a woman there who had a fairly advanced case of TB, and she was so frail… Kipp cared for her a lot, and upon our return to the US, was diagnosed with TB. (It’s possible that some of these details aren’t entirely true. I seem to remember it being the case, however…)
Fast forward a couple of years – our friend on the street, Rafael, is diagnosed with TB. I’ve known him since he was a tiny boy of 11, acting tough beyond his years, full of bluster and swagger to hide his shy and sweet heart. One night he pulled out a tiny, mother of pearl handled six-shot gun with one tiny bullet. I don’t know where he got it. He claimed that he had bought it, and was going to use it if anyone threatened him. By anyone, he meant the corrupt police officers that hung around the park we would spend time in, or just the creepy men who would hover in the background, watching and waiting… Everyone made fun of him for carrying it, telling him he was stupid. “What are you going to do with only one bullet!?” they yelled. He blushed, stammered, hid the gun deep in his baggy shorts, and we never saw it again.
Last year, he had a cough that wouldn’t go away. He finally went to the doctor after he had lost weight, was coughing up blood, and told us “I’m afraid that I’m going to die…” The doctor diagnosed it as TB, gave him some medication (he had to go by the drop-in center every week to pick up that week’s worth.) But he got better. Miraculous. A hundred years ago, this could have killed him.
For my interpreting job, I had to get a TB skin test. Before they injected me with little bacteria bits that make my arm swell up if I have TB (or had been vaccinated, which I HAD!), I mentioned that I had lived in Brazil. “Oh, that’s a high risk place for TB.” I mentioned that I worked with homeless youth, youth on the streets, in and out of hospitals, etc. “Oh, that’s a high risk population for TB – homeless shelters, prisons, hospitals,” they answered. Just great. When I mentioned that a couple of our friends had been diagnosed with TB over the past year, they just shook their heads… So after the injection, when my arm swelled up like a golf ball, it was time for the x-ray.
At the hospital, the nurse complimented me on the size of my lungs. “My, what big lungs you have,” she said. “… The better to huff and puff and blow your house down…” (I didn’t really say that. I just kind of laughed nervously, and thought to myself “that was a little weird.”) And the x-rays finally got examined by a doctor this week, who tells me that I don’t have TB. Kind of.
I do have this fun little cloudy area in my left upper lung called “Ghon’s complex.” When I talked to the TB center to clarify exactly what this Ghon’s complex was, they told me the following. Ghon’s complex is basically a calcified area in your lungs that is likely caused by having had tuberculosis at some point in your life. I’m not sure if they can tell when, or how recently, but Dr. So-and-so thinks I’ve had TB. With Ghon’s complex, your immune system fights off the TB, and builds these little calcium blocks around the TB bacteria, effectively quarantining them and shutting off their access to the rest of your system. Voila. You don’t have the symptoms, you can’t infect other people, you feel pretty great.
And so Ghon’s complex means you have a little TB time-bomb, ticking away in your lungs, waiting, just waiting for you to slip up. When your immune system is weakened, your defenses begin slipping… Wham! Sometimes old age will do it. Other times, it’s AIDS that will knock out the immune system. And when it does, the TB bacteria begin to wake up, spread, thrive, and eventually will try and kill you… sigh…
Fun times. So next week I have an appointment with the medico, in which I will get to talk to him about treatment options – what they are, if I want to do them, if they’re recommended, etc. They have pills you take, but the treatment lasts 9 months. We shall see. But thankfully, being officially TB free (for now) means that work can begin in earnest. And speaking of work, I need to get to bed soon, cause tomorrow’s a long, full day.
And speaking of gratitude – I’m so thankful and blessed to have these health care opportunities. I think of friends suffering from TB and other chronic diseases globally – many times in the rain, the cold, the wet, the dirt… And I am reminded that I am not only blessed for myself, but to bless others.
“To whom much is given, much will be required…”