Friday, June 8, 2012

The Time I Went to Prague and Got The Plague

This is the story of the time I thought I was going to die while studying abroad in Prague. 
I always get sick when I fly, airplanes are like mobile germ factories and I have seriously considered being one of those people in a surgical mask, if I thought it would do any good.  So when I went to Europe for a summer poetry class in grad school, it was no great shock that I was sick pretty much from the get go.  But it was just a cold for the first week or so, no big deal.
And then I started to get the tell tale rasp and ache of Strep Throat.  I've have it so many times in my life, I cringe as soon as the symptoms set in.  But when lots of vitamins and hot tea can't drive it away, it's time for a trip to the doctor.  So I found the international clinic in the Old Town and got myself a week of antibiotics, and it seemed like that would be that. In the meantime, I did miss a side trip to Poland, so that sucked, but I was on the mend, and had the rest of the month to enjoy. 
Turns out that a week of antibiotics only angers Strep, doesn't cure it.  (For future reference, make sure you get a full 10 day course)
So when we went off to Budapest, I was starting to feel the soreness return, but I'd already dealt with being sick, so this was not happening, mind over matter, I deny the infection.  Going to the bathes and out on a dinner cruise on the Danube were good distractions.  The next day we went to Vienna, and by then, I was definitely feeling it.  But self medicating with screwdrivers seemed like a good idea, I mean, what better cure than vitamin C packed OJ and the disinfecting powers of alcohol?
From there I went to cough drops, until I couldn't swallow anything without wincing.  On the train back to Prague, I tried scalding my throat with boiling hot tea, because it was kind of pissing me off and I wanted to fight back.
At this point, I couldn't open my mouth all the way, my voice was slurred, and I couldn't even swallow water without extreme pain.  So I went out in the night to find the clinic, except that it was closed.  I did find the glowing green light of an all night pharmacy with a man who didn't speak any English, but who looked in my throat, and then put me into a cab to the hospital.  Yup, I had the plague and was going to die. 
The cab dropped me off at an old army barracks with no one anywhere in sight.  I went to the door of the building with lights on inside, and found it locked.  Since I had no idea where I was and no where else to go, I tried knocking, until a man in a partially unbuttoned shirt whose eyes wouldn't focus and didn't seem to be looking in the same direction, stumbled out, allowing me to get in behind him.  At this point I thought they'd sent me to a mental hospital, but as the pain in my throat and hunger from not eating all day were driving me mad, I went inside.
There was a long corridor with sickly green walls and a checkered tiled floor, that reminded me of something out of The Shining.  Again, totally empty.  But I went to the window and rang the bell, and a nurse came out to see me.  She also spoke no English, so I gestured as best I could to explain the problem.  After another few minutes, she brought me in to see the doctor, who thankfully did know some English. 
He sat me down, took a mouth mirror, the kind dentists use, and sterilized it over a flame, then stuck it in my mouth to look around, telling me to open wider, which I physically couldn't do at this point.

"You have an abscess on your tonsil," he told me, which sounded fairly ominous, but he just wrote me a prescription for antibiotics, and then asked if I wanted something for the pain.   I mumbled something like, oh god yes, and he handed me another prescription...for Ibuprofen.  Are you kidding me?  In the land of Absinthe, the best you can give me for the searing pain is something I can get over the counter at home?  Besides the fact that my cure and pain meds required me swallowing large pills past my huge abscess.  And that I couldn't even get these pills until the next day.  Wonderful.
I did manage to wander my way to metro station and catch the last train back to our hostel for the night.  And the next day I did find a pharmacy to fill the prescriptions, and even choked down the pills (I may have cried).  At this point, my roommate moved out of our room and found a hotel, because she didn't want to catch the plague from me and die too.
The next night I started coughing hard, coughing up blood and pus, which is really pretty and fairly terrifying.  
My abscess had burst, and I finally started to get better, with another week left of the trip to enjoy.
A couple of years later, a friend from home told me that she had had an abscess tonsil too, but in the US.  In the hospital here, they drained the fluid from the abscess carefully, telling her that it could be toxic if swallowed.  I don't know if it was US doctors being overly cautious, or if I really almost died.
The lesson remains: Never get sick in Eastern Europe.

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