Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Food Poisoning: A Primer

“I think I’ve had food poisoning,” people have told me. As somebody experienced with several bouts of 24-hour viruses, I can tell you: if you get food poisoning, you’ll know it. I had it once, and it’s nasty.

Shortly before beginning my senior year in college, I awoke with what I thought was another 24-hour virus attack. Symptoms need not be described here. My roommate offered to stick around – he had errands to run – to make sure I was o.k. but I said I’d had  these before and thank you anyway. 

Within an hour I felt it must be a super virus strain. Extreme nausea and progressing weakness accompanied the expulsion of what felt was my entire insides. Finally, I called my mother and asked her to find a doctor in Boston. By the time she called back with a name, I was too weak to even drive even a short distance. Luckily, I lived a half-block from Boston City Hospital and a block and a half from Boston University Hospital.  I summoned enough the strength to walk past City Hospital (one didn’t go there unless you were on death’s door) and enter the emergency room at University Hospital. The staff took my information and told me to take a seat. By now I felt the worst in my life. Knowing the zeitgeist about drug overdoses, I began moaning and groaning loudly; in what was probably less than a minute, a door opened and I was ushered into the ER.

The nurses put me on an examining table and the doctor asked if I’d taken any medication. I had taken an anti-nausea pill provided from home but didn’t remember the name. After describing the capsule’s colors, a copy of what I now know was the Physicians’ Desk Reference was thrust in front of me, and I quickly identified it. The doctor then said, “Nurse. Compazine.”

There’s a saying to always wear clean underwear in case you’re taken to the hospital. In my case, it was to make sure you wear underwear. Given the circumstances, I simply pulled on a pair of jeans and headed to the hospital. After I heard someone say, “Drop your pants and turn on to your side,” my embarrassment quickly ended when I saw the largest syringe in my life. A veteran of several years of allergy shots, I didn’t worry as the huge needle entered my left posterior but it stung pretty good. The intravenous Compazine injection did the trick, for within a few hours I felt fine.

I had no idea how I had contracted food poisoning, figuring my home cooking wasn’t the cause. A few days later, I mentioned my plight to my friend Calvin (of my Calvin posts). “Wow,” he replied. “Earl ended up in City Hospital for two days.” The night before my bout, Calvin had hosted a party at his Roxbury apartment. Two guys I knew from the South End, Roy and Earl, came by, each with a bag of take-out food. Roy wasn’t friendly at all and didn’t offer whatever he brought. Earl, on the other hand, graciously asked me to share his onion rings. Luckily, I remembered my mother’s lesson of parsimony in sharing other’s offerings, despite the greasy breaded goodness of the still-warm onion rings. My hospital stay may have been overnight too if I’d overindulged.

I write this as a public service of sorts. There’s a big difference between a simple stomach virus and food poisoning; with the former one feels distress, with the latter death seems imminent. Unfortunately, by the time you realize you’ve been “poisoned,” it’s too late for home remedies. Don’t be shy; call 911 or have somebody get you to an emergency room right away. It can only get worse. 

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