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In the ICU with Legionnaires

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaMy stint at the Foreign Legion, a chance meeting with The Beatles, and an oddly gratifying resurrection.


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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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The Beatles - Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds

I say hello to The Beatles in a somewhat addled state of mind

THERE was always something romantically dashing about the French Foreign Legion and its exploits in the Sahara. So when the doctors broke the news to me on 11 December, 2016, that I had Legionnaires disease, it seemed a ripe excuse to party. And that’s exactly what I was doing – floating in the skies in a euphoric state, listening to The Beatles, Purple Rain, Knocking on Heaven’s Door, and other picks from my music-pickled school years.

In actual fact, I was unconscious. A doctor friend, alerted by my anxious son, had visited me at home, taken one look at my disoriented condition, and frogmarched me to a Hong Kong hospital where it was discovered my lungs were full of carbon dioxide sans oxygen. The breathing apparatus was shutting down. From there it was straight to the ICU where, somehow, I was brought back from my merry LSD trip and jump-started back to life with massive infusions of oxygen and nutrient drips.

I awoke to find myself wired from head to foot with tubes sprouting from every conceivable part of my body and machines blinking and beeping as they measured my blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygen levels. It was an oddly reassuring symphony and somehow I knew this was a lot better than the Volkswagen emissions test, and a lot more honest. I was alive.

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Legionnaires is an odd disease to catch, and in its presentation. In my case it was slow, stealthy – no phlegm and coughing – just a growing constriction around the chest like I was in the coils of some invisible anaconda intent on squeezing the life out of me. There were some fevered chills and muscle spasms. As any seasoned road warrior, I was equipped with an arsenal of meds to deal with most situations and, for the most part, the Nurafen (Brufen) I was popping, worked its magic.

{Legionnaires is an odd disease to catch. In my case it was slow and stealthy – no phlegm and coughing – just a growing constriction around the chest

I went about my business in Bangkok dimly aware something was out of whack but not sure what. This, despite the growing breathing difficulty. But confusion and disorientation are a key manifestation of this condition and by the time I returned to Hong Kong, I was merrily ramming my car, unprovoked, in the parking lot, attempting not-so-elegant wide sweeping turns. I took photographs of visitors to my home that I later realised were of the ceiling and perhaps the top of a head or two. And I was talking gobbledegook. Much of this I don’t recall now.

Fortunately this illness does not operate through person-to-person transmission and all the people I met with during my disoriented state are bouncing around drinking mulled wine, robustly oxygenated and red-cheeked, which is the only way to be during the festive season. That is good to know, but how on earth did I catch this somewhat rare and dangerous form of pneumonia?

Conventional wisdom says that Legionnaires tends to prowl old hotels and buildings with large water tower cooling systems for the central air-conditioning. The legionella bacteria gets into the water and ends up being inhaled in aerosol form. It is water borne and delivered through cooling systems. It can be present in decorative fountains, and in a number of other places, like cruise ships, old buildings, mist-sprayers, and unkempt water systems.

Legionnaires was first discovered in 1976 after a convention of the American Legion in Philadelphia, USA. Alas, it has nothing to do with Bedouins slicing arms off Foreign Legion recruits or Lawrence of Arabia. It’s just a bug in the air-con. But what a predator it is.

So as I lay in my hospital bed listening to Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and Lennon’s Beautiful Boy, I realized two things. Good friends are worth their weight in gold and, when in doubt, consult a physician, not your bag of home remedies – something my son has been apoplectic in explaining to me over the years ever since he accompanied me to Bali where I slipped and banged my head and passed out for a while. I pressed on with work then, having garbled conversations with extraordinarily patient clients and others who remarked, “But you just said that, Vijay.” I refused to see a doctor. Not the smartest thing to do, even in Bali where medicare is a tad hit-and-miss.

At the HK Adventist Hospital, with a phalanx of nurses, and an enforced detox – with nothing to eat for a few days as I rapidly lost weight – my ex-wife generously ferried home cooked food, my son held his tongue and took charge, my sister-in-law flew up from New Delhi and my brother attempted to fill out bizarre forms for a new Indian passport, having misplaced his last one during the disruption of a termite extermination at home.

He called to say that among the ‘occupation’ options listed on the passport form, were, ‘smuggler, prostitute, pimp, friend, hired killer, lorry driver, tractor driver’… a rich collection of vocational choices ensuring the country’s vibrant democracy remains just so. I drifted back to Let it Be. On Christmas Eve I was home after 14 days in hospital, seven of these in the ICU. Travel safe and do consult a physician if unwell.

Happy New Year.

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