When I tell people I have tuberculosis, most of them have the same reaction: “Like, consumption? Is that still a thing?” It only takes a few seconds for a look of fear to set in. I can’t blame them. If someone told me they’d been afflicted by an antiquated airborne disease, I’d probably be scared as hell too.
When I was diagnosed with TB disease a month ago, I learned that as a potential public health threat, I was required to undergo treatment or face arrest. Yes, that’s a real law, and thankfully so. The germ is spread in tiny droplets that enter the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. And it kills about 1.5 million people a year worldwide. My doctors informed me that I would be hospitalized in isolation for a minimum of two weeks, and/or until daily smears became consistently negative for the TB bacteria. Thus began my 20 days of solitude, intensive antibiotics, and bureaucratic red tape.
It all started when I went to see my doctor about a persistent cough. He ordered a chest X-ray, and said he’d get in touch with the results. Twenty minutes after I left the office, he called and told me to go to the ER immediately. The X-ray had revealed an “impressive” lesion in one of my lungs.
At the hospital, I was admitted right away and whisked into a negative pressure room with a handful of doctors and nurses in protective gowns, gloves, and masks. It was like a modest version of one of those Hollywood outbreak movies. The doctors and nurses did their best to crack jokes and make me feel settled, but I could sense their nervousness. I was told I wouldn’t be leaving until they could run some tests and rule out tuberculosis.
In the meantime my girlfriend came to keep me company. We watched Netflix in my hospital bed, wearing our masks and hoping for the best. It wasn’t the most romantic setting for a movie date. The next afternoon the doctors confirmed the diagnosis they suspected. For the forseeable future I was stuck there, while I waited for my daily test results to change.
Even with the perks of living in 2016—like smartphones and online TV—when you’re cooped up in a room, for weeks on end, you start to lose your mind a bit. You can’t help but feel like patient zero in some zombie flick.
Luckily, I didn’t feel too sick. A slight cough and fatigue had been my only real symptoms. Many people who get TB endure a vicious cough, chest pain, fever, night sweats, and weight loss.
All big decisions about my treatment had to be approved by officials in the health department, and trying to communicate with them felt like sending a carrier pigeon to Middle Earth. It would take days to get answers to the simplest questions. Two weeks into my isolation period, they informed me that I’d be staying an extra week because the hospital had given me the wrong dose of antibiotics when I first arrived. A bonus round.
Fortunately the strain of TB I’d caught was easily treatable, and the antibiotics were immediately effective. Many people aren’t so fortunate.
I had a good idea where I’d caught the infection. A friend of mine had been treated for TB one year prior. (She suspects she picked up the infection while traveling abroad.) Shortly after her diagnosis I had tested negative on a PPD skin test, but the clinic failed to inform me that I should return for a follow-up test in eight weeks. Go healthcare system! My infection was asymptomatic until the cough appeared last summer. It turns out TB bacteria can remain dormant for years in what’s known as latent TB. Lesson learned: Trust no one, and research the hell out of everything.
I was discharged from the hospital after three weeks. By day 30, I was back on my feet and generally healthy, able to work again and kiss my girlfriend without fear of further exposing her.
She and the other people I spent considerable time with while I was contagious have tested negative for TB. If they do test positive for latent TB upon their follow-up visit, they can take antibiotics and skip the whole “outbreak movie” scenario that I went through.
The health department will continue to supervise my treatment for the next six months. Initially I was required to go to the health department office every day, to take my medication under direct observation. But I’m now able to swallow the pills during a video chat with a health department employee. An exclusive TB chat room.
All complaints aside, TB is a potentially fatal disease and I got a get-out-of-jail-free card. If you think you may have been exposed to the disease, it’s worth taking the time to get tested. Twice.