Breathing it all in

Anthony is sick this week, so we’re re-running an appropriate column from 2008.

I was a sickly child—asthma, eczema, bronchitis, and allergies to cow milk, oranges, grapes, fish, eggs and nuts. In school I got academic awards but never one for perfect attendance. I felt like a slacker.

When I was 11 or 12 a new, competent doctor discovered I was anemic and prescribed an iron supplement. My health improved dramatically. I quickly went from spindly and sickly to robust and athletic, just in time for adolescence, thank goodness.

Still, when I had the physical required for college, the examining physician said I should limit my physical activity to bowling. That I’d been doing nearly everything my friends did didn’t faze this guy; based on my history, bowling was all he’d recommend. So, of course, as an obedient young fellow, the first physical education course I took in college was judo.

After childhood I was rarely sick. I was a smoker for a long time and got colds and other respiratory ailments rather more than necessary, I suppose, but I was used to those and for me they were an integral part of life. I didn’t expect inspiration to come easily, and it didn’t. Do you suppose there’s a connection?

I’ve been injured—sprains, strains, cracked ribs and a herniated disk—but when I’ve been down and out it’s usually had something to do with breathing.

The flu has been fairly awful for me, and my egg allergy kept me from getting a vaccine. Even after I discovered that eggs no longer did me in, I avoided flu shots. I tend to avoid government inoculations on general principles, but when I saw a doctor this spring, he recommended one, and in a trusting, hopeful, reckless moment, I assented. A few weeks later I was bedridden. After the antibiotic didn’t work, a chest X-ray indicated “the old man’s friend”—pneumonia.

Pneumonia has been lurking in the background for most of my life. I had it for the first time when I was 20 months old and ended up in the hospital in an oxygen tent. Since then I’ve had it seven or eight times, most recently last month.

Sir William Osler (1849–1919) apparently called pneumonia “friend of the aged,” but “old man’s friend” is the version I’ve heard, because it brings a peaceful end. In Osler’s day, pneumonia regularly killed a lot of people, mostly children and old folks. These days it’s not such a big deal, unless you’ve got it.

Now I know the signs. First, there are the seven or eight molecules of air I can get inside me at a time. Then, if I manage to sit up, I have to rest before I can actually stand. I also have no interest in anything that doesn’t have something to do with breathing. On a good day, I can walk across the room before I have to sit down and rest; round trips are out of the question. Good drugs are wonderful, though, and now I’m recovering, walking slowly, but walking.

Does big pharma sell flu shots?