Easy Come, Queasy Go
A Foodie Battles His No-Longer-Inner Demons
The thing that really got me
peeved was that the fiery demons floating at my feet seemed so content. I, meanwhile, felt like I'd been left on Mount Everest overnight. The year was 2003, Fox News was looking for botulinum toxin in Iraq, and I was lying in a bed somewhere deep in the bowels of Southwest Baltimore's St. Agnes Hospital, shaking and delusional.
After spending a day and a half fighting off hallucinations of spears shooting at me from the windows of passing vehicles, I finally dragged myself to the emergency room, where I discovered another spear lodged into the ceiling during one of several trips I made to bleed into the ER toilet and considered why the doctor needed to know if I understood what the term "rectal exam" meant. I had the chills and the heebie-jeebies. And these chills were unlike anything I'd ever experienced. My whole body was stiff and twitching, and I had an uncanny desire to listen to Derek and the Dominos.
Fast-forward to 2008. I am discussing what I remember of the incident with Laura Frank, a registered nurse who served for a decade in the ER at Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air. "Chills are the classic sign of true food poisoning," Frank says. "It's a symptom of the bacteria moving through the body." As the bacteria eats away at the good stuff in your intestines, the crucial levels of sodium and potassium electrolytes drop. Hence the IV left spiked in my arm for days. "You can't fill a patient up right away or their system will be thrown out of balance," Frank says. This is why, though cases of food poisoning requiring hospitalization are relatively rare, they are potentially dangerous. Everything has to be replenished in careful proportion. She makes the analogy to athletes who get sick when they overcompensate for heat and exhaustion by drinking too much water.
Besides her time in the ER, Frank spent about five years assisting in research projects at Johns Hopkins Hospital, including a study on food poisoning. Seated behind her desk at her current more sedate position as a school nurse in Harford County, she laughs as she recounts the details of one study involving paid volunteers and a scorecard.
"The only way to truly know if it is 'food poisoning' is by collecting a stool sample and testing it," Frank says. "We had to collect each stool and compare it to a set of pictures of sample stools rated one through five. The sample stools ran in consistency from Twinkie to watery liquid."
My poop was no Twinkie while I was in the hospital. It more closely resembled some sort of nefarious homemade cranberry sauce. The nurses had me collect it in a little maroon pot and leave it next to the bathroom door every few hours. There it would sit and swelter until the next poor nurse came on and discovered it. After five days hooked up to the IV, simmering in delusion and the delirium of hospital bed doldrums, I began to take a devilish pleasure in torturing my captors with my foul brew.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that tainted food causes about 76 million illnesses a year in the U.S. More than 300,000 of those cases are serious and require hospitalization. And an unlucky 4,300 persons are killed by food poisoning each year. Two of the more common forms of bacterial food contamination are E. coli 0157:H7 and Salmonella enteritidis. According to the Maryland Community Health Administration, the former is often associated with undercooked ground beef, unpasteurized apple juice, and select types of raw produce, such as the spinach involved in the 2006 E. coli outbreak. Salmonella, on the other hand, lives in the intestinal tracts of warm-blooded animals like cattle and poultry and is commonly associated with food that contains undercooked or raw eggs. It was a carry-out spring roll that did me in.
According to Frank, it is at the doctor's discretion whether or not a diagnosis is officially termed food poisoning. "It is hard to tell if it is food poisoning, a virus, or a simple case of gastritis," she says. In my case, it was only on the fifth day of my hospital stay-which included a night in TB quarantine-when my stool began to Twinkify, that my doctor entered the room and pronounced: "So, friend, it looks like you had food poisoning!" Thanks for that, doc.
As for my hallucinations, Frank insists that they are rare in cases of food poisoning. Which leads me to only one possible conclusion: my bacteria-infected spring roll must have been tainted with LSD. At least, that's what the fiery demons tell me. ★
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