Tag Archives: health

Death by Waiting

Thanks to those who have written words of encouragement and kept me in your thoughts and prayers. Yes, even as an atheist I can appreciate prayers – if you care enough to intercede with your god for me, I take it as a sign of affection, and affection never hurts. Besides, I have so many Read More…

Thanks to those who have written words of encouragement and kept me in your thoughts and prayers. Yes, even as an atheist I can appreciate prayers – if you care enough to intercede with your god for me, I take it as a sign of affection, and affection never hurts. Besides, I have so many different denominations praying for me that one of them’s bound to take, right? <wry grin>

I also had a bunch of phone calls yesterday wanting to know the news. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been any yet. Some people have said this may be a good sign: if there was bad news, the hospital would be in more of a hurry to inform me about it!

All this helps, but basically I’m going through hell. I cope better with unhappy certainties – god knows I’ve had enough practice at that – than I deal with any kind of uncertainty. I’ve slept very poorly for a week (staying at a noisy campground at the beach last weekend didn’t help), and there aren’t enough distractions in the world to keep my mind off this. (Though Ross is certainly providing a full repertoire of teenage moments – I begin to suspect she’s trying to make me glad that she’s going away to boarding school!)

The fear and anxiety I’m experiencing are very normal – even the American Cancer Society says so. I now know that a number of my friends and relatives have already been here and done this. So why didn’t I hear about it before? It seems that people have different reactions: some keep it to themselves; some share, but only with their closest. And I suspect that, when the results come back negative, many feel a bit foolish for having put themselves through so much misery: “What right do I have to complain? I’m one of the lucky ones: turns out I don’t have cancer.” And they put it out of their minds until the next time.

Make no mistake, there will be a next time – after all, I have difficult breasts. And I have heard from and about other women who have gone through this multiple times for various reasons. There’s got to be some way to make this waiting period less horrible for all of us.

update at 10:30 am: Finally got hold of the doctor (“But she called you yesterday!” – oh?) – all is well, nothing to worry about.

Biopsy: Digging to China Through My Breast

Well, that was extremely unpleasant. First there was the wait, from Thursday to Tuesday, going through stages from: “I certainly don’t have cancer, they’re just being careful” to: “Ohmigod I’m going to die!” I spent a lot of the weekend working hard in the garden – a very good distraction. Saturday afternoon Enrico and I Read More…

Well, that was extremely unpleasant.

First there was the wait, from Thursday to Tuesday, going through stages from: “I certainly don’t have cancer, they’re just being careful” to: “Ohmigod I’m going to die!”

I spent a lot of the weekend working hard in the garden – a very good distraction. Saturday afternoon Enrico and I went to the bookstore to look for birthday presents for his mother. As usual, I gravitated towards the comics (aka graphic novels). My eye was caught by Il Cancro Mi Ha Resa Piu’ Frivola (originally titled Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person: A Memoir in Comics), by Miriam Engelberg. In other circumstances I probably would have liked, if not exactly enjoyed, this book. The first few pages described exactly what I was going through. I flipped to the About the Author blurb in the back. She died last year. No, don’t want to read that now.

On another shelf, my eye lit upon: “The Big Book of Breasts” (a book of photographs – the book, and presumably the breasts inside, was indeed big). Then Non C’e’ Paradiso Senza Le Tette (“There’s No Heaven Without Tits” – about a Colombian girl who wants breast implants so she can be a mistress to drug dealers. ?!?). I fled the store.

Sunday night we went out to dinner at Lanterna Verde, as an early celebration of Ross’ birthday – we’re running out of weekends with her! I was feeling pretty good Sunday. Friends had sent in encouraging information: only one test in one hundred turns up positive. Another friend backed this up, and she’s got a lot more to worry about as there is a strong history of cancer in her family; I have no such history. As yet. My mother is having a (probably ovarian) cyst removed next Monday, and won’t know whether it’s benign until it’s out.

Monday I went to the office, also a good distraction. Had an interesting lunch that day, too.

Tuesday morning I got up early and worked on Sun stuff. Then it was time to go to the hospital. Ross came along for moral support.

The Radiology department was nearly deserted, and we spent only ten minutes in the waiting area, then another five or so inside the changing room, where I was increasingly uneasy at all the preparations I could hear. This was sounding less and less like a quick in-and-out with a fine needle.

Sure enough, the mammogram machine was set up with a whole different set of torture devices. This time there were two clear plastic platforms, each with a rectangular hole, one above and one below. My breast was carefully arranged and squashed (not quite as painful as last time – my period has come, so the pre-menstrual tenderness is over – but not comfortable, either), and an x-ray taken for positioning. The doctor entered x, y, and z coordinates on the machine, and attached to it two pieces of metal which she explained were needle guides. (I think this is called in English a stereotactic biopsy.)

The z coordinate – depth – was set to 14.8 millimeters. They’d be drilling one and a half centimeters into my breast. I guess the gap under the plastic platform my breast was resting on was in case they came out the other side!

The nurse swabbed iodine on the part of my breast exposed by the upper rectangular opening. The doctor injected a local anesthetic, which burned as she worked the needle around to cover all the areas she expected to work in. Ow, ow, ow. The technician was again unsympathetic: “Does it really hurt that much?” You should have heard me when I was in labor, lady. I am not heroic about pain, and I don’t care who knows it.

The doctor and nurse were kinder. They kept asking questions to distract me: “What kind of name is Deirdré Straughan? I’ve never heard it before.” I was relieved to chatter away, though even I was only half-aware of what I was saying. They touched me as they bustled back and forth, gently on the shoulder, as if to acknowledge that I was a scared human being they were doing things to, not just a lump of meat. That was reassuring and comforting.

My right arm was stretched around the machine as before, and I was panting with discomfort and stress. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a big, thick needle coming at me, and promptly squeezed my eyes shut. I didn’t feel the needle going in, or at least it wasn’t painful. But the loud chunk! as it bit off something inside was startling. That needle was withdrawn and another one put in. This time I was braced for the sound, but still didn’t like it. “It’s just the noise that bothers you, right?” asked the doctor.

She took x-rays again, I think while the needle was still in place (I didn’t look). Then I had to wait, maintaining my position, while those were developed. I leaned my head against the machine. The nurse pressed hard on the wound with a wad of cotton held in medical forceps, I suppose to stop it bleeding, so I couldn’t see how big the hole actually was. I’d seen a scalpel at some point, don’t know whether they used it.

After examining the x-rays, the doctor evidently decided she hadn’t quite got what she wanted. One more needle, one more chunk bitten out of my tissues. Then, finally, it was over. My breast, with a round red hole in it, was released from the machine. The nurse helped me over to an examining table nearby (“Don’t bump your head on the machine”), cleaned off the iodine, closed the wound with three little strips of tape, and put a big bandage on top of that. After I had got dressed again, she gave me an ice pack to place between my bra and my t-shirt. I probably looked pretty funny walking around Lecco afterwards, clutching this big lump to my chest.

The doctor took my cell number and said she would call me as soon as she had results, probably next Monday. In the meantime we’re all going to Roseto to celebrate my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday. We’re not going to tell herr about this.

I was exhausted last night. Anesthetic and kindness aside, what I went through yesterday would in any other context be called torture. In the aftermath, I feel bruised inside, both physically and emotionally.


Difficult Breasts

I had my first mammogram about ten years ago, around age 35. I was surprised when the gynecologist I was seeing suggested it; I thought routine mammogram screening didn’t start til age 40 or 45. He said: Lei ha un seno difficile – “You have difficult breasts.” By which he meant that they were naturally Read More…

I had my first mammogram about ten years ago, around age 35. I was surprised when the gynecologist I was seeing suggested it; I thought routine mammogram screening didn’t start til age 40 or 45. He said: Lei ha un seno difficile – “You have difficult breasts.” By which he meant that they were naturally lumpy (fibrocystic), making it hard to tell by palpation whether there was anything suspicious in there or not.

So I went for my first mammogram at one of Milan’s big hospitals. I stood a torso nudo (stripped to the waist), staring round-eyed at the machine. I’d been told mammograms were (at best) uncomfortable, and I didn’t know what to expect.

The technician, seeing my expression, asked: E’ la prima volta? (“Is it your first time?”). I nodded. She kept up a steady stream of chatter, to which I replied in monosyllables until she finally burst out: “I’m trying to distract you!”

I appreciated the effort, but…

So, for those who have yet to experience it (or never will), here’s how a mammogram goes:

You stand in front of the machine and the technician raises the platform (about a foot square) to a height just slightly uncomfortable to fit under your breast. You arrange your arm around the corner of the platform, and hold onto a handle at the back of the machine – that keeps your arm stretched out of the way. If the corner digs into your armpit, you know you’re doing it right.

The technician lifts the breast onto the platform and pulls it out to an extent you would not have imagined your breast could stretch. Then she lowers a flat, clear plastic cover that squashes it down to a minimum possible thickness (in my case, about two centimeters). This is indeed uncomfortable, verging on painful, depending on how sensitive your breasts are (which, in my case, depends partly on the time of month – never schedule a mammogram just before your period is due).

The technician retreats behind a safety screen and throws the switch; there’s an x-ray buzz, then the plastic thing squashing your breast lifts by itself and you can breathe again.

Repeat for the other breast.

Then it’s time to do the laterals. The platform is tilted to a 45-degree angle and your breast squashed sideways onto it, again held flat by the plastic cover. Lather, rinse, repeat. Ow, ow, ow.

I was advised to do this every two years until further notice. The second or third time I had a mammogram, the clinic insisted on also doing a sonogram (ecografia), because the internal geography of my breasts is so difficult that a mammogram alone isn’t enough to spot potential trouble.

This revealed large cysts – very common, nothing to worry about, they show up as huge black bubbles on the sonogram. They are benign and totally unrelated with cancer.

During a trip to California in 1999 or so, I was going to sleep in my hotel one night when I suddenly noticed something sticking out of my breast – the inside of my upper arm brushed against it. It was about the size of a walnut, and seemed to have come out of nowhere. I lay awake much of the night, until it was late enough that I could call my doctor back in Milan.

“It’s probably one of your cysts that has suddenly enlarged,” she said soothingly (possible cause: I had just gone off the pill after trying it for 2-3 months and finding myself constantly depressed).

I was flying back to Milan within days, so the doctor told me to come immediately to her office when I got home, and she would give me a n emergency form entitling me to see a specialist within 48 hours. I duly did so, and had 100 cc’s of a nasty black fluid drained out of one of the cysts (through a large needle). Nothing to worry about.

You can’t keep a cyst down for long, however, and having these large sacs full of fluid in my breasts just makes me front-heavier. Within a few years I was trying to convince another doctor to drain them, but she refused, saying that would cause them to fill with hard stuff instead. The only solution short of surgery was to find better bras.

The cysts and I have been relatively at peace for a while. Until a couple of weeks ago, when my breasts began to ache, apparently with the strain of bearing increasingly large amounts of fluid. I wasn’t worried about this, but wondered if something could be done. Went to the family doctor on Wednesday. She gave me a Fascia A (A Category – urgent) prescription for a mammogram, which meant that they slipped me into the schedule the next morning at the hospital’s mammogram center.

The mammogram this time was, unsurprisingly, very painful – my breasts were already sore, after all. I whimpered, causing the technician to ask: “Does it really hurt that much?” I tried to concentrate on the many colorful posters hung on the walls around the room, presumably to distract suffering patients.

While waiting in the dressing cubicle, I overheard the doctor saying to another woman (an older one, I think): “There’s just something here under the nipple… can you come in Monday at 11 for a prelievo?” (“withdrawal” – in most medical contexts this refers to a blood sample, but in this case I assume she meant tissue). I wondered idly what medical adventure this woman might be embarking on, and thought of my mother-in-law, who had breast cancer six years ago.

When my x-rays were developed, the doctor – a reassuring lady with masses of curly black hair – called me in for my sonogram. She squirted a lot of chilly gel all over my breasts and slid the instrument around in it while staring intently at the TV screen.

“How long does it take to learn to understand what you’re seeing there?” I asked.

“Oh, you never stop learning!” she said cheerfully.

It was greek to me, but I could make out the cysts: big black gaps in the picture. They swam in and out of sight as the doctor moved the probe.

Then she went back to looking at the mammograms.

“I want you to do one more mammogram of this right side. The picture on this one is superimposed, it’s not clear enough.”

I wiped all the gel off with wads of the paper sheet, and returned to the x-ray room. (Did I mention that it was chilly in all these rooms and I had been topless for nearly an hour?)

This time I was in for special torture. An extra piece was added to the x-ray platform to raise it up, then instead of a big square piece of plastic, a small round one was squashed down on my breast (which hurt even more) and the technician drew a curve around it on my breast with a blue marker pen, I suppose to define the precise point of squashing.

Then I sat in the cubicle some more until the doctor called me back in.

“There’s an area here that’s…” she trailed off without ever finding the word. “It’s probably just the mastopatia [benign fibrocystic “pathology”], but… can you come in Tuesday for a prelievo?”


Dental Trauma

At five months, human babies love the world and trust everybody in it. When I took her in for a routine pediatric checkup, my daughter Rossella smiled and gurgled and laughed, assuming that everyone in the world loved her, and nothing and no one would hurt her. The checkup required that a little blood be Read More…

At five months, human babies love the world and trust everybody in it. When I took her in for a routine pediatric checkup, my daughter Rossella smiled and gurgled and laughed, assuming that everyone in the world loved her, and nothing and no one would hurt her.

The checkup required that a little blood be drawn, from a finger prick. As I held Ross in my lap, she smiled cheerily at the nurse approaching with a trayful of blood-drawing equipment. “I feel so guilty,” sighed the nurse. “They’re always so trusting at this age.” Ross looked on interestedly as the nurse unwrapped a lancet, grasped her tiny forefinger, then rapidly poked it with that sharp piece of metal.

There was a moment of stunned silence. Ross’ face turned red and her eyes bulged with shock while the nurse hurriedly squeezed a drop of blood into a tube. Then Ross began to scream. These weren’t wails of pain or sorrow: she was giving voice to sheer outrage. She simply couldn’t believe that the world she had greeted with open arms had turned on her so suddenly and shockingly. Trust was shattered, and she had no intention of forgiving anybody anytime soon.

I cuddled her in my arms, telling her uselessly that the nurse hadn’t wanted to hurt her, that it was all for her own good, that everything was fine – and I reflected on the betrayed trust of children.

When I was age eight or so, I had an abcessed tooth. My mother took me to the dentist, who sat me in the big chair, examined me, and then went off in the corner to consult with my mother. Though they kept their voices low, I hear the word “extraction,” and asked worriedly, “You’re not going to do that now, are you?”

“No, of course not,” said the dentist soothingly, approaching me in the chair again. “Now just lie back and let me take a look.” The next thing I knew was searing pain as she wrenched that tooth out, followed by gouts of blood all over my favorite blouse. (I didn’t own much girly clothing, and was very fond of that frilly white blouse and the little red skirt that went with it – both ruined with bloodstains that day.)

My next memory is of being back at our house, standing in the garden, my jaw aching and my mouth full of blood-soaked wads of cotton. I was still in shock. I couldn’t believe that two grown-up women had done that to me, had deliberately lied and then hurt me when they said they weren’t going to.

My next dental experience was in Pittsburgh, where my dad (by then single-parenting me) couldn’t understand why I was so afraid that I would scream and tremble and cry as soon as the dentist got near me. I became so hysterical that he slapped me (the only time I can ever remember my dad hitting me), which naturally didn’t help. Anesthesia seemed the only solution, and that was what we did for years, every time, for every little cavity. I hated the sensation of going under (and the dentist’s repeated lie that the gas would smell sweet), hated waking up nauseous in a cold waiting room, to the sound of a local radio station. Once I awoke to an ad for “Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein” – not exactly soothing. But all of this was better than facing the dentist.

Although I gave up the anesthesia years ago, I still tense up in doctors’ and dentists’ offices – places of concentrated pain, as far as I’m concerned.

Tomorrow I will accompany Ross to have her first wisdom tooth out. She’s not a bit afraid. Though she had to start seeing dentists early in life, I was very, very careful to ensure that nothing was ever done to her without her knowledge and consent, and we were fortunate to find a dentist with staff whose patience and kindness were at least equal to my own. This meant a lot of visits in which nothing at all was accomplished on the dental front, but Ross grew to trust everybody so much that she eventually let them do everything they needed to, even the painful things, without fuss or fear. For a while she even aspired to be a dentist herself!

So she’s not worried about tomorrow. Nor should I be: our dentist here in Lecco is a family friend and absolutely competent. But, still, I can’t help my stomach clenching a little. Some childhood experiences you just never quite get over.

The Land of Illness

Another “country beginning with i” which is unfortunately very familiar to me is Illness. I have spent a lot of my life being ill. Perhaps the earliest memory I have (of any kind) is of green bathroom tiles, and myself screaming. I had a high fever, so my parents thrust me into an ice-cold shower. Read More…

Another “country beginning with i” which is unfortunately very familiar to me is Illness. I have spent a lot of my life being ill.

Perhaps the earliest memory I have (of any kind) is of green bathroom tiles, and myself screaming. I had a high fever, so my parents thrust me into an ice-cold shower. An icewater bath was what you were supposed to do when small children had very high fevers, to get the body temperature down and avoid convulsions and brain damage (I don’t know if this is still medical wisdom today – Ross never had a fever that high).

That was probably during my third or fourth year, when we lived in Beaumont, Texas, downwind from the chemical refineries – an extremely polluted environment which led to my father finding me on the sofa one morning, unconscious and barely breathing from pneumonia.

Sometime during 1966 (the year I turned four) we moved to Hawaii, where my dad was trained in Vietnamese language etc., to go to Vietnam as a civilian (with the US Agency for International Development). We used to have photographs of our departure, with me at the airport in pajamas and a bathrobe. I don’t know whether my parents dressed me that way because I was ill, or because they figured I was going to sleep on the flight anyway…?

One of my few memories of the year in Hawaii is of the hospital waiting room, a huge, airy space with enormous tanks of colorful saltwater fish (or maybe everything looked so big because I was so small).

It was probably in that hospital that I was given a chest x-ray, lying on a table in one of those stupid hospital gowns that doesn’t close in the back, with my bare buttocks resting on cold stainless steel. When the plates were developed, I overheard an agitated consultation among the doctors. Something was very wrong, and I was scared, thinking I had done something wrong. (I always thought everything was my fault.) There was something on the x-ray, a mysterious white patch high in my lung. Finally someone realized that the hospital gown had been closed with a safety pin in back, which showed up as a glaring white blob on the x-ray. I assumed that was my fault, too. If people were mad, it was somehow always my fault.

Accounts differ as to whether I had pneumonia twice as a child, or just one pneumonia and various bouts of bronchitis. Living five years in Bangkok, even then one of the world’s most polluted cities, didn’t help. I don’t remember specific illnesses during those years, except once when I had a flu or something. After several days of not eating, I woke up ravenous at 4 am. Not wanting to disturb my parents, I went down to the kitchen and made myself a bowl of cereal with milk and a glass of Hawaiian Punch. Half an hour later I vomited pinkish stuff (the punch) all over the bathroom, to my mother’s great irritation: “You’re still sick! Why did you eat?”

We seemed to spend a lot of time at the army hospital in Bangkok, mostly for the endless vaccinations required to keep us safe in the tropics (yellow fever, typhoid, typhus, cholera, gamma globulin – I knew them by name even then). I hated and feared shots so much that I would run away, hide under a table, and/or kick the nurses. My worst nightmare was the rabies series that the American kids recounted to each other in round-eyed horror: “Forty shots, one every day for forty days. In your stomach!” I stayed well away from stray animals (well, mostly) for this reason, so it was a vicious irony that, when my own cat scratched me, someone decided that I had to have rabies vaccinations – but only five, in alternating arms.

Pittsburgh was still very polluted when we moved there in 1971 or ’72, though it was starting to clean up its act, but I don’t remember suffering any pollution-related illnesses during that time. I did have endless and very painful ear infections. I got chicken pox, which was fun because I shared it with my friend Vivian. One year, I spent Thanksgiving in the hospital. I had woken in the middle of the night, vomiting. I went on vomiting til there was nothing left in my stomach, and dry heaving after that. My dad took me to the emergency room. The doctors suspected appendicitis, and admitted me. It took two nurses and two burly Australian interns to hold me down to get an IV needle into my hand.

I felt better the next day, but they kept me in the hospital and on IV over the Thanksgiving weekend, in a ward with a dozen or so other kids, including one with very impressive big red stitches right down the middle of his chest, from heart surgery. On Thanksgiving day we were joined by a boy who had eaten a huge meal, then gone out and played football and got his stomach stepped on. I resented his waste of the Thanksgiving feast that I had missed. I was dismissed from the hospital after a few days. My appendix seemed to be fine (though I worried about it for some time afterwards), and no one ever figured out what had been going on.

We moved to Bangladesh in 1976, and all (my father, stepmother, and myself) went through the usual tropical stuff – lots of it. Giardia, a particularly nasty parasite, has the endearing symptom of flatulence that reeks of rotten eggs (plus diarrhea, of course). The first place we lived in, an apartment over my dad’s office, had only Asian-style squat toilets. It’s exhausting, squatting for hours. The floors were of speckled terazzo concrete; when tired enough, I could see faces and forms in the random patterns of speckles.

I somehow managed to avoid getting any of the big stuff in Bangladesh, even though we had a friend with acute hepatitis staying with us (we called him the Yellow Terror), and, since I was home all the time, I did most of the caretaking. He had his own bathroom, and I washed my hands carefully in Dettol (a disinfectant) every time I left his room. We also had extra gamma globulin vaccinations. By this time I had more or less conquered my fear of needles, but gamma globulin is a thick, globby serum – the American doctor friend who gave me the injection likened it to trying to blow ice cream through a straw; there was a lump of the stuff in my thigh for days.

Then came another night of mysterious vomiting. Fortunately, a UK-trained Bangladeshi physician ran a tiny private hospital at his own home. My dad rushed me there in the middle of the night, and I stayed for several days, enjoying the attention. In hindsight, I think that was the cause: attention deficit. My father and stepmother were both very busy with their jobs of saving the world (or at least a few small corners of Bangladesh), I was homeschooling myself and spending most of every day alone. I was bored, depressed, and very lonely – and it took a night of vomiting to get anyone to notice. No organic illness was ever discovered in that case, either.

In July of 1977 I went off to boarding school in India – another not-too-healthy place, especially during the monsoons. The Woodstock school nurse, Mrs. Law, had her hands full. There were the usual tropical illnesses – “Delhi belly” and other dysenteries, standard flus and colds, the occasional mini-epidemic of hepatitis. Twice a year we were all sent up to the dispensary for vaccinations. I was impressed by the injection gun Mrs. Law used, which shot the vaccine under your skin without need for a needle – though you had to have three shots at a time to get enough in there.

Mrs Law was a dragon about letting people stay in the dispensary. It was at school level, 500 feet up the hill from the dorms, and her logic was that, if you had survived the walk up the hill, you were well enough to be in class.

To be believed to be really ill, you had to persuade the dorm supervisors to send you up the hill in a dandy, a sort of rigid hammock slung on poles, carried on the shoulders of four men. There was no driveable road from the dorms in those days, so that was our “ambulance”. Mussoorie’s early settlers and Woodstock students used to travel this way routinely, but I found it terrifying, bouncing and swaying up the narrow paths, and I think I only did it once in four years, no matter how ill I felt.

Still, I occasionally managed to convince Mrs. Law that I was sick enough to stay in the dispensary even if I had arrived there on my own two feet (a fever would always do the trick). Staying in the dispensary was a mixed blessing. Sure, it meant missing classes, but there wasn’t much to do, especially if there was no one else in the room with you (or whoever was there didn’t feel like talking). There weren’t enough books, and they never changed. The only book I liked was a charming novelization of the story of Noah, with talking animals and quarrelling sons (but no drunken nakedness), so I read that one every time I was in the dispensary.

Dispensary food wasn’t any better than the generally horrible school food, and often worse if you were on a special bland diet.

The good thing about the dispensary was Dolma, the gentle and patient Tibetan nurse, who would sometimes even give backrubs. I was in there so often that we became friends and, after she left Woodstock to get married, she invited me for a special tour of Happy Valley (the nearby Tibetan colony) and showed me her wedding pictures. (Dolma and her husband are both on Woodstock staff now, so I still see her from time to time.)

Another thing I liked about the dispensary was the location, the top floor of one of the Quad buildings. Each floor of the building had a wrap-around balcony. I was in the dispensary once when, unusually for the months we were in school, it snowed in Mussoorie. All the patients wrapped up in blankets and went out on the balcony to watch the snow fall silently through the dark pines.

Really sick kids (and staff) went to the nearby Landour Community Hospital. I was glad I only ended up there once. It was terribly boring (nothing to read but old magazines) and the nursing sisters in their starched white caps always seemed angry. The food was even worse than school food, which I would not have thought possible. And, as in all hospitals, it was impossible to sleep, with nurses coming and going in the wards all night.

Females and males were kept in separate wards, so the nurses were furious one night to find me out of bed, conferring with schoolmate Zafar in the hall. He was also in hospital, and we were agreeing that we had not liked being asked, upon admission, to declare our religion. I was particularly irritated because when I said “none,” they put me down as Christian. (In hindsight, their main concern was dietary: Christians will eat anything.) Zafar and I decided that we should roam the halls until caught, then tell the sisters that we were worshippers of Baal, looking for babies to sacrifice. (We never actually did this, which was probably a good thing; the sisters didn’t share our sense of humor.)

That hospital stay was due to another mystery illness, tentatively diagnosed at the time as amoebic hepatitis. To this day I have no idea whether that was correct. I may or may not have residual liver damage from it.

Once when I was ill, towards the end of my first year at Woodstock, after a dispensary stay I was sent out of boarding with the Kibblewhites, a staff family from New Zealand. David was the vice principal and Sally my English teacher, and they have three kids, who were very kind about welcoming me temporarily into the family. It was probably another case of just needing some parental attention. I missed my parents terribly that first year, even though my situation in Bangladesh was not one I would willingly have returned to. So I stayed with the Kibblewhites, saw how rhododendron jam was made, and learned to use a handkerchief (before that, I sniffled a lot, which drove Sally crazy; I now think of her whenever I hear someone sniffling, and get just as irritated as she did!).

One day David came home with a telegram. “How are you feeling?” he asked. “Oh, I don’t know.” Although I was back in classes, I didn’t want to be sent back to the dorm. “Do you think you’re well enough to go down to Delhi and see your father?” he asked with a grin, and gave me the telegram. My dad was coming through India on a business trip and would stop over to see me. I instantly felt a whole lot better.

After the first year or so at Woodstock, I was acclimated to the local bugs and was rarely ill. By my fourth year I could drink the tap water in Mussoorie with no ill effects (though I wouldn’t have tried that in Delhi, or now). Other newcomers went through the same cycle that I had: “Sitting on the toilet with a bucket on your knee,” as our dorm supervisor Mrs. Silver cheerfully described it (she was also a nurse).

I first began to notice allergies a few years into college, at the University of Texas in Austin, an area famous for its allergens. But they weren’t too bad then. To really get sick, I had to go back to India, the year I studied in Benares. My previous Asian antibodies had worn off by then, or were not sufficient to stand up to the filth of Benares. Lots of hours on the squatter toilet, and I remember at least once feeling that I would just like to die and have it over with. I lost a lot of weight that year.

The entire group of us went to Kulu-Manali, in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh, for a “vacation,” where we were roughing it in a mountain cabin with a dugout latrine set off a ways down the hillside (no fun to get to in the middle of the night). Naturally, almost everyone got sick. Mat and I became friends while lying next to each other on the floor in our sleeping bags, swapping fever and chills and delirious conversation.

I came back from that year with some residual problems and had tests done while I was living near Washington, DC, though I don’t recall anything definitive being found. Though it was probably not related, I also began to suffer regular sinus infections – they became so familiar to both me and my doctor that I would just call him up and describe the symptoms, and he’d prescribe antibiotics over the phone.

But I must have built up some antibodies again in Benares, because in 1988 I made two trips to Africa and never got sick. Except, during the second trip, morning sickness. I was pregnant when I moved to New Haven to live with and marry Enrico. Strangely enough, my pregnancy was the healthiest time of my life. No complications, I felt great (after some nausea in the first trimester), and everything proceeded to a normal birth. I stayed only two days in the hospital, which I was glad to escape because, as noted, I cannot sleep in hospitals. (Not that I got much sleep at home, either, with a newborn baby.) I probably passed on lots of antibodies to Ross by breastfeeding her: until elementary school or later, she was far healthier than the average of her classmates.

We then lived 13 years in Milan, another of the world’s most polluted cities. I had constant sinus infections, occasional bronchitis, and worsening seasonal allergies (I did allergy vaccinations for a couple of years, with no tangible result). There wasn’t much my doctor could do for all my respiratory problems, except prescribe increasingly-powerful new antibiotics as the bugs in my sinuses grew resistant to all the ordinary stuff. She told me once that I have the lungs of a smoker – and I’ve never smoked in my life.

One year, in desperation, the doctor sent me to the terme (thermal spa), a traditional Italian health cure. Italy has many sources of naturally hot water, bubbling up from deep underground springs, some rich in minerals and considered to have curative properties. In the early decades of the last century there was a boom in the popularity of these watering holes: huge, gorgeous establishments were built, crosses between hospitals and resorts, in full Art Nouveau style. Some are still operating (Saturnia, San Pellegrino and Salsomaggiore), and are worth a visit just to admire the decorations.

The first year I went to Tabiano, a small town without much to recommend it beyond the (depressingly modern) terme facilities. There I absorbed hot mineral water in various formats: inhaled as steam, and squirted forcefully through my nostrils into my sinuses. Which is exactly as disgusting and painful as it sounds, but it was effective. Between that and a quiet week alone at a hotel with no responsibilities at all, I was cured, at least for the remainder of that year. The following year I did it again, at Salsomaggiore – a much prettier spa and more interesting town, and Enrico stayed with me part of the time.

Enrico has some (older) cousins living in Milan who swear by the terme – they go there for a week or two every autumn, and never get sick all winter. Unfortunately, going every year is not an option for me, especially as terme treatments are no longer covered by the national health service. My two spa treatments helped for a while, but weren’t sufficient to break the cycle of allergies, sinus infections, and bronchitis.

Unspoken between me and my doctor all those years was the real, necessary cure: to move out of Milan. I could never get her to state this baldly; perhaps she assumed that we would not be able to do it.

In 2003, a rare (for me) flu turned into pneumonia. I was in bed for weeks, and it took three rounds of antibiotics to clear up completely. I’d had enough of Milan’s pollution, and we had the opportunity to move to Lecco for Enrico’s job (professor of mathematics at the Politecnico di Milano, which has a branch in Lecco).

We moved that summer, and I’ve been better since then – fewer sinus infections, and nothing more serious until this year. Unfortunately, I’m now commuting into Milan most days to a ground floor (therefore more polluted) office in which the boss smokes cigars (yes, this is illegal, even in Italy – but who’s going to rat on the boss?). That, plus stress, travel, and allergies, is probably what led to the bronchitis I got in April, which spilled over into a sinus infection in May, and still (after four rounds of antibiotics) isn’t entirely gone. I am sick and tired of being sick and tired!