Legions of advice for unwary travellers
There has always been something romantically dashing about the French Foreign Legion and its exploits in the Sahara. So when the doctors broke the news to me on December 11 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 Purple Rain, Knocking on Heaven’s Door, and other picks from my 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. From there it was straight to the ICU where, somehow, I was brought back from my merry trip and jump-started back to life with massive infusions of oxygen and nutrient drips.
I woke 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.
Legionnaires is an odd disease to catch, and in its presentation. In my case it had been stealthy, with no phlegm or coughing, just a growing constriction around the chest as if I were in the coils of some invisible anaconda. As any seasoned road warrior, I was equipped with an arsenal of meds to deal with most situations and, for the most part, the paracetamols had worked their magic.
Fortunately this illness does not operate through person-to-person transmission and all the people I met with during my disoriented and undiagnosed state were bouncing around drinking mulled wine, robustly oxygenated and red-cheeked during the festive season. How did I catch this somewhat rare and dangerous form of pneumonia? Conventional wisdom says 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 delivered through cooling systems. It can be present in decorative fountains, and in places such as cruise ships, mist-sprayers and unkempt water systems.
Legionnaires was discovered in 1976 after a convention of the American Legion in Philadelphia, US. 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 realised that when in doubt, consult a physician, not your bag of home remedies. At the HK Adventist Hospital, with a phalanx of nurses, and an enforced detox, 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.
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 …” Such 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 those in ICU. So, fellow travellers, do please consult a doctor if unwell on the road. Happy travels in 2017.
Hong Kong-based Vijay Verghese runs the website Smarttravelasia.com.