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September 23rd, 2009
09:51 AM ET

I went to Afghanistan and all I got was H1N1

By Dr. Sanjay Gupta
CNN Chief Medical Correspondent

It started as a cough. It wasn’t the kind of cough where something is temporarily stuck in your throat. It wasn’t the kind of cough where simply clearing your throat would’ve been adequate. This was the kind of cough that hurts when you do it. A stinging pain that makes you wince and guard and hope that you don’t have to cough again any time soon. I thought I might have a fever, but of course, I was in the middle of covering a war in Afghanistan, and the conditions were… well, hot. So, maybe it was that. Problem was, the next day I wasn’t feeling any better – in fact, I was worse. I woke up in my dusty desert tent and tried to step out of my sleeping bag. Two steps later, I almost hit the deck. Incoming. Except this wasn’t due to any sirens going off, this was due to my own body simply being unable to hold myself up. I was lightheaded and freezing cold – even though it was over 100 degrees outside at that early hour of the morning.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who contracted H1N1 in Afghanistan, receives treatment.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who contracted H1N1 in Afghanistan, receives treatment.

I was nauseated and my entire body hurt. I tried to explain away my symptoms with lots of different excuses. You don’t sleep much while covering a war. My bulletproof jacket didn’t fit perfectly and was very heavy. There was a lot of dust and dirt, and maybe I had what the Marines referred to as the Kandahar Krud. It turned out to be none of those things.

I remember looking over at my camera man, Scottie McWhinnie. He looked absolutely awful. He was wearing a scarf on his head, and it was completely drenched in sweat. He was coughing so loudly and frequently that I was really starting to worry about him – and about myself. We each had it, whatever “it” was. I made a command decision. As a physician reporter in a war zone, I was going to get us medical care. That prompted our visit to a battlefield hospital, not as reporters this time, but as patients.

It is worth pointing out the irony of a medical reporter getting influenza type A, which was then ultimately confirmed as H1N1. (The term swine flu is a misnomer, as this strain is made up of several different components, including swine, but also avian parts.) It really didn’t matter if I got tested, as my doctor told me. It was the only flu strain circulating and I had it, and so did Scottie. We both had high fevers, the lack of appetite, terrible sinus congestion, body aches, and yes – that hacking, come out of the blue.

I am not someone who gets sick, really ever. And this was the sickest I have ever been. I would’ve much preferred my own bed with all the comforts of home – including a wife who would’ve taken great pity on me and allowed me lots of rest and relaxation. Still, I am here to blog about it, after taking the requisite few days to stay at home and not spread my gift from Afghanistan to all my colleagues at work. In case you are curious, there wasn’t much the doctors could really do for me. Some Tylenol and a sinus decongestant (the same my wife would’ve given me). We also got IV fluids, given our inability to keep anything down. Within a couple days, I felt a lot better, and a few days after that – I was back to normal. It was a lot like… the flu – with a different name. A lot of people will get the exact symptoms I described above, and for most people, it will simply mean a few miserable days, hopefully spent in your home – and not in a war zone.


soundoff (179 Responses)
  1. Justin

    Was anyone else struck by the fact that he needed fluids through an I.V.?? That doesn't sound like normal flu to me. If thousands of Americans need I.V., are they going to all be able to get to a hospital at the same time?

    September 24, 2009 at 22:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Julie

    So sorry to hear you were stricken with the H1N1 flu. On the other hand, I'm so glad you had a speedy recovery with no serious complications.
    I usually don't get sick all that often either, but I am an asthmatic and I was highly allergic to egg whites as a child. To top it off, I had a serious reaction to the smallpox vaccine as a child. I hope and pray that "Tamiflu" works as good as they say, because I worry about what could happen to me, with asthma & the H1N1 or any flu, because I'm no candidate for the shot.
    Thank You for sharing your story. Once again, so glad you are well.

    September 25, 2009 at 01:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Laurie

    Me and 2 of my sons (3 and 7 yrs old) have very similar symptoms as you Dr. Gupta. My husband has been hacking for 2 weeks now, and my 10 yr old is just about done w/ his hacking. Anyway, the 7 yr old went to the dr. today b/c he's had a fever for 7 days, and was H1N1 negative and started on antibx for a possible sinus infection. I'm confused...he's been coughing A LOT for over a week and had puked a few times on the yellow crud. We thought he and us, had the flu but were fooled. Guess if it feels like, and acts like flu, you cant be sure. All this despite, there are 2 confirmed cases of H1N1 at his school and 30% of his 2nd grade is out sick. The school also sent out a "flu" warning – go figure! My husband and I are medical and I am an RN w/ and MPH.

    September 25, 2009 at 07:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Lil

    Dr. Gupta, my 17 year-old very athletic and fit son got sick at the start of summer break. We saw 4 doctors in 4 days plus a visit to the ER.
    He was so incredibly sick – ran a 103 -106 temp for almost 10 days. The only time he seemed better during those 10 days was when he was in the ER and getting IV fluids. But with healthcare as it is, that was only allowed for a few hours. I tried my best to keep up with fluids and fever-reducing meds as they instructed, but it just couldn't keep up. It is very scary when your otherwise healthy son asks you if he is going to die from this. His "flu" test taken at the very onset was negative. Is the swine flu test different from the regular flu test? He was so physically drained from this illness that we have pretty much worked all summer to build him back up. We finally feel that he is getting back to his old self. I keep hearing how mild this is in most but it sure wasn't for our son. Think he would have done much better and recuperated much quicker with less restrictive healthcare. Things aren't always cut and dried as you know, especially with medicine and the human body.

    September 26, 2009 at 13:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. G.M

    Good to hear you're OK Doc. My 9 year old daughter had the H1N1, or so we were were told after doing a test; but honestly i am not convinced. She only had fever for a day and a half, she vomitted once the first day, and that was it. No coughing, no sneezing, she didnt even spend one day in bed but she did spend 7 days at home since people were panicking not to be infected by her. we were three adults and a 6 year old kid and none of us caught it.

    September 27, 2009 at 06:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. ath

    It was interesting to read Dr. Gupta's description of his experience with H1N1 symptoms, but as has been pointed out, not everyone experiences the symptoms the same way. You cannot diagnose yourself or family with H1N1 based on what their symptoms are.

    More importantly, a diagnosis (or not) of H1N1 infection doesn't alter your symptomatic experience. Meaning, if you are having serious symptoms such as dehydration or respiratory distress (and it's much more important that the public have a rational, clear understanding of what those look like than what the specific symptoms of H1N1 may or may not be) then you should take yourself to medical assistance no matter what the source of your infection.

    If you're simply suffering from normal symptoms of flu, do the sensible thing and rest with palliative care such as Tylenol, fluids, OTC medications for symptom relief, etc.

    September 27, 2009 at 07:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Jenny

    Well I am glad that you are feeling better, but I have to add a few things that you either did not go through or are not aware of current knowledge with the H1N1. It is not as nice of a virus as the news and everyone seems to think. And I will admit I was one who at first thought it was no big deal, just a nother flu. It is not though. On average the H1N1 virus takes 3 weeks to move through our systems and in doing so can have lingering effects. It attacks the respiratory system and can leave permanent damage. In some cases not all does it effect the GI system. All ages can be effected by this virus however middle aged people seem to have more severe side effects. People who are predisposed to having Respiratory issues should also take caution this can lead to more severe sideeffects including something called ARDS. My mother is in the ICU and may not make it because of this side effect. The virus litteraly shut down and hardened her lungs to where she no longer can breathe on her own. She has been on a ventilator for 3 weeks now and may not recover, and if she does the side effects from the ARDS which was caused by H1N1 may be life long. There are also 3 others in the hospital that have had similar experiences as my mom. People you need to educate yourselves. It is not just the FLU. This can kill people if not just make them very sick. The other thing to know is that many doctors may mis diagnose you because the "snap" test available at hospitals is not 100% and may have false negatives which is what happened to my mom. Ask for the blood test that goes to the CDC. Protect yourselves and your children this is not just the 24 hour bug.

    September 27, 2009 at 13:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Karri

    My 15 yo daughter had H1N1 in July. I'm a seasoned mother of 3 and have seen my fair share of flu bugs but that was one sick girl. I've never seen her so sick. Exactly 3 days in she also had all the gastro symptoms too and she is a tiny girl. We ended up in urgent care twice. She had to have anti-nausea meds to keep enough down to keep hydrated. One thing that really helped her was a steroid shot. It didn't do anything to stop the course of the illness but it did pull alot of the body aches and inflammation from the flu. In fact that evening the girl thought she was cured. She figured it out the next day when she started feeling badly again but from then on she got better. The cough continued along with respiratory symptoms. She was down about a week. No one else in the family became ill. We put her on isolation as soon as she had symptoms. You know your child is sick when they look at you and say they feel so bad they wish they were dead. I think this flu is easy to spot because it makes the person very ill very quickly. I know most flu viruses are quick but this was a particularly nasty one.

    September 27, 2009 at 14:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Beth

    Thank you for the update on the Swine Flu and the symptoms of it. I think that will help people who may come down with symptoms and not be quite sure what they have. I am sorry you contracted that flu, but I am also happy you have recovered. I like reading your updates.

    September 30, 2009 at 23:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Pat

    My son (16) contracted the H1N1 so quickly; it was amazing. I have a habit of asking how he is feeling every morning before leaving for school and he said he felt great. I then felt the front of his head and the temperature was normal. Around 10:30 AM that same morning the school called and said he was sick with a temperature and was freezing in class. I immediately went to the school to pick him up and took him to his doctor. His temperature was 102.5 and the doctor wanted to run a stat chest x-ray just to rule out pneumonia (he said that one side of his lungs sounded a little bit different than the other side), but he was about 90% sure it was H1N1. The x-ray was clean and he began taking the Tamiflu along with with Tylenol for the fever. There was no nausea or vomiting at the onset; just the chills and fever. This was on a Friday and today is Sunday. He still has a low grade fever (100.2) and now his throat is extremely sore. I'm going to keep him out of school Monday and Tuesday for sure and we'll take it one day at a time after that. I would really like to thank Dr. Gupta for sharing his experience with H1N1. I think that hearing the symptoms from a healthcare professional has been invaluable even though, H1N1 symptoms may vary from one individual to another. I'm very fortunate thus far that I have not caught the virus; but I've also taken several steps to minimize the chances of contracting it. Luckily I have medical insurance because with my deductible; I only had to pay $43.19 for a 5 day supply of Tamiflu. I was told by the pharmacist that if I didn't have the insurance; the Tamiflu was $500. I could not imagine anyone having to pay that much for 10 flu pills. Many people die from the flu (especially young people) because their parents can't afford the healthcare and I think it borders on criminal when politicians drag their feet on healthcare reform.

    October 11, 2009 at 22:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. May

    My dad ( 50+) was suspected to have contracted the H1N1 flu last month, and after two visits to the hospital's outpatient clinic, he was given a 5-day supply of Tamiflu as well. The doctor was 90% sure that he had the flu, but he thought testing for the flu wasn't necessary at that time because there was not much one could do about it. His symptoms were about the same as those mentioned in the comments: a really bad cough (a little lung infection), a not very good appetite, fever and all pretty mild, fortunately not as serious as Dr. Gupta's.

    After reading Pat's comment up there, I am shocked to know how difficult it is to afford healthcare in the United States. I'm from Malaysia (in South East Asia) and my dad went to a public hospital (more precisely, a public university's teaching hospital). We didn't need the insurance because his 5-day supply of Tamiflu only cost us about USD $5.80 (RM20) – the consultation fee was RM5 (about USD $ 1.50) -, as it is mostly subsidized by our government.

    I'm now very grateful to be in Malaysia because drugs and healthcare in the United States are simply cut-throat expensive. =) Just something to share here.

    October 22, 2009 at 09:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. laurie

    One of my children came down with a fever, congested cough, slight sore throat and slight body aches about 5 days ago (he's 8). Dr. refused to test him for confirmation, but said it was most likely the flu. He also wouldn't give him any Tamiflu. Since then, my other two children (ages 8 and 6) both came down w/fevers. One had a fairly high one for a day, and the next day he was playing and didn't even act all that sick, and my daughter just had a low grade fever, and slight headache. My first child who came down w/this originally still has a cough and low grade fever 5 days later. Plus, he now has a congested nose, which I've read isn't flu related. If this is the flu, why are my other children doing so well, and he's not? And if doctors aren't testing, how do we as parents know what we're dealing with? No wonder there are so many people getting it. If it presents itself as a mild virus in some, and doctors refuse to test, then those same people are going to work and school, infecting others. I don't get it...

    October 30, 2009 at 02:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Brenda

    I am 46, and in good health, or so I thought, until this came along. It hit me hard right away, with wet, productive coughing, fevers, aches and more. I called my Dr. after a week of lying on the couch, and they encourged me to just stay home. They didn't want to even see me!

    2 weeks of utter misery, and I finally went to urgent care. No Tamiflu offered. Just antibiotics/xrays/steroids/inhalers.

    It's now on day 16 and I am STILL not out of the woods. This is a very MEAN virus people...take it seriously.

    November 25, 2009 at 02:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Larry

    My doctor told me that I had a mild case of the swine flu. I didn't get it as bad as others though. It started off as a mild cough and progressively turned into a high fever, aches, and some pains. I had similar symptoms to what I've had in the past with the regular flu but I received the flu shot a couple of months prior so it gave me an idea of what I might have.
    This H1N1 thing is EVERYWHERE. See your doctor if you have severe symptoms or a high fever that after a few days you can't seem to get rid of.

    November 25, 2009 at 21:09 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.