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.
[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/09/23/art.sanjay.sick.jpg
caption="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.

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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.