Saturday, January 20, 2018

THAT ZINKING FEELING – My Losing Battle To Avoid The Creeping Crud

Like just about everyone I know, I’ve been under the thumb of some crazy sinus/respiratory bug the past couple of weeks. Some, I hear, have been there for a couple of months.

I don’t know if it’s simply a cold or some other, much tougher virus. Either way, I’d been living in deathly fear of catching it. Because every time I’ve done so in the past six years or so, it’s turned into full-blown, chest-rending bronchitis. Those repeated assaults have permanently damaged my bronchia.

So in late December, knowing I’d be spending Christmas in Boston with a couple of prolific little carriers—not to mention flying back and forth in a veritable flying sick ward of sneezers and hackers—l bolster my defenses as never before.

I wash my hands every time I’m within walking distance of soap and water. I carry a little bottle of Purell in a holster on my belt. I hydrate like it’s going out of style. I even wear a serious N-95 surgical respirator while on the plane.

PHOTO: James Gatheny / CDC

Despite my best efforts, a few days after I get home I come down with a sore throat. So I employ phase one of the emergency-response plan my ENT and I devised. First, it’s a five-day course of the steroid prednisone. I also start on Zycam, the homeopathic remedy even my ENT doc agrees can fend off, or at least shorten, the common cold.

For now, I hold off on phase two, the antibiotic tablets I keep with me at all times like someone allergic to bee stings carries epinephrine. (I’m nearly as afraid of becoming antibiotic resistant as I am of getting bronchitis.)

But a few days later the disgusting globs I’m coughing and blowing have turned a muted gray-chartreuse. Damn, my cue to start the doxycycline.

   It makes my tongue feel strange, like someone’s
   stapled a tiny sheet of aluminum foil over it.


All this time I’m also taking zinc. Lots of zinc. Not just the usual 25-milligram supplement I normally take daily, but 50 milligrams. Now I step it up even further, popping zinc-rich Airborne chewables like candy. Plus the Zycam, both lozenges and nasal spray, which I’ve now been taking every three hours, round the clock, for two weeks.

One interesting side effect of taking Zycam, whose instructions call for its being dissolved slowly on the tongue, is that it makes my taste buds feel strange, like someone’s stapled a tiny sheet of aluminum foil over my tongue. Nothing tastes right.

Flash forward to last Sunday morning. I’m on just my second day of the doxy, still inundating myself with zinc. I wake up to a wave of nausea, run to the bathroom and vomit.

The spewing continues all day. While any thought of food is a non-starter, I know I at least have to stay hydrated. But even sipping a quarter cup of water is like adding fuel to a fire; I erupt.

Around 6:00 PM, I assume the position yet again. Oh, my God, there couldn’t be anything left to throw up; this is going to be just dry heaves. Nope. I heave about two  quarts of clear, colorless water.

Now my wife gets concerned, even more than I. We’re wondering what has hit me. The flu? Everything we find online says that usually involves a fever, not vomiting. But I don’t have a fever, nor any of the overall body involvement one expects with the flu. Food poisoning? But I haven’t had anything at all to eat since last night.

Out of ideas, I ask her to Google “zinc, poisoning.” Turns out Wikipedia and most reputable medical websites acknowledge the metal’s toxicity, but only in massive doses—about twice as much as I’ve been taking. Symptoms include vomiting and several other effects I, thank God, am not experiencing.

Almost all the articles refer to “a metallic taste in the mouth” and possible deadening of the taste buds. Some say the Zycam nasal spray can permanently damage one’s sense of smell.

     Is the presumption that one can have any 
     control whatsoever over one’s health perhaps 
     a little arrogant?

With night approaching—a Sunday to boot—and no certainty one of those storefront urgent care services would administer intravenous fluids and electrolytes, we head to the Regions Hospital E.R. After a series of brief interactions with various nurses and technicians over a six-hour period—believe me, I understood that auto accident, gun-shot and drug overdose patients were outscoring me in triage—I finally get my I.V. and some anti-nausea medication. Within an hour, I’m headed home.

So what did I learn from this miserable, memorable day? That I didn’t have pneumonia. That I probably had gastroenteritis, quite likely unrelated to my sinusitis. That zinc, while it may have contributed to my nausea, probably wasn’t the main culprit. (Nonetheless, I'm in no hurry to start taking it again.)

I’m happy to report that my sinus/respiratory infection feels like it’s on the way out. I celebrate that I’ve managed to avert another case of bronchitis.

Still, I’m left wondering: Has my less-than-stellar experience with zinc proven not only that my obsessive efforts to stave off colds just don’t work, but that they might actually hurt me? Is wearing a surgical mask while flying even worth the discomfort and embarrassment?

And, perhaps the most important question: is the presumption that one can have any control whatsoever over one’s health a misplaced hope, perhaps a little arrogant? What does this say about one’s faith? These thoughts are just beginning to percolate in my mind. What do you think? 

Friday, January 12, 2018

WHAT’S UP?...OR DOWN? – Breaking the Bounds of Vertical Perception

I was reminded today, in a news report about some newly discovered deep-sea organism, that the deepest part of Planet Earth's oceans is the Challenger Deep section of the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific about halfway between New Guinea and Japan. There the depth has been measured at just over 36,000 feet.

That got me thinking of how inept we human beings are, accustomed as we are to experiencing and gauging horizontal distances, at fully comprehending vertical distance.

PHOTO: National Geographic

Sure, we all know about those monumental NASA expeditions into earth orbit, then to the moon, Mars, and now deep space. And we know that people keep venturing to ever-deeper parts of the ocean—think the resting place of the fabled Titanic, at 12,400 feet.

But can we really grasp how high is high and how deep is deep?

           We set her on auto pilot and sit back
           with a good novel.

You may know how I like to play with perspective in the way I look at Nature and life. Well, one way of appreciating vertical reach is to imagine the one instrument of speed and distance we are most accustomed to—the automobile—and turn the axis against which we measure its motion from horizontal to vertical.

So picture this imaginary vehicle that can act just like our own family car—we can get in, start it up, take off and easily accelerate to highway speed. Except this vehicle can only go up or down. Oh, and, magically, it can cut through salt water as effortlessly as our real, horizontal car can through air.

Got the idea? OK, now back to that deep trench in the western Pacific. We’re on a ship, floating right over it. Our amazing vertical water car is suspended over the side by a crane and we’re at the wheel. On command, the crane releases us and we floor it, straight down.

In ten or twelve seconds, we hit 60 miles an hour. At that speed, you’d think we'd want to keep an eye out for the bottom pretty soon; after all, the seafloor is right down there. Nope. We can just keep the pedal to the metal, at highway speed, relax and listen to two average-length songs* on Spotify—almost 7 minutes—before we near our destination.

Once we slow down and nudge the bottom, we turn right around and head back up. Only this time, we’ll traverse the distance from that deepest ocean floor right through the ocean's surface and all the way up to the elevation of earth’s highest point above sea level, the summit of Mount Everest (at 29,035 feet, over 1 1/4 miles closer to sea level than the Challenger Deep).

This time, we set her on auto pilot and sit back with a good novel. If it's a page-turner we can devour 20 or 25 pages before this mile-a-minute leg of our trip is done.

          This “super-sense” is among the few 
          tools we possess for appreciating our 
          place and scale in the world.


Nature holds so many wonders we can barely appreciate for their true scale—that is, until we shift our vantage point, our way of thinking. Part of the challenge is that the world is so immense, and we are so pitifully small. Another is that, by the time we get used to thinking a certain way about something for decades, we become inured to the degree and scale of its spectacle.

How sad and unnecessary that so many of us, subject to the constraints of schedules and responsibilities—and maybe a little wear and tear on our faculties—lose our child-like sense of wonder.

The good news is that it's easy to reclaim it. Get outdoors, preferably with kids, explore, play and take time to simply be fully present with Nature. This is the medium in which human senses were meant to function best. Not just the orthodox five senses, but many others whose existence is just beginning to be recognized.

One that’s especially pertinent to this post is proprioception, the sense of the relative position of one’s body parts and the effort being exerted in moving them. It’s this “super-sense,” together with the vestibular system of the inner ear, and, of course, our better-known senses, that helps us appreciate our place and scale in the world.

Failing to nurture and grow all those senses, including fully comprehending and being moved by vertical space, is to squander a precious gift. Especially if we give them up in a bad deal with the little digital devil residing in all those glowing screens in our lives.

* Song length / A Journal of Musical Things