A lot of good zombie movies start like this: Hundreds of frustrated people line up for hours, waiting for inoculations against a mysterious virus. In the movies, you can skip to the next scene, but at the Toronto clinic I visited last week, the lineup was impossible so I turned around and went home.
I felt helpless and hopeless and overwhelmed trying to fight against something I know almost nothing about. This felt like nothing less than a fight for my family's lives, and my growing sense of panic about H1N1 was giving morbid birth to funeral fantasies.
These thoughts were relentless and depressing and tended to star my twin 10-month-old babies. My little loves. Henry and Melanie Rose. When I came back home from the vaccination clinic, Henry was napping. An hour or so later he woke up crying, and when I picked him up he was beet-red and burning up.
He's usually a sweet little guy, but this was full-on misery and sobbing. He had a hot head and a stuffy nose and the saddest mouth in the world. I took his temperature: 103.1 F. My son had gone from no fever at all to a serious fever while I was scoping out the flu shot lineup. I freaked out. Henry and I burst into the emergency department of Sick Kids Hospital 10 minutes later. I discovered that 10 minutes in the car is more than enough time to imagine every horrible thing you never wanted to think about, and to recall every headline and replay every news clip about what was surely a death sentence: swine flu. The emergency waiting room was a kaleidoscope of coughs and sneezes, masks and gloves. Signs posted everywhere informed patients that the H1N1 vaccine was NOT being administered here, and implied that they should quit asking.
I was trying to hold it together but by this time I was scared and I started to cry, taking my place in line behind all the other frightened parents who had arrived there first. We were seen almost immediately by the triage nurse, who assessed Henry's condition and breathing. She listened kindly while I whimpered out Henry's history and the reason we were there. After checking out his chest, she told me that his breathing was fine and it might be a while before we saw a doctor. A while turned out to be 5½ hours. We grabbed free masks, but Henry kept pulling his off so we moved from seat to seat, trying to avoid the obviously sick people.
Henry was a good little guy, but I was disorganized and upset and probably took up more than my share of emotional and physical space. Diapers and bottles spilled out of my purse, soothers fell on the floor, my BlackBerry went off every two minutes. Henry crawled all over me like he was climbing an ant hill. I left his OHIP card on a seat and had to ask people to shift their tired, sick kids while I looked everywhere for my own child's ticket to ride our health-care system. When we finally saw the doctor, she was young and smart and knew every trick in the book to keep my little guy happy. I liked her immediately. I listed his symptoms over the past couple of days - a sniffly nose and diarrhea that morning, ending with the sudden fever - and after she examined him she told me he most likely has swine flu. Swine flu. It just rolled off her tongue. She didn't even ask me to sit down first.
One part of me listened to her, and the other part of me couldn't believe what I was hearing. She said he wasn't in any immediate danger. He wasn't even going to be admitted. I shouldn't invest in biohazard suits, and this was not a predator stalking our children. It was a new strain of flu - and one that most people who have contracted have lived through.
The doctor said I should keep a close eye on him for any signs he is struggling to breathe, give him over-the-counter medication as needed and see his doctor if he didn't seem better in three or four days. And she said to expect his twin sister to come down with it as well.
This was everything I had feared, and not what I had expected at all. Every member of the staff we dealt with at Sick Kids were kind, knowledgeable and - this is the humbling part - understanding and patient with a terrified public that doesn't know what information to trust in the H1N1 crisis.
The irony was that I felt calmer after I found out Henry has swine flu than I ever did when I was frantically trying to find a way to protect my children from it. Talking to front-line health-care workers and accepting the nature of this illness helped a lot.
It isn't the little pigs you need to worry about, it's the Big Bad Wolf. I was starting to get it.
But I wouldn't be a new mom if I wasn't a committed worrier, so I'm watching Henry like a hawk. He's still sick, and we're fighting the fever, but his breathing is just fine. So far his twin sister has a low-grade fever but seems healthy.
We were discharged with a clear list of instructions that told us under what circumstances we should take him to see his own doctor, and under what circumstances we should get back to the hospital immediately. I'm not freaking out any more, but I'm not taking this lightly, either - my husband and I are staying home for a while. But we're going to turn off the news and watch Henry and Melanie Rose instead.
Shannon McKinnon lives in Toronto.