'TB: I felt I should ring a bell of warning'
When Niamh Griffin went to her doctor, she didn't expect to hear that she had TB or that the disease would take such a toll
Published 29/08/2010 | 05:00
Hearing you have TB shouldn't be as scary as it is. We're rational human beings with faith in the medical system, right? Wrong. Listening to a sympathetic doctor at Beaumont Hospital in Dublin in early February, I just wanted to scream.
I'd gone to see a GP two weeks earlier because I'd spat out some blood. But I felt fine, thought it was a throat infection. So when he picked up the phone to call for tests, I still didn't think 'life-changing disease'.
That's the thing about TB, there are no specific symptoms. If you break a leg, it's pretty clear what the problem is. But someone feeling tired and having a heavy cold in winter? Well, it's hardly unusual. I didn't even have a cough. But in those two weeks, other things started happening -- such as breathlessness, needing pit-stops walking up the stairs and being tired, so tired.
I walked in for the test results, found out I had "non-smear positive Tuberculosis" and walked out wearing a mask. I had a mini-quarantine at home for two weeks, after that there's no risk of spreading the disease. My housemates did a great imitation of the staff on Grey's Anatomy.
The (real) doctors think I may have picked up the bacteria while working in Thailand, and that it activated when I moved back here. One doctor told me that 80 per cent of people who carry the bacteria never develop the illness. Great, I always wanted to be an elite something or other.
But for the first three months, I felt far from elite. More like unclean and contaminated. I was so relieved I hadn't infected anyone, but still felt I should ring a warning bell
when I went out. It sounds daft now, but I wasn't very rational.
This was probably because I was exhausted. Between being sick and the side effects of the tablets, I couldn't stay awake. I took naps Spanish-style, I went to bed early, got up late and still felt shattered. I looked OK; a little grey and gaunt, but not as bad as you might expect. The consultants warned me this would happen; they were very clear on the whole process taking six to nine months.
I just didn't believe them. I thought I could take the tablets -- a colourful cocktail of eight for two months, then two for four months, and continue with my life. I mean, who gets sick for that long unless they have cancer or something serious?
It was the GP who finally made me realise that actually TB is serious, and both disease and medication affect everyone differently.
This was hard. I had to ring my boss and say working from home wouldn't cut it. Then I had to move out of the shared house, and, gulp, move in with my parents. It was really difficult to say "help me", but once I did that was when I started recovering.
But I did get to go to a former sanatorium to collect the medicine. I'm a bit of a history nerd so I found this part strangely interesting. I went to the former sanatorium at St Mary's in Dublin's Phoenix Park, which is a hospital for older people now but the pharmacy still gives out the TB tablets.
The trees were bare, it was raining and cold. I got lost in the building and went down a long corridor with peeling wallpaper which seemed to echo with the sound of people who'd been there before me.
The taxi driver told me his ailing parents had recently refused to go there because they were afraid of the consumption. I'm not sure what he thought I was collecting there. I didn't share.
It took me months to feel comfortable telling people. I knew I was on the mend when I really saw the other patients in the waiting room, some of them with much worse problems, and understood that this is only temporary.
And if there is a moral to all of this, it's that I learned again how important it is to be loved. I can't imagine how I would have got through it without my family, friends and Skype. Chatting in my PJs without leaving the house -- priceless. And thank you to the librarian who didn't charge me for returning my Christmas books in May. But as for people who moan that emigrants and expats bring dirty diseases here, I think it must be terrible living without compassion.
Eight months later, it feels slightly unreal. But even in that time, there were days when I functioned, when things went right. Those little orange tablets were like a rope pulling me up; sometimes I slipped back down again, but they got me there.
Doctors always ask you to rate things on a scale of one to 10. In January it felt like TB was an eight (10 being, you know...) but really, it's just a five.