A Quarantine Story

I’d gone to University Health Services in the hopes they’d give me something for my light flu symptoms, or maybe some advice on my spirit-crushing depression. Silly me, I was so disillusioned with life I didn’t even realize I had contracted H1N1 until they told me. I couldn’t express my gratitude at that point though, as they were sealing me into plastic for transport.

I was pretty excited to be quarantined in the Dewolfe building, since I’d always wanted a room with a kitchen or a carpet. Sadly I got to enjoy neither, as I was quickly rushed into a small, lightless room sprinkled with the trash and human residue of former occupants. The kindly proctor who unsealed the plastic encasing me offered to get some of my stuff, to make the cell a little more quaint and comfortable. I asked him for my laptop, some books to read with all my free, imprisoned time, and a second pair of underwear. “No problem,” he smiled, heading right out, loosening my shackles and dead bolting the door as he left. Thirty minutes later he brought me a box filled with napkins and a small revolver with a single bullet. Not exactly what I asked for, but it was sweet of him to do what he could.

Checking out my new home I was impressed. They’d provided me with the meals other occupants hadn’t finished, and some really soft towels. That’s about when the H1N1 hit me, swiftly rendering my legs useless and leaving a gentle foam around my mouth as I passed in and out of seizures. “Swine flu,” I mused, “more like the beginnings of a very painful death flu.” Then I convulsed for a little while.

After I was strong enough to sit up without inducing paralytic tremors I decided to call UHS for some information about the university’s H1N1 policy. I also longed for the sound of another human’s voice.

Speaking with Mental Health Services proved fascinating. One doctor with whom I spoke said there was some unease in the department about how healthy it was to hermetically seal students into dark, barren rooms and refuse them access to friends, possessions, or other small human dignities. Apparently MHS had to fight to keep UHS from stitching red patches bearing the word “SWINE” onto the clothes of the infirmed. “We’re hoping next year the university will let us provide assistance to the sick in the form of sun-lamps. We’re really optimistic that sun-lamps could make the swine flu experience a little less sad and dehumanizing,” said one source.

There were a few moments when I was certain that I was going to die, like absolutely certain—too weak and feeble even to call home and tell my parents I was sorry for all the awful things I’d done to my sister. With nausea so vicious I stopped moving oxygen into my body, literally blacking-out every few minutes on account of all the coughing, I was sure going any longer without medicine would kill me. Luckily my meal arrived, containing with it two aspirins. They didn’t alleviate much of the white, enveloping pain I felt, but taking tiny bites from each pill over the course of many hours let me bask in the illusion that I was consuming real medicine. It was this semblance of hope that kept me alive.

I don’t mean to sound like a pessimistic Peter—there were some great things about my quarantine. For one I got to meet Brett, a tall, mask-wearing junior from Lowell. Brett and I didn’t get to talk much, on account of his prolonged bout of dry-heaving, but we agreed to stay friends even after the misfortune that had brought us together was over. The other great thing was the food. Some people have said that the diet of soup and popsicles was unsatisfying, but these people are crazy. What’s better than soup? At every meal? Even if one tired of soup there were two flavors of popsicle—cherry and plain.

By the time my quarantine was over, I was happy that I’d gotten to have such a unique college experience. Admittedly, the being alone on the verge of death part wasn’t great, but it did help me confront a lot of my deepest fears, and for that I’m forever grateful to UHS.

My advice to other Harvard students would be to use the Purell dispensers. Initially I was skeptical, assuming budget cuts were forcing President Faust to seek corporate sponsors for commencement. “We’ll do it!” shouted Purell, already setting up the first of many habit-forming hygiene stations. (By now I’m pretty convinced this was not the case.)

My last piece of advice is that you should download UHS’s H1N1 iPhone app. While it isn’t able to diagnose your symptoms over the phone, its T-Pain feature allows you to harmonize your coughs four ways. At the very least, the synchronization of your sickness with “Buy You a Drank” will elicit a few nervous laughs from friends.

In the end, I guess it’s more about how you’re quarantined, rather than how you aren’t quarantined. If this doesn’t make total sense, then I guess you just haven’t yet suffered a fever that melts a huge piece of your cerebral cortex.

Zachariah P. Hughes ’12 is a Crimson editorial editor in Leverett House.

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