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Life in the Pen

By Derrick Asiedu

The media loves epidemics. Every year the public is bombarded with headlines that leverage scary acronyms like SARS, MRSA, and H5N1 to capture our attention. This alphabet soup of pandemics is part and parcel of a perennial American diet consisting of hype and overreaction to illnesses with miniscule mortality rates.

Annual uproars over illnesses tend to inure college students to a genuine fear of CNN’s virus du jour. Before my experience with swine flu, I numbered among these apathetic adolescents--what 4-letter headline, I thought, could possible defeat my Übermensch immune system? Armed with this confidence and the hand-sanitizing station in front of the DeWolfe elevators, I carried on with the business of life.

Then, one fateful Tuesday night, I was en route to gorge myself on monkeybread when I was waylaid by a porky adversary. What I originally thought was a severe cold soon proved to be significantly more burdensome than an itchy throat and a runny nose. I decided to take my chances with UHS.

As I sat in the UHS waiting area with nothing but a headache to keep me company, I reflected upon my physical state. I did not know, and still do not know, if I had swine flu: at the time, UHS was not equipped to identify H1N1. But, ,if it was swine flu, it certainly did not hit me with the force that overeager media outlets had portended. I had been able to walk to UHS independently, and although my sudden fever was a source of constant consternation, this was not the worst illness that I had ever dealt with, just the one currently in vogue.

After taking my temperature and learning of my symptoms, the pleasant UHS nurse and physician informed me that I was not well enough to interact with my healthier peers. Armed with four facemasks, two Tylenol tablets, one PowerAde, two saltine crackers, and numerous well-wishes, I was sent off to quarantine. As I sat in my swine shuttle on the way from UHS, I fretted over my dilemma. Would I be relegated to a concrete prison in Mather? Or worse, would I serve my illness-fated sentence in the hinterlands of the Quad?

It turns out that my stay in the pigpen would commence only a few doors down from my normal DeWolfe residence, in the palatial balconied residence whose occupants had seemed mysteriously absent all year. Surgical mask firmly in place, I began the intensely boring process of isolated recovery.

Life in quarantine is best described as maddening, yet comfortable. The health and dining services made sure that my co-swine and I were well-accommodated by giving us our own bedrooms. The room was clearly furnished for utility rather than luxury with its two towels and copious quantities of Kleenex: This was a place where you were meant to get better and get out so that the next sickly sophomore could take your place. Standard fare consisted of an abundance of easily ingested foods like bananas, tea, pseudo-ramen, and Jell-o: a far cry from gourmet cuisine, but decent enough to get you healthy before you tired of it. .

Besides minor frustrations, like the perpetually melting popsicles, the care I received was commendable. Harvard has clearly approached the issue with thoughtfulness and efficiency in mind. Their efforts to make the recuperative process relatively painless were evident in the finer details, from the deluxe Dial in the bathroom to the glut of semi-solid fare. Several days and several Advil later, I was ready to leave the abode that UHS had constructed for me and others laid low by this year’s virus of note. After my experience, I can confidently vouch that the quarantine strategy is one of Harvard’s few policies with virtually no major flaws: I did not want for anything but more heat-resistant popsicles.

Derrick Asiedu ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House.

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