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River Town Chronicles: Walkin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie-Woogie Blues

Flu sours a normally perky columnist

Ever get sick of being sick? You have a cough sounding worse than a three-pack-a-day smoker, a runny nose that’s a marathoner, and a low-grade fever that got an F.

I’m not one to complain – or, actually, I am, which is the reason I write this column – but this year has been particularly despicable for respiratory and gastrointestinal issues.

Especially the flu. My friend, Wayne Johnson, emailed his writing workshop, “I'm afraid I won't be able to make it tomorrow. I'm in the throes of the dreaded flu. Not the dreaded A type, where you could wind up dead, but the dreaded B type where you only wish you were.

“I plan to get a refund for my flu shot.”

Get in line, Wayne. A pharmacist inoculated me in October, but a week before Christmas I was hacking, sneezing and blowing my nose until I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t breathe, and, worst of all, couldn’t be my usual perky self. The only upside was being shunned at family gatherings; anyone who saw me approaching cowered and slunk off like the lepers looked in on by Charlton Heston’s Ben-Hur.

After three weeks of recovery, the cough returned. Dry, hacking and insistent, like climate change deniers.

“No!” I screamed inwardly. “It can’t happen to me! I get seven to eight hours of sleep; I snack on raw broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, green peppers and snap peas; I live a morally-upstanding life, even answering the phone when caller ID says ‘Unavailable’ – the same thing the women in college said when I asked them out.”

When the cough persisted for nearly a week, I took my wife’s advice, reminding me of a story my brother-in-law told at his daughter’s wedding:

“When in college, I found my Mrs. Right. It wasn’t until we were married that I discovered her first name was Always.”

The Northwestern Medicine Convenient Care center in St. Charles can best be described as, well, convenient and caring. I showed up 15 minutes before it opened, hoping to avoid waiting in a waiting room because a lot of sick people show up in these places. While waiting, I bathed in disinfectant, rubbing my hands together with the excitement of a Lady Macbeth.

Soon a nurse called my name cheerfully as a cheerleader, then listened to my woes intently as a monarch absorbed in Scheherazade’s stories. When the doctor came in, I delivered my narrative to much greater effect, having rehearsed the delivery five minutes before. After stethoscoping my back and chest, he prescribed antibiotics for my walking pneumonia, or bronchopneumonia.

When telling people that’s what I had, they freaked, each one telling me a story more grisly than the previous one, an uncle or grandparent who died a long, miserable death. These death notices sent me to bed with a TV remote, a pile of DVDs and a stack of unread New Yorkers.

Thank you for asking; I’m fine now. No more Wait. … Sorry, I just coughed up some phlegm that needs spitting out.

Rick Holinger lives in Geneva, teaches at Marmion Academy and moderates a writing workshop. His fiction, essays and poetry have appeared in numerous literary journals. Contact him at

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