The Great Kefir Slaughter of 2013, or Four Days in a Strange Universe.



This guy. The ugly dude, the one singing. I hate him.

He had me fearing for my life in hospital for three days. He is bacteria, a ‘poo bug’ if you like.

I woke up early on Sunday morning needing to pee but unwilling to do so because I didn’t want to feel cold.

Not the regular ‘ooh, that seat is chilly on my bum’ kind of thing, but a bone-deep revulsion at the idea of coldness on my skin. The beginning of a fever.

That set off alarm bells. With an artificial heart valve, blood-borne bacteria collecting on your valve, or on a pacemaker lead, or on the pacemaker itself, is a constantly lurking demon. Any infection must be swiftly defeated, any breach to the protective barrier of skin must be carefully treated. And I was 18 days post-op from my pacemaker replacement surgery.

Nobody I had been in contact with had been sick recently, so no reason to suspect a virus. And I had a normal appetite as of the previous evening. Endocarditis had to be considered, and then ruled out, before I would feel safe. Off to the Emergency Department for me.

Now, being a heart patient is a fast-track pass through triage, but nothing happens fast in the ED. I was seen by a few doctors, had lots of blood taken, was finally given some paracetamol and eventually started on antibiotics. Eight hours later I was admitted to a general ward. I was feverish, miserable and terrified.

The next morning I knew all the kefirs in my tummy were dead. I knew this because they began to leave my body through the ‘tradesman’s entrance’ and myself and my IV infuser took several unpleasant trips to the bathroom.

I have been taking kefir (a fermented milk drink) daily for nearly a month now. It usually makes me feel as though my digestive bits resemble the fairy nightclub in True Blood. Everyone is happy and cheerful and fabulously good-looking. But antibiotics don’t discriminate. Everyone dies, even the good bacteria. All of them.

So after the antibiotics my guts felt more like the landscape of Mars. Pretty damn desolate.

And here is where things get weird. In a place where they are supposedly trying to get you well, they gave me the most puzzling ‘foods’. White bread. Ice cream and jelly. Lovely sweet and acidic fruit juices. Corn Flakes. All I wanted was a banana and some wholemeal bread. And some good probiotic yogurt. Not the bizarre sugar-filled and gelatinised stuff they had available. Some green tea would have been nice, too.

Trying not to sound like a whiny food snob, because some of the food was probably fairly nutritious even if it was completely inedible, let me ask about jelly. What is the obsession with hospitals and their jelly? I was relieved to see it served in single-use containers, rather than as bricks of slightly wobbly stuff in re-usable bowls that could be cut with a knife and stand up on its own. But even so, there is nothing of any value in coloured and flavoured water with a bit of gelatine in it. Ice cream is another strange hospital staple, loaded with fat and sugar. It might be good for sore throats and easy for people with false teeth to eat, but does it help them get well?

What I saw, on the whole, was people stuck in beds on bad food with pills shoved down their throats and IV drugs drip-fed into them. Some of these helped, some did not, some were reasonable precautions and some seemed to be just ‘oh well, let’s try this and see what happens’. I saw people asked the same questions, day after day, by different (and sometimes the same) doctors and nurses.

I was four days without a diagnosis, despite pretty much every type of stuff that my body contained being tested, in some cases several times. Four days to find one of the most common bacteria and prove that a blood-borne bacteria was not threatening my heart.

Now, admittedly for most of that time I was as crook as a dog. When the fevers finally stopped, my stomach took over. I had agonising pains roughly every 20 minutes for the best part of 18 hours. They made my heart race and took my breath away. It was eerily reminiscent of being in labour.

What made my case a little obscure is that most people with this bug will present with nausea and vomiting, whereas I had eaten my dinner the night before with no problem and not had the slightest urge to spew. This is not unusual for me. My immune system never seems to be content with ‘let’s get everyone out of here and hope the trouble-maker goes with them’. Its preferred approach is ‘kill it with fire’. Hence the other common symptom, diarrhoea, doesn’t begin until after the bugs have died in a hail of fever. Thanks for your discretion, immune system.

So there I was, stuck in a room with a 90yo, both of us isolated due to our possible gastroenteritis, away from all the tools I use at home to help keep me well, and deprived of decent nutrition and sleep. In this environment, I was presumably expected to get well. By the time I was well enough to appreciate the situation, it all seemed slightly demented. And once I knew my heart was not at risk, I refused to stay a moment longer.

It was an eye-opening and educational experience. It taught me how important it is to look after myself. It taught me how seriously doctors will take any threat of endocarditis in a fairly young patient with risk factors. It showed me how well I feed my family already, but that there is room for improvement. It helped me realise what a caring, capable and determined partner I have. And it made me a little sad for the state of our public health system.


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