I’ve Been Walking Pneumonia After Midnight

Mycoplasma, mucous, and the tropical-fish department.

Ten years ago, while at an indoor master’s track meet, I picked a respiratory bug that took weeks to develop. It was nothing like flu, which comes at you fast with sore throat, fever and worse, and lays me out flat for three to five days. Actually it’s more like two to four days in my case; I know the influenza routine well; in fact, having had so many variant strains of Asian flu over the years (Hong Kong 1968; Russian, 1977; Texas, 1978; Shanghai, 2002) I seem to be semi-immune to most of the fresh mutations going around. I usually avoid the advertised flu vaccines because the two times I got a flu shot I ran a low-grade fever afterwards.

Anyway, I now had some bug that definitely wasn’t flu. My gilt-edged, overpriced health insurance had run out in early 2009, and physicians almost never cure anything I have anyway, so I leaned on internet wisdom. WebMD, that sort of thing. Apparently I had something popularly known as “walking pneumonia,”  a low-grade bacterial infection (mycoplasma) that, according online sources can go away on its own…in about two months. In the meantime you are—I was—absolutely disgusting. You get seized with coughing spasms throughout the day, continually emitting green sputum. Not just green, sometimes it’s purplish, and if you cough hard enough you’ve blood in there too.

Initially it’s easy ignore, because you get up in the morning, don’t have a fever, and then suddenly around midday it seizes you, usually when you’re in a very public place. a grocery store, the subway, your office, or in my case the Library of Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, which is where I’d repair when I had serious writing or programming to do. The hacking cough takes control, you can’t do anything about it, and you get dirty looks all around. You are a consumptive who should not be out in the open. You are infecting the rest of world with your deadly tubercules. It’s at its worst through the afternoon, especially when you’re out and about. Sometimes it hits you late at night, when with any luck you’re home. Imagine propping up the bar at one a.m. and suddenly coughing chartreuse phlegm all over the place.

It took two weeks of these crippling coughs before I found a suggested remedy online. Cheap medicine recommended by armed-services personnel. Erythromycin, a common antibiotic, and one you can get without a prescription if you go down to your tropical fish department at the pet store. I don’t know how many people do this, but I’ve noticed that the fish section at Petland Discounts (Buy-one-get-one-free on white mice this week) or Petsmart (“Where your pet’s a martyr!”) is often out of erythromycin. Are there a lot of sick fish around? Somehow I don’t think that’s it. This antibiotic is the same thing given to humans, only you’d probably get it in capsules, since the naked white powder is incredibly bitter. Really vile. Sometimes I mix it with apple cider vinegar and honey to mask the taste.

Anyway, it wipes out the Mycoplasma pneumoniae in about three days if you take it regularly in that period (maybe two or three times a day). It doesn’t wipe it out entirely, I think; the infection recurs in me every couple of years. It’s like malaria: once you have it, it keeps coming back at you and you just have to watch for it and know how to doctor yourself.

When I told some running friends that I’d recently cured myself with fish antibiotics (this is 2009, mind; I didn’t yet know about recurrence), they laughed at the freakishness of it all. So they’d never heard of such a thing. They put their hands on their cheeks, flapping like pectoral fins, and asked me if I’d started to grow fins or gills.

This raises a curious point I don’t yet have an answer to. People in the forces commonly know about fish antibiotics, supposedly, while civilians generally do not. Why would this be? If you’re in the military, you get all the health care you want, for free. You don’t have to go to the guppy department. My guess is that the issue isn’t cost but convenience. Why go on sick-call, or make an appointment for Thursday at ten a.m., when the pet shop on the corner can fix you up right away for $14.99?