You can hardly tell to see it, but my baby toe is infected. It is swollen (if I had a “before” picture, it would be easier to see) and painful. A slight itch Saturday afternoon turned to distracting pain at bedtime. By noon on Sunday, when I arrived at the after hours clinic, the toe was puffy and adjacent foot tissue had turned a sickly lilac. I snapped this photo four hours after taking my first dose of antibiotics. By then the swelling and discolouration had already started to come down. I was running a fever and my glands were swollen.
It may sound (and look) trivial, but foot infections are not. They can quickly move up the leg, with severe consequences. I do not like taking antibiotics, but I had this happen once before. I know to address these infections quickly and aggressively.
Killing us softly
It reminded me of a recent post by my friend Toni, who has Grave’s disease. She had to have her thyroid gland killed to prevent her own body from attacking it, and now she is hooked into the machine, dependent for her survival on manufactured thyroid hormone, produced at unknown cost to the environment and transported long distances. It challenges Toni’s ardent philosophy about living sustainably on the Earth. She is one of those people who would live off the grid if she could. She can’t.
Damned if i don’t
I have a similar relationship with an anti-depressant drug that relieves symptoms of anxiety disorder. After a number of rough years trying different medications on and off, I started taking this one eight years ago. Immediately, I began sleeping well for the first time in my adult life. I stopped waking up in a screaming panic.
Several years ago, feeling that I had reached a more stable plateau, I consulted a psychiatric specialist about going off the drug. She said that with my past history of major depression and anxiety, I should expect to stay on it for life.
I do not know whether I would be alive or dead without anti-depressants. I never approached suicide, but went through episodes when existence seemed unbearable. For a whole decade I coped but was unable to work.
This drug has taken away a certain creative edge. It stimulated my appetite and put on 25 pounds I wish I could lose again. But now at least I can face a room full of people. I can speak up for myself and address unpleasant situations without losing my nerve. I have started building a life based on what matters to me instead of just what I can handle. I am happier than ever before.
My father’s superbug
In 2009, a year after my mother died of breast cancer, Dad developed angina. He needed triple bypass surgery. Despite the blockages, he was a fit and active man for his age by any standard. After the drastic physical invasion of his body, he began recovering quickly, exercising lightly and seeing his friends.
Suddenly a few weeks later, a high fever came over him and threatened his life. In his first hospital visit he had picked up methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, one of the superbugs. His second hospital stay lasted twice as long and was spent in quarantine. They had to open his chest a second time. The drug-resistant infection was harder on him than the bypass surgery.
This is one of the reasons I hate antibiotics. They are both a solution and a cause of our diseases. They complicate our lives and occasionally screw people up terribly. However, many of us could not survive without them.
How medicine makes us
While we should question our dependence on drugs, we must also recognize how these illnesses depend on our way of life. Auto-immune diseases and allergies have been linked to modern hygiene, a shift away from the parasites and microbes that used to commonly inhabit our bodies. How much is my body made susceptible to infection because of the sheltered, altered environment in which I live?
I do not know, but rejecting antibiotics will not solve the problem. A few decades ago, a minor infection like this could have gone to my heart, cut me down in the middle of life. It is nothing like what struck my dad, but I know better than to give infection a toe-hold.