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Our Babysitter Got Tuberculosis

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Who even gets tuberculosis any more, besides characters in Emily Bronte novels?

Apparently, babysitters who spend the majority of their day breathing all over my kid. That’s who.

It was January of 2009 and Tenzin was sick with that flu everyone seemed to have. She had missed a few days of work, and had a startling cough of the lingering variety.  It was the icy morning of Obama’s inauguration and I had a 10 a.m. job. I sat at the kitchen table in my coat with my 2-year-old daughter Z, drumming my fingers and waiting for Tenzin to walk in the door. The phone rang at 9:20 a.m. Her voice was thin and she sounded like she had been crying. She had collapsed on the subway and couldn’t move her legs.

I knew she had been putting off dealing with how sick she was, hoping it would just go away because she didn’t have health insurance. But hearing her voice at that moment, I must have known something was really wrong and that it was no longer acceptable to rely on her to take care of herself. I called an ambulance and headed over to the subway station near our house in Brooklyn. I found her on a bench inside the turnstiles, sitting with a cop. I remember I deliberately tried to avoid having her breathe on me.

We spoke later that day. She had spent it in the ER waiting for doctors to tend to her. She was given a head x-ray, some blood work for who knows what, and several other tests.  They found nothing, disregarding that death rattle-cough, and gave her a piece of paper that encouraged her to rest and to follow up with a doctor in several weeks. We decided together that she should take the rest of the week off.

Back at work, Tenzin still wasn’t feeling better. She had lost weight on an already tiny frame, and seemed exhausted and worried. So on a Monday, two weeks after she collapsed, she went to the hospital as instructed to follow up on her care. We were taking a few days of vacation and I texted her to see how it was going. They had admitted her to the hospital, she said, which I thought was strange. Hospital beds are not easy to come by in a country where women are kicked to the curb days after giving birth. They certainly don’t give them to the uninsured – unless it’s serious. Or contagious.

Unless.

The following day we got another text. In her broken English she texted: “The doctor thinks is 85 person (sic) tuberculosis.”

I went immediately to Google, and found this:

Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection that is spread through the air when people who have the disease cough, sneeze, or spit.  People who breathe TB bacteria into their lungs can become infected; close contact for a long period of time is usually necessary for TB to be spread. Most of these cases will not develop the full-blown disease; asymptomatic, latent infection is most common. But, about one in ten of these latent infections will eventually progress to active disease, which, if left untreated, kills more than half of its victims.

The hours between when we found out Tenzin’s status and then our own were the most fraught, stressful moments I can recall since Z was born. Who could be more intimate, more of a “close contact,” than a fulltime babysitter to a baby? I couldn’t stop picturing Z on a respirator.

After a frightening flight home from our vacation, during which we were unsure whether we could be infecting others, I went straight to the hospital to see Tenzin and get some answers about what we should do. It was challenging to get information about her status as a patient, mostly because she was not a blood relative, but also because her case had become a public health situation to be managed by a New York City Department of Health caseworker.  There were privacy issues involved, I was told by several emotionless nurses, as my frustration mounted.

Eventually I located a compassionate intern who seemed to understand my daughter’s intimate relationship to Tenzin and that it was important to understand the severity of her diagnosis in a timely manner. The awkward, red-headed, young doctor took me to her room, which was under extreme isolation for airborne diseases. I put on a mask and went in.  I’ve never seen anyone look more ill.  She was shockingly thin and her skin was an unbelievable shade of yellow.  Her cheeks were bony to the point of skeletal.  With a strange, inappropriate half laugh, the doctor said, “Go ahead Tenzin, tell her what you have.” In a tiny voice, she gulped “I have active TB.” 

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