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Essay: Respiratory Risks in Rural America

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Free range brown and white chickens on grass in front of handmade chicken coop (selective focus)

COVID-19 is one of many illnesses that can afflict humans who work closely with wild animals. 

Back in 1983, I was living in Indiana.  Being young and naïve, and quite busy with three children, I didn’t have time to worry about getting sick.  Human nature tends to make us think we’re invincible when we’re young. Unfortunately, youth and good health did not protect me from contracting a virus that nearly killed me.  My superwoman mentality was drastically humbled by a minuscule invader that brought me to my knees and could have taken the lives of my children as well. Deadly germs are not to be trifled with.  

At the time, my family and I were living in town, but we were planning to move to a small farm in the country.  I was so excited at the thought of raising my kids on a farm, growing vegetables and having some chickens running around.  I was a city girl turned country gal with a love of nature and animals. The 5-acre parcel of land came complete with rolling hills, green pastures, and a sparkling little pond.  And an outbuilding that would be my downfall.

The concrete building would make an excellent chicken coop.  In fact, it had already housed poultry in the past- guinea hens, ducks, and geese.  The attic was home to other residents as well- rats, bats and pigeons. Since it hadn’t been used in a while and was in utter disarray, I decided it needed to be completely renovated before I could order my chicks.  My youngest son (who was still in diapers) was with a babysitter back in town. I brought my older boys with me so they could have fun on the farm while I worked at cleaning the chicken house. I had everything I needed for the job; shovels, rakes, tools and a broom.  The one thing I didn’t have- because it never crossed my mind- was a mask.

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While my boys played, I hammered and drilled, hauled out rotten lumber, pried an old, wooden nest box from the wall and thoroughly swept out the first floor.  Next was the attic, and by the time I was done, I was covered with cobwebs, dust, and dirt. At one point, I let my sons come in the building to help me-having no idea what we were exposed to.  My construction labors had stirred up a deadly dust storm and at the end of the day, we left the farm coughing. I had inhaled the brunt of the foul fumes and, unknowingly, brought home an uninvited guest.  One that took up residency in my lungs.

Two weeks later, I was in the hospital dying.  I had developed pneumonia and was placed in isolation until the doctors could figure out what I had.  A lung specialist was called in and I underwent a bronchoscopy. The test result confirmed I was not contagious to others and allowed out of isolation.  But my entire family was ordered to get tested, and, unfortunately, one of my boys showed signs of pneumonia in his lungs. My illness was made worse knowing I had exposed my sons to germs the doctors could not identify.  

I spent ten days in the hospital resigning myself to the fact that I might not make it out alive.  The severity of my pneumonia had me drowning in my own fluids. Besides high fever, chills and difficulty breathing, the pain was intense.  I had morphine administered around the clock just so I could sleep. For the first time in my life, I was physically unable to care for myself and depended on health providers (complete strangers) to help me.  Fortunately, I recovered and so did my family.

So, what was this mysterious virus that brought me down?  One doctor told me I had micro-plasma pneumonia, but he wasn’t sure what caused it.  Another doctor said it was Legionnaires disease. Yet another doctor said it was tubercular but was not sure either about the root cause.  Being uneducated in the field of medical ailments, my only concern was getting better and going home to my family. My local pharmacist made a special trip down to Indianapolis to pick up some potent drugs the doctor had prescribed for me.  He was not one to beat around the bush or sugarcoat anything. His words were alarming: “If you don’t take this medicine, Julie, you’re going to die.” I strictly adhered to swallowing my daily regimen of pills.

After I made a full recovery, I returned to the farm.  I stared at the chicken house and in my mind’s eye, it flashed red like a warning beacon.  I went to the library (the internet was not available then) and started researching all kinds of diseases that had my symptoms.  One in particular caught my eye. Histoplasmosis. Bingo, I had narrowed it down to breathing in fungus spores often found in bird and bat droppings.  The day I had cleaned the coop, I had filled my lungs with a variety of poop particles!

Today, I still have chickens, but I always wear a mask when I clean out the coop and wash my hands thoroughly afterward.  As the coronavirus makes its rounds, I know if I should catch it, there is a chance I may not survive. But I don’t worry about it, and I certainly don’t panic.  I do, however, take the necessary precautions to keep myself safe. I was ignorant once and it almost cost me my life. If I had been contagious, I might have infected my family and friends, and everyone else I had come in contact with.  No one likes germs, but we have to respect them. I learned a lesson the hard way, but I will always remember how a microscopic entity had gained the upper hand.