Swine Flu and Paranoia, North of the Border

Recently I traveled to Mexico (see Autism and Hope, South of the Border) and came back really sick, so sick that I visited my medical clinic three times in two weeks. Last Friday, I actually got to see my regular doctor, but that was before we knew the swine flu existed.

Over the weekend, I started getting the phone calls from friends.

“What, you’re still sick? You never get sick like this! Didn’t you just come back from Mexico?” “Well, did you get tested for swine flu?”

I started getting worried, so I called my sister Dominique. She’s a nurse practitioner, and she knows everything, medically speaking. I guess you see a lot of interesting things when you work in the ER of a hospital in Greenwich Village. “You should get tested, seriously. It’s a pandemic alert level 4,” she tells me. I had no idea what that meant, but it did sound scary.

I decided to poll my facebook friends. I filled in the “What’s on your mind?” space with “OK, so I came back with an ear infection and really sick from South of the Border a couple of weeks ago. Should I get tested? I hate wasting my time. Am I being paranoid?” I have 822 friends, but only 9 cared to comment. They all said I should get tested.

I took a break from this strenuous decision-making process and went to visit my mom who lives down the street in a skilled nursing facility. There was a big sign on the door: “DON’T ENTER IF YOU HAVE BEEN TO MEXICO OR THINK YOU MAY HAVE SWINE FLU”. Great, now I was really getting paranoid. My iPhone buzzed and I got a text from my sister. “I think you should be tested ASAP,” it read.

I decided to call the doctor’s office and let them decide if I needed to be tested or not. I was still sick, and if I was possibly carrying around something I could spread to others, I guess it was the right thing to do. Sheepishly, I explained to the office staff person that because I’ve been sick ever since I came back from Mexico, I wondered if I should get tested for the Swine Flu.

“What are your symptoms?” he asked.

“Well, my ears were all plugged up which turned out to be an ear infection. And it started with a sore throat. I still feel terrible.”

“I’ll talk to the doctor and get back to you,” he said.

An hour later the phone rang. “Do you have, or did you have, a high fever?” This question always poses a problem for me. When I feel crappy, I usually pop tylenol or ibuprofen, anything to feel better. Of course, this reduces any fever as well. He asked me about a few more symptoms, and as he described them, I felt them coming on. “Do you feel achy all over?” I tried to remember what my initial symptoms were, and of course I then ached all over and I felt even sicker. I was really paranoid now, but still felt stupid for calling in the first place. He tells me he will talk to the doctor and get back to me.

I turned on the radio for a little distraction, and I listened to the news on NPR. “There are misconceptions about how the swine flu is spread,” the announcer says. “Some people think they can avoid it by not eating any pork….”

“Well, I definitely didn’t catch swine flu in Mexico, I was staying in a vegan household,” I tell myself.

“…. But the reality is it is spread by human contact. People should wash their hands and use alcoholic…..”

“Unfortunately it was also a “dry” household,” I remember. A week in Mexico, and no tequila!

“….gels and avoid sharing utensils and cups..”, continues the announcer. I’ve had enough, so I switch off the radio.

A little later, the doctor’s office calls back. “The doctor said not to worry, and there’s no need to get tested,” the person said. “Great!” I replied.

This evening, I heard on the local news that a baby died of the swine flu in Texas. “All of humanity is under threat,” Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, said during a news conference in Geneva. I guess it is true because World Health officials have raised the pandemic alert level to 5 (out of a possible 6), and in Egypt, health officials ordered the slaughter of 300,000 hogs.

Some officials in Washington are calling for the borders to be closed between here and Mexico. President Obama says that’s not going to happen, “That would be like closing the barn door after the horse has escaped.”

I’m sure he meant to say pig, not horse.

The local news continued, reporting that two new cases of swine flu were confirmed in San Diego County, and that there is one possible case at San Diego State University, where officials said a female student sickened by what could be Swine Flu would not be allowed back on campus until she had fully recovered.

In other local news, there were reports of local San Diego residents acting pig-headed and hogging the road more than usual, but so far any connection to the swine flu outbreak has yet to be established.

This first appeared on the Huffingtonpost.com on May 1, 2009

Autism and Hope, South of the Border

Autism knows no geographical boundaries, so in honor of World Autism Awareness Day, I decide to head south of the border instead of attending awareness events in the United States. When I arrive in Puerto Vallarta, Bryan McAllister is waiting for me at the airport. I have come to spend a week with Kerri Rivera, director of the AutismO2 clinic, the only place in Mexico that offers biomedical and behavioral treatment – and hope – to Mexican families impacted by autism.

Bryan is a nurse who specializes in ozone therapy and he works at the clinic. I ask him how he met Kerri. “On ebay. Her husband Memo was looking to buy a vintage Desoto car and I was selling one. Memo wanted it to use for parts for a 1951 Desoto limo they own,” he explains. Somehow, Kerri and Bryan got talking about the clinic she and Memo were starting up, and Kerri convinced him to move down here.

That’s how movers and shakers like Kerri are – persuasive and inspiring and able to convince people to share their vision. In Kerri’s case, the vision was that of a not-for-profit clinic funded by money paid by those who could afford Hyperbaric chamber treatments, thus offsetting the costs of autism treatments for those who could not.

Two years later, the afore-mentioned vintage Desoto is still sitting at the border, waiting to be shipped and for all the necessary import/ export paperwork to be filled out. But Bryan is here and the AutismO2 clinic is up and running – some things just can’t wait. Like most non-profit autism organizations, a child was the inspiration behind the vision Kerri had. In this case the force is Patrick, Memo and Kerri’s youngest son, who regressed after receiving the DPT,HepB, infB vaccine (5 shots in one) at two years of age. Patrick, now 8 years old has benefited greatly from different types of biomedical treatments, as well as behavior therapy.

Mexico has been Kerri’s home for 14 years now, ever since she created a family here with her Mexican husband Memo. When Kerri first met her husband when she came here to study Spanish, little did she know that they were destined to be married years later, and eventually become a driving force in the Spanish- speaking autism community.

After their son Patrick was diagnosed with autism, Kerri began to look into treatments and realized she would have to travel often to the United States if her son was going to recover or improve. Kerri realized that nothing was available in Mexico, and wanted to bring help and hope to the many families impacted by autism who could not afford the treatments, and who had no access to resources in the United States. In January 2006, Kerri met with Dr. Bernard Rimland, founder of the Autism Research Institute in San Diego (the border town I live in) and long considered the godfather of the movement for understanding the biological treatment of autism. With his blessing Kerri and Memo had the Defeat Autism Now (biomedical treatment) protocol translated from English into Spanish. Two weeks after Dr. Rimland passed away, the clinic AutismO2 was opened. “Nothing we do on a daily basis here at the clinic to help families impacted by autism would ever have happened without Bernie Rimland,” Kerri tells me.

Kerri, inspired by Dr. Rimland, became proactive when her son was diagnosed, becoming both a Rescue Angel for Generation Rescue, Jenny McCarthy’s autism organization, and a mentor to mothers of newly diagnosed children for Talk About Curing Autism (TACA). Kerri continues to provide information and help to people all over the world in both Spanish and English in those capacities. But she and Memo wanted to do more. In 2006, Kerri and Memo founded Bebepingo AC, the non-profit structure that funds the AutismO2 clinic, by buying a hyperbaric chamber that people here in Puerto Vallarta use for a variety of health reasons – for Multiple Sclerosis, Cerebral Palsy, Down’s Syndrome, autism, arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis infections, and diabetes to name a few. Proceeds from the treatments in the chamber go towards helping the children with autism from low-income families that they treat at the clinic. Besides the chamber, the clinic offers behavioral therapy, nutritional and supplement consulting, and information on the Defeat Autism Now (DAN!) biomedical protocol, as well as IV chelation, and ozone therapy provided by Bryan, who has worked with ozone treatment for 17 years. The AutismO2 clinic is the only clinic of its kind in Mexico, a country with no practicing DAN! Biomedical doctor or behavioral therapy clinic.

In Mexico, “hope” is not a word usually associated with autism, as there is very little on offer for children who have autism. Hope, however, is apparent not only in abundance at the AutismO2 clinic, but also in Kerri and Memo’s home. Parents and the children who have traveled great distances to receive treatment, drop in to discuss nutritional support with Kerri, share the midday meal, or just to say “hola.” Besides Patrick, Kerri and Memo have an older son, Alex as well as three dogs and 3 cats that add much warmth to this already nurturing home. While I’m there, I meet Luis Cisneros and his 5 year old daughter, Diana, who has Down’s Syndrome has begun to talk after 10 hyperbaric treatments and change in her diet as well as nutritional supplements. I also meet Dr. Edith Vela, who runs a small ABA program for her son and three other children in her living room because there are no schools willing or able to teach them in Mexico. Edith’s son, Alex, has also responded well to treatments; this is his second stay in Puerto Vallarta to access the services at the clinic AutismO2. While we are eating lunch and visitors drop in, Memo explains his reason for donating so much of the family’s time, money and energy to AutismO2. “It is a wonderful thing to see children getting better. How could I not help these people when I see how much of a difference it is making in their lives, in my son’s life?”

The day I leave, Kerri drives me to the airport. She slows down as we pass a Holiday Inn. “There, near the flags in front of that hotel is where I met Memo for the first time. I was waiting for some college friends to play tennis, and he was meeting up with some friends as well,” she explains, smiling and enjoying the memory.

What a fortuitous day that was for Mexican families impacted by autism.

This first appeared on the Huffingtonpost.com April 27, 2009