Germ Warfare

Holding the phone with Ask-A-Nurse.

I've been calling Ask-A-Nurse (at 303-777-NURS) almost since the moment the service was hooked up in 1987. These days the program is known as Centura Health Advisor, and registered nurses man the phones from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. But in the early days, you could call in the middle of the night -- and that, after all, is when medical emergencies happen.

February 1987, 3 a.m.

I give my name and address to a NURS who advises me that, as a registered nurse, she cannot diagnose medical conditions but is permitted to give me some advice on how to treat my symptoms and whether or not to seek further medical help.

Worried sick: Bouts of the flu are keeping Centura Health Advisor phone lines busy.
James Bludworth
Worried sick: Bouts of the flu are keeping Centura Health Advisor phone lines busy.

Me: "I'm just so tired. I feel as if cinder blocks are pressing into my limbs. I want to sleep all week."

Nurs: "Have you been busy?"

Me: "Yeah, well, my band's been gigging a lot of weeknights and I missed my deadline, and I probably shouldn't have drunk that third sea breeze, but I've just been so tired, you know."

Nurs (after ruling out several mysterious, life-threatening conditions): "Why don't you hang up and get some sleep?"

Me (hopefully): "You don't think I should see a specialist and get some medication?"

Nurs: "Nah. Hang up and go to bed."

Sometime in 1988

My brother-in-law decides to show my five-year-old nephew the inside of a golf ball. The last time he cracked one open, it was full of about a million rubber bands, all packed in there like snakes. Unfortunately, nowadays they charge the balls not with mega-snakes, but with some kind of explosive. Ka-blam! Brother-in-law appears to be suffering from blindness! (Nephew entertained, as promised.)

Nurs: "Hang up. Dial 911."

1991

Me: "My toddler says her stomach hurts. She has a slight fever and is cranky. She won't go back to sleep. Is it appendicitis?"

Nurs: "Hold a minute while I look up those symptoms."

Thirty seconds into hold, the toddler throws up on the floor, then falls asleep.

Nurs: "Try to keep her comfortable. At some point, she'll probably throw up, and then she'll fall asleep."

Me: "Right."

1993

Me: "What if it was dark in the bathroom and I grabbed the wrong tube of ointment?"

Nurs: "What are you trying to tell me?"

Me: "I'm not saying who's responsible, but toothpaste got applied to a diaper rash instead of Desitin."

Nurs: "Warm bath. No bubbles."

1994

Me: "Let's just say a dog ate a Snickers bar. Would it kill him?"

Nurs: "I doubt it, but check with your vet in the morning."

1995

Me: "There are some very weird bumps all over my scalp."

Nurs (after asking very specific and possibly disgusting questions): "Hmm. This is an interesting one. I've never heard of this before. I'd advise you to see a dermatologist. This could be a symptom of a number of conditions."

Me (in a panic): "Like what?"

Nurs: "As RNs, we're not able to diagnose medical -- "

Me: "Yeah, yeah."

The Present Day

It is now well into 2000, I have failed to die from a scalp infection, and as a city, we are in the grip of what has to be the worst flu in recent history. It goes on and on. As soon as you get over the vicious sore throat, you're awash in green snot. Next comes the rattling chest cough. After that, it's freestyle -- a repeat of the green-snot cycle, or something unmentionable in the abdominal region, or one of your loved ones starts the disease afresh, sneezing on you plenty. Fevers are high and persistent. Nursing a small child through all of this brings on visions of the Old West -- where these epidemics could be lethal -- and a longing for patent medicine. (For you, if not the child.) Nursing a mate through all of this brings on visions of divorce court.

Doctors tell us that the flu returns every winter and that this year's version is just a little more tenacious than most. Clearly. Why else would they be selling Alka-Seltzer emergency cold-relief kits next to the cash register at the Farm Crest Milk Store/gas station?

On the Year 2000 Flu's behalf, I have called the Nurs line four times already, with no end in sight. The last call -- to find out how a cough syrup can both suppress a cough and cause "expectoration" at the same time -- I gave the Nurs my last name and listened to her read my address and date of birth off the screen. I pictured a green banner flashing at her: HYPOCHONDRIAC! FREQUENT CALLER! A PAIN! THIS IS THE SAME PERSON WHO PUT TOOTHPASTE ON HER DAUGHTER'S BOTTOM IN 1993!

Me: "Does your computer show how many times I've called in the past?"

Nurs: "Oh, ha ha ha."

I am momentarily distracted from my own symptoms by a flash of empathy for this Nurs and all the others like her. Are they sitting in cubicles in some bullpen, endlessly quashing the niggling concerns of endlessly (though minorly) infirm people such as me? How do they do it?

Four Days Later

I'm sitting with nurse supervisor Mary and her boss, Tom, in a room off the area that holds the Centura Health Advisor phone center. Just as I pictured, it is a large space divided into cubicles, with a Nurs inside each one. Judging from the flashing sign on the wall, the phone lines are jammed, and the average wait on hold is four minutes.

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