Getting Sick Away From Home: A Survival Guide

We were having a terrific New Year’s Weekend in Philadelphia! My college roommate’s daughter married a wonderful young doctor from a delightful family, and we were celebrating at a black tie, New Year’s Eve gala at a classy, Main Line golf club. The bride and her attendants were beaming and beautiful. The parents were proud and elegant.

And at midnight, a mummers band marched into the ballroom and played. I mean, a real mummers band, in costume and warming up on their way to the parade the next morning. It was black-and-white movie, old-time Philly at its finest. At any moment I expected Kate Hepburn and Spencer Tracy to show up.

Then the next morning, norovirus hit.

Norovirus. It’s a fancy name for what we call “stomach flu.” But it hits more than the stomach. And it’s not influenza, though it usually breaks out during flu season. And it’s not food poisoning, which hits fast and hard and leaves just as quickly. Norovirus is a viral infection that attacks the stomach and intestines, leaving them inflamed, aching, getting rid of everything that comes their way and leaving the body fatigued and sick for several days. No need to go into the indelicate details. You get the picture.

Norovirus is discomforting enough when you’re at home. But imagine what it’s like in a hotel room on New Year’s weekend 150 miles from home, especially when it hits both you and your wife at the same time. You know that “in sickness and in health” clause in the marriage vows? This will really test it.

Here’s how we survived our experience.

People can be very nice, even and maybe especially in Philadelphia. Let them help you: Philadelphia gets a rap as a tough, pushy town. And it is. You don’t ever want to wear a visiting team’s jersey at any kind of Philly athletic event, even a Little League game, or you might get something thrown at you. And whatever you do, don’t drive on the Schuylkill Expressway during rush hour if you don’t know where you are going. You will get run over.
But we can’t begin to name all of the people at our hotel who went over and above to help us during our four sick days in Philly. The restaurant made special dishes for us and all of the servers and managers were sympathetic. The housekeeping staff came in when we needed them to clean up unpleasant messes and give us clean pillowcases and towels. The engineering staff unclogged a sink (yuck).

But the most critical care came from the front desk staff, because for the first couple of days we didn’t have the energy to leave our room and our only communication with the outside world was through them. They put in our special orders to the restaurant. They arranged for cleaning. They even went across the street to Wawa to get us chicken soup when the restaurant didn’t have any and assembled a “goody bag” for us of things they thought we’d need (bottled water, Tylenol, hand sanitizer).

Tough but tender—no, not the cheesesteaks, the people. That’s the way we’ll think of Philadelphia forever more.

Don’t worry about not eating. Just drink: That sounds a lot like something a college roommate once said to me, but I digress. When you’re so sick that nothing stays down, it requires effort to put anything—even liquid—in your mouth. But you’ve got to stay hydrated. Dehydration can happen quickly, especially to the very young and, well, those who aren’t young any more. Make yourself sip something every 10 or 15 minutes.

Originally, I was sipping ginger ale with a lot of ice (fortunately the ice machine was 10 steps from our room). Joan was sipping Sprite. But our daughter and her boyfriend, the med student, paid us a visit, and he advised Gatorade or any other sports drink. He said the body absorbs the stuff in them faster. So we switched over.

All of that sugary stuff gets to me after awhile, though. Herbal teas felt nice, and what really appealed to me was the infused water they had in the lobby—water with citrus fruits and mint. Couldn’t get enough of that stuff when we could finally make it to the lobby on Day 3! It didn’t appeal at all to Joan, however.

But the point is, even if you can’t keep it down the first day, keep drinking whatever tastes right to you.

Always pack extra clothes: I’m usually pretty good about bringing an extra day’s clothes. And for whatever reason I decided to pack a week’s worth of my meds with me. Glad I did. I used everything I packed, including the meds. Stuff happens. Be prepared.

Laugh: Being violently ill is no fun, butthat doesn’t mean you can’t laugh. Joan and I giggled about our misery. We made bad jokes. We made up stupid songs. We threw wadded up papers at each other.

They say laughter is the best medicine, and while nothing cures norovirus, laughing about your plight can make it tolerable.

Joan and I had an unexpected four extra days in a small hotel room taking turns running to the bathroom to get sick, sipping sports drinks, sodas, teas and chicken broth, nibbling crackers, pretzels and toast, and celebrating when we could eat plain pasta. It could have been miserable. But instead, we have a good story to tell. And after 33 years together, there’s still no one I’d rather spend being sick with than Joan.

Attitude is everything.