My name is Debi French, and I'm 22. The winter of 1993, when I had chronic bronchitis, as I had most of my life, I was not getting any better from the medical therapy. So I went to the doctor and said, "Fix me. There's something wrong."
He did chest X-rays, and that's when we found out I had tuberculosis.
I was coughing. I was extremely exhausted; I fell asleep in almost every class I had every day. I lost nearly 50 pounds. Those were the main symptoms—excessive coughing to the point where, the day I went to the doctor's office, I coughed till I puked.
We did the chest X-rays, and the doctor reviewed them and then had another doctor give a second opinion. Then he came in and told me and my mom. . . . And the first thing he said was, "Well, you don't have to go to school." And the first words out of my mouth were, "'But I have a parade on Saturday I have to march in."
To say the least, I was not thrilled. My mom was relieved because in her mind, it was something curable.
At the time, the only thing I knew about tuberculosis was that people had died from it. And far be it from me to allow myself to die from a little bacteria.
It's not every day that your typical middle-class white girl, living in suburbia, gets a disease like this. Somebody in one of my classes had an active case and continued to go to school, where it spread like wildfire. By the time the testing was complete, they revealed that there were 12 active cases of tuberculosis and 350 positive skin tests showing exposure. So in a small school of about 1,200 people, that's nearly a quarter of the population.
At first, I was on four different medications. After six weeks or so, it seemed like they had done their job. My sputum tests, which is pretty gross to explain, so I won't, came back negative, so I wasn't active any more. But I would still have to continue drug therapy for about a year.
It worked for a while. . . .
During my senior year, February 14, 1994, I'll never forget, my doctor called me and said that the tests that they had been doing to see if I could get off my medication came back positive. I had an active case all over again.
I spent two weeks in UCLA Medical Center, which included my 18th birthday. After two weeks of being there, my parents decided that because I wasn't getting any better, there was no reason to put me and them and the rest of the family through the torture of my having to stay in the hospital when, aside from the fact I had a communicable disease, I was normal. So they let me go home, and I was home for about six weeks. Still, I wasn't getting any better, on completely new medications. After six weeks, the health department basically told my mom that if they didn't take me to this hospital in Colorado, I was going to die.
So I went to Colorado. We had to get a private plane to take us, because when you're contagious, you can't just hop on a commercial airline. The day we were supposed to leave, the plane company—the pilot—called and canceled. He backed out. He was afraid for his health, which is understandable, but, nonetheless, it hurt.
Two days later, we got another plane (another pilot) and took off for Denver. It was a nice change of pace. The staff at the hospital knew what was going on and knew how to help me and help my family get better. It was incredible. They saved my life. Between them and my attitude, that's why I'm still here. I ended up losing a third of my right lung, the upper third. I have a lovely scar across my back, and I left the hospital with a tube in my chest.
I could have come out of this and still had my right lung, but the largest collection of bacteria was in my right upper lung. It was [a mass] about the size of a golf ball. And they decided that for the best chance of eradicating it completely from my body, it was just safer and easier to take it out. Otherwise, I could still be on medication, and that stuff is nasty, really nasty. You really don't want it. Trust me.
Don't be fooled that things like this are of the past, because they have a way of resurging. Bacteria are stubborn.
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