Sunday, April 20, 2008

April 9, 2003, and Beyond

In the fall of 2003, I did something I've always thought would be fun to do, write a feature-like article for a magazine. It all started a few months earlier -- during the thick of the events I've been describing in this series -- when I received the slick Furman magazine from my alma mater. (My first foray into higher education was at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., where I graduated in 1979 with a B.A. in history.) There was a first-person article from a classmate, Jim Ewel, regarding an adventure he and his family had in Paris, when Jim decided to take a few months off from work and get an humble kitchen-prep job at a multi-star eatery there. Now, this adventure begs the question, "Who can afford to do that?" After college, Jim seems to have struck out for Seattle and landed a job in the little software start-up that eventually ate the industry. So while I was in law school reading about Microsoft's antitrust "issues," Jim was probably making a ton of money. Oh, well.... I saw the article and said, "I can do this!" Not market Windows mind you, or slice and dice in Paris (though I probably actually could do that), mind you. No, write a first-person article for a slick magazine. After ruling out the Washington Post's Sunday magazine, I contacted the editor of Furman. He liked the idea, and six months later, I was a published author. With apologies to Paul Harvey, the " Rest of the Story" comes from my article:

On Wednesday, April 9, we boarded an early-morning flight to Hong Kong, and at noon departed for Chicago from a tomb-like Hong Kong International Airport. The trip back was somber – and very different from the journey over. On our flight to Beijing, every seat was taken, but we had congregated in the plane’s galleys, gotten to know our fellow adoptive parents and chatted up the flight attendants, who were more than happy to keep the liquid refreshments flowing. On the way back, the flight was half-empty and the attendants were wearing surgical masks and latex gloves.

By now, Madeline was adjusting to us – and rapidly becoming her sprightly self. She didn’t sleep until we were 30 minutes outside of O’Hare, when she nodded off in my arms. When we passed through Immigration, the inspector looked at her and said with a grin, “Well, it’s another ‘lucky kid’!” With a stamp and a stroke of his pen, Madeline became a citizen.

Her warm welcome to America was short-lived, however. On the way to the domestic gate, she was awakened by an overly zealous security inspector who insisted that she be removed from her harness so that it could be X-rayed. I didn’t know terrorists had sunk so low. As we took off, she started whimpering and pawing her ears, and she remained unhappy all the way home. Kevin’s folks met us right outside the security perimeter – two very tired parents with their first grandchild.

At the time, many returning parents in the China adoption community were choosing to be quarantined for 10 days. We thought this was excessive, and we knew that Kevin’s parents would never agree to wait that long to meet their grandchild. To be safe, though, we decided not to leave the house much during our first few days home.

I did, however, take Madeline to our family practitioner, Dr. Joanne Watson, the day after we got home to get more amoxicillin for what I was sure was an ear infection. I also told Dr. Watson about my illness in China. She attributed it to the same causes I had – jet lag, dehydration, stress – but told me to keep in touch.

When we took the baby to Johns Hopkins, the doctor pronounced her “healthy but small” and advised us to continue treating her scabies and to feed her whatever she’d eat. By the end of the next week, Easter weekend, all of us were over jet lag and feeling better, and we decided that Madeline would make her social debut in church.

By Monday night, however, both Kevin and I were feeling sick. Kevin thought he was suffering from allergies, but my symptoms from Nanning had returned with a vengeance, and this time with an added problem: shortness of breath.

When my temperature reached 101 on Tuesday, I called Dr. Watson’s office. Within minutes she returned the call and said, “It’s probably nothing, but I think we need to rule out SARS, and a hospital is the best place to do that.” She agreed to make the arrangements. If I was sick, it was likely that everyone in the house would get sick, so we decided that all of us should be tested. We left immediately.

Kevin dropped Madeline and me at the emergency room door, where a security guard stepped up and asked, “Ma’am, are you Mrs. McGee?” When I said yes, he led me to one side as a staff member approached, bringing masks for us to wear. He wasn’t in protective clothing and kept a healthy distance. When Kevin arrived, the guard led us all to an isolation room, where a group of doctors and nurses waited – in masks, gowns, gloves and goggles.

Five hours later, after we had endured assorted questions, tests, X-rays and specimen collections, the nurse-manager, who had been presiding over this circus, re-entered our isolation chamber and announced, “Edith, you have a probable case of SARS.” (I later learned that she had used the wrong term; I was merely a “suspected” case.) She went on to explain that I would have to be isolated until 10 days after all symptoms had abated, and that Kevin and Madeline would have to stay inside for three days – unless they developed symptoms, in which case they’d be isolated, too. She added that only the Centers for Disease Control could verify whether I actually had the disease, and the process might take a few days.

Then came the ground rules: No stops on the way home. No visitors, even for emergencies (including the guy I had scheduled to fix my dishwasher). I was to check in with the health department twice a day; they would call the next morning with instructions. If my symptoms worsened at all, I was to call 911 and let county emergency services know that I was “the SARS lady,” so they could send an ambulance crew in protective gear. Having seen reports on television about people in isolation, we wondered if the hospital intended to notify the media. She assured us that the media would not be called.

I’m sure her intentions were the best. I’m also sure the media train had already left the station by the time we reached home.

We decided we would limit the spread of information and tell people on a “need to know” basis. We called Kevin’s parents and my brother and sister-in-law, Mike and Alice. Alice offered to purchase groceries and leave them on our porch. Our niece, Rebecca, who worked at a photo store, offered to develop our film from China.

We did not call my family in Tennessee. Before the trip, my mother had called in a swivet, fearful that we would be exposed to SARS. I responded that the issue wasn’t open for debate. Our child was waiting in China, and we were going.

The next morning, I received the first of many calls from the Anne Arundel County Health Department. After fielding several dozen questions from Dr. Sohail Qarni and his nurse, Marie Crawford, I went back to bed, expecting a peaceful recovery.

Later that day, though, a public affairs officer at the health department called. “I really hate having to tell you this,” she said, “and I don’t know the source of the leak, but The Washington Post has your name. They just called to confirm that the suspected SARS patient in Anne Arundel County is Edith McGee. We refused to comment, of course.”

My reply cannot be printed in a family publication, and when I hung up I was trembling with anger. A few moments later, the phone rang again. It was a Post reporter. I hung up. He called again. Kevin grabbed the receiver and shouted, “If you print anything about my wife, we’re going to sue you!” Having confirmed my condition – and obviously undeterred by the isolation – the reporter rang our doorbell a couple of hours later. Kevin shouted for him to go away.

The next morning, the story ran in the Post and was picked up on radio and television: a 45-year-old Millersville woman who had just returned from China with her husband and one-year-old son was sequestered in their home.

The phone calls started almost immediately. Our builder’s project manager left a message: Was I the woman with SARS? He needed to know, because company personnel had been in our home since our return. Recognizing the potential for trouble, I confessed.

My boss called next. “This is none of my business, but I know you were sick in China. Listen, if it’s you, I’ll put ‘sick leave’ on your timecard rather than ‘annual leave’.” Recognizing that the amount of paid leave available to me had just increased, I confessed. Then a girlfriend called. “They got the baby’s sex wrong, but I know this is you, and I’m worried sick.” Recognizing a shoulder to cry on, I confessed. So much for privacy.

Later that day, Nurse Marie called and dropped another bomb. “The Post has been bugging our public affairs people all day. They’re sure it’s you. Won’t you give them a telephone interview?” After she assured me that Phuong Ly, the reporter now on the story, was “nice,” Kevin and I granted an anonymous interview, hoping it would put an end to the media interest.

That evening, a Baltimore news crew conducted on-the-street interviews at a strip mall near our house, and patron after patron gravely insisted that the health authorities had a duty to reveal my name to the public. So now I was Typhoid Mary.

In contrast, Phuong’s story was balanced and accurate. We didn’t look like fools, and she graciously omitted most of the identifying details. But our decision to talk to the Post only encouraged the media. We became a hot commodity.

First, the local television stations did telephone interviews. Then the national outfits wanted a piece of the action. We agreed to cooperate as long as our names weren’t used and as long as I didn’t do live interviews. We wanted to maintain at least the pretense of privacy, and I was sick enough to distrust my self-censorship capabilities. I talked with the CBS Evening News and the New York Times. Unfortunately, members of my immediate family in Tennessee saw the CBS piece, and yes, Mom, I know you told me not to go.

That weekend, CNN’s medical reporter, Elizabeth Cohen, called and requested an on-camera interview. Although I was feeling better, I was still supposed to avoid contact with others. CNN asked if we could provide footage, using our camcorder, and ship the tape. Our faces would be obscured for the broadcast. We complied, and the result was a delightful piece. Elizabeth and her producer were so pleased with our footage – “This is better than the stuff we get from our affiliates!” – that they jokingly offered to award us academic credit for our experience in news production.

Over the next 10 days I continued to improve – and talk to the press. On Monday, May 5, Kevin returned to work, and later that day the health department called to let me know I was free at last. Ten days had elapsed since I had run a fever.

Within minutes, television reporters were calling again, this time for on-camera interviews. Granted, we were a great human-interest story: “Middle-aged woman goes to China, adopts adorable child, gets very sick, then recovers just in time for Mother’s Day!”

Over the next two weeks, stations from Baltimore and Washington sent crews. Phuong Ly from the Post dropped by with a photographer in tow. Our local rag, the Maryland Gazette, and the Annapolis paper, The Capital, also sent a reporter and photographer. A Chinese language daily did a story, as did Voice of America. Sharyl Atkisson of CBS Evening News interviewed me about the effects of my two-week isolation for a story on the gaps in the public health system that the SARS crisis had exposed.

And then, by Memorial Day, it was over.

In retrospect, I doubt we would have received so much attention had there been another big story other than SARS. And despite the leak to the Post, the entire media circus would have been avoidable had Kevin and I been less accommodating.

But I think it was better that we cooperated. We offered the press a “real” story rather than fodder for the kind of speculation that fuels unfounded fears. In turn, despite having to field a few silly questions, we were treated well.

Leave it to Fox, however, to sensationalize our story. A few days after I learned that I had not been infected with the corona virus that causes SARS, a reporter for the network’s D.C. affiliate asked whether anyone had been unkind to me. At the time, there were reports that some people returning from China were being shunned by friends and neighbors. “Only one,” I said, and described a humorous encounter with another patron at a department store where I was awaiting checkout with Madeline. The woman told her young children to stay away from us because we might make them sick. Fox played that up.

Not everyone who’d been exposed to us was treated so benignly. Alice, my sister-in-law, received a call from the mother of one of Rebecca’s schoolmates, asking if she was safe to be around. My brother Mike, an airline pilot, informed his employer, and although the airline allowed him to continue flying, some flight attendants and a first officer mutinied.

The people we knew personally, however, were kind and supportive. Some of our new neighbors asked about my welfare while I was still in isolation. Our pastor and my in-laws handled with humor and grace some concerned but polite inquiries from persons I’d “exposed” at church.

Despite being able to identify a bit with Monica Lewinsky, we’re none the worse for wear. And yes, knowing what we know now, we’d still have gone to China to get Madeline.

It’s not just that she is a wonderful child, a match for our family that only God could have engineered. It’s that once we saw her picture and knew her name, there was a hook through our hearts. Even before she was officially ours, we knew that we were her parents.

And what parents wouldn’t go?

Five years later, my story still surfaces in odd ways. I'll be standing in the produce department and some total stranger will approach me and say, "Hey aren't you...." It used to happen all of the time, though, thankfully, it's infrequent and I've gone back to being Citizen Edie, rather than the Millersville SARS Mom. But, Google "Edie McGee" and "SARS" and see what you get.

I still wonder what it was that attacked my respiratory system. The tests say that it wasn't SARS, but it was unlike any cold, pneumonia or flu that I've ever experienced. Occasionally, I wonder if it will have some long-term effect on my health. I raised the issue when I had the mysterious breathing troubles after my lap-band surgery last fall, and the physician's assistant with whom I was speaking proceeded to chew me out about not sharing my story with my surgeon and anesthesiologist before the surgery. WTH? (Sorry Drs. Schweitzer and Mazza, but hey, I had surgery in 2005 and didn't have breathing problems then....) It's been five years, people! Surely my lungs are well by now. So, I keep walking on the treadmill and refusing to live in fear. It was a fluke and what a fluke it was.

Darn! I'd hoped to get my fifteen minutes of fame doing something more worthwhile than being Patient Zero in a media-created pandemic.

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