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Flu sends a message: Hold on, hang tough

You have reached the Covenant Medical Group. All our lines are busy assisting other patients. Please hold on and your call will be answered promptly. Thank you.

Shortly after 9 a.m., I heard it for the first time. An eight-second message, I learned when, after hearing it for 10 minutes or so, I took out a stopwatch and timed it, along with the gap before the message repeated.

Every seven seconds. Like a ball-peen hammer tapping against the side of my head.

I wondered if, assuming I ever go through to the nurse, and assuming she gives me an appointment to see the doctor, whether I should ask: “I assume the purpose of the message it to thin the herd of sick callers waiting for help?”

But doctors can react to that kind of thing poorly. They don’t like to be questioned. And they are genuinely busy. This year’s influenza outbreak started early, hit harder and is now widespread in 43 states; 21 children have died. Serious stuff.

Particularly when it happens to you. The Steinberg household is not faring well. My younger son succumbed a day or two before New Year’s and has been battling it for a week. My wife was felled like a tree over the weekend. I assumed I was immune because of my hardy Eastern European lineage and general bullets-will-not-harm-us exceptionalism.

Then I started to cough. And sneeze. And get . . . well, achy. And very tired.

Nothing to bother a doctor with. I’m a big believer in soldiering on, waiting and letting things go away. But my wife, God bless her, insisted I get tested. If I catch the flu early, she said, I can take something called Tamiflu, which will shave off a few days of misery. If I don’t have the flu, I can get a vaccine, which is 50 percent effective in good years, but only 33 percent effective this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control  and Prevention.

You have reached the Covenant Medical Group. All our lines are busy assisting other patients. Please hold on and your call will be answered promptly. Thank you.

“Influenza” is an interesting word. Italian, obviously, for “influence,” and it refers to astrology. In the Middle Ages, people thought the stars influenced illness (some still do, but that’s a different column) bringing sickness on, particularly plagues and general outbreaks, and the word was applied first to any sort of epidemic, then to a certain kind of contagious respiratory ailment previously known as “la grippe.”

“News from Rome of a contagious Distemper raging there call’d the Influenza,” The London Magazine reported in 1743.

You have reached the Covenant Medical Group. All our lines are busy assisting other patients. Please hold on and your call will be answered promptly. Thank you.

Half an hour. They’ve blown “promptly.” Let me say, lest I malign hard-working, dedicated professionals, that I’ve gotten my health care there for years and am always very happy with their treatment, and I’m sure I would be happy again now. If they’d pick up the phone.

Do I even need to go? The CDC points out that you shouldn’t seek medical attention unless you are in a high-risk group: young children, the elderly, already suffering from lung or heart  ailments, or have severe symptoms such as high fever. The CDC recommends you stay home for 24 hours so you don’t spread the thing around. People worry about being sneezed on, but the virus can live for hours in dried mucus. I’ve taken to using the paper towel that I wash my hands with to open the restroom door; fat lot of good that has done me.

Up to 40 million Americans get the flu each year; what makes it so contagious is that the flu viruses constantly adapt. This year’s strain is not the same as last year’s, and you can have various types of flu being passed around at the same time.

Because of the mutation, settling on a vaccine for the strain of flu that might be around is considered a crapshoot. This year the doctors lost.

You have reached the Covenant Medical Group. All our lines are busy assisting other patients. Please hold on and your call will be answered promptly. Thank you.

I set the volume down on the phone and put it on speaker, making it more of a background, the gentle hum of anxiety that all medical situations bring. I avoid doctors and hospitals — half the time they get you sick there — and you usually get better whether treated or not.

At the hour mark — that seemed a decent period to abandon the quest — the sun was dazzling the frost on the window. I listened one more time to the friendly mantra.

You have reached the Covenant Medical Group. All our lines are busy assisting other patients. Please hold on and your call will be answered promptly. Thank you.

At least this column was about done. I wandered downstairs, figuring I should tell my wife before I hung up. My wife made a face, grabbed her cellphone, dialed the same number I had dialed an hour earlier. A nurse answered immediately. She shot me a just-how-stupid-are-you glance, then handed me the phone. I’m seeing the doctor this afternoon. Better safe than sorry.