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It's just a cold

It all began as an ordinary cold.

My wife and I had probably acquired our colds when we cared for a toddler for a few days. The little guy had come down with some sort of respiratory bug, which wasn’t surprising as he normally spends his days in daycare. Kiddie daycares are bubbling cauldrons of microbes and boogers. The little guy was pretty miserable at times, so we would comfort him by holding and rocking him. He often turned his head and coughed directly into our faces.

“We’re going to catch whatever he has,” said my wife.

Yes. But we felt that it was worth it, especially when the tyke patted us back while we rocked and patted him. A week passed and it seemed as though we had dodged the bullet. Then my wife acquired a nasty cough. My wife has asthma, so she always gets it first and worst, cold-wise. I remained unscathed, no doubt due to my finely-honed immune system and sheer strength of will.

After a few days of non-stop hacking, my wife visited her doctor and was given a prescription antibiotic. I had also begun to sniffle and cough, but it wasn’t too bad. Just an ordinary cold. Then my cough grew worse. Carrying out a conversation at our house came to resemble a form of Morse Code.  

“Would you (cough) like (cough, cough) to have (cough) hamburger for supper? (cough, cough, honk!).” 

 “No (cough, cough), I think (cough) that I’ll just have (cough, hack) waffles (cough, hack, patooey!).”

By Saturday, my body aches could best be described as feeling as though I had been dragged behind a team of runaway horses then ran over by a bus. I had been using over-the-counter medications to help manage my symptoms. The bug that I had caught took one look at the over the counter meds, laughed mockingly, then gave them noogies. Despite covering myself with a heavy blanket, I shivered and shook.

Slumber proved elusive, even though I felt so tired that I would have been glad to replicate Rip Van Winkle’s 20-year snooze. By Monday evening, I felt so crappy that I allowed my wife to take me to the emergency room. I was in denial regarding how ill I was, but a sick person is a poor judge of his own condition. My wife, on the other hand, had been constantly telling me that I was getting worse instead of better and needed to see a doctor.

The ER doctor took a nasal sample with one of those long swabs that feel as though it’s poking out the top of your skull. The swab checked for dozens of pathogens, including numerous COVID-19 variants and all of the trendiest flu viruses. I wouldn’t be surprised if it also got my credit score. The diagnosis was human metapneumovirus.

You know that it’s bad when you have to learn how pronounce a new word. Human metapneumovirus is extremely common and usually produces the symptoms of an ordinary cold. Most who get it recover uneventfully. But unlike most people, my human metapneumovirus had invited along a few million of its closest bacterial pals and had begun to hold a riotous, frat-like party in my lungs.

The doctor thought that I didn’t look too bad, so he sent me home with a powerful oral antibiotic. That, and the sheer force of my will, would no doubt cause a swift cure. I didn’t sleep at all on Wednesday night because each inhalation ended with an uncontrollable coughing jag. Despite all of the prescription and over the counter meds, I continued to feel worse and worse. Thanks to the pandemic, many of us – my wife and I included – have a miniature medical clinic in our homes.

Ours includes home COVID-19 tests (I tested negative twice), a thermometer, a blood pressure cuff, and a blood oxygen sensor that clamps onto a fingertip. During that long, sleepless night spent tossing and turning on my recliner, I continually monitored my condition and consulted with Doctor Google. I googled “how to manage a fever at home” and “how much Tylenol can you take in one day” and “when does a fever become dangerous.”

Then, sometime during the wee hours, there came the Google inquiry “what to do if you’re coughing up blood.”

At 4:00 a.m., I slipped the pulse oximeter onto my finger. I normally show a blood oxygen reading that’s somewhere in the mid-90s.

The number stood at shocking 73. I stumbled back to the bedroom and woke my wife.

“It’s time to go to the hospital,” I said as I struggled to catch my breath.

Jerry Nelson

Jerry Nelson and his wife, Julie, live in Volga, South Dakota, on the farm that Jerry’s great-grandfather homesteaded in the 1880s. Daily life on that farm provided fodder for a long-running weekly newspaper column, “Dear County Agent Guy,” which become a book of the same name. Dear County Agent Guy is available at

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