I STATED IN last month's column ( A matter of grave concern, part 2) that I had contracted Legionnaires' disease and promised to explain exactly how that happened.
I maintain a weekend home in the mountains of Colorado. It's my future retirement home. During the summer months, you'll find me there every weekend,-unless interrupted by the occasional graduation or major milestone birthday party. I generally go up there on Fridays and return on either Sunday evenings or Monday mornings depending upon where in the state I'm working.
This home has its own water source (a shallow well) and the domestic hot water is heated via a conventional, propane-fired, tank-type water heater. I'm planning to do some major construction in the next year. So, in an effort to avoid having either to move a filled propane tank or pay to have the tank pumped down prior to moving, I've gotten into the habit of turning the water-heater to the pilot position during the week to save gas and, I hope, avoid the full propane tank issue. One of the first things I do when I arrive there is to turn the water heater to the On position, and turn on the well pump.
As a part of my propane conservation tank-stretching effort, I also turned the operating temperature of the water heater to the Low setting. That maintains the tank at about 120°F.
Last summer, one of my house guests up at the lake was suffering with a pretty heavy head and chest cold. I inadvertently exposed myself to this person's condition and caught his cold. I also gave myself additional guaranteed exposure by taking a plane trip from Colorado to Rhode Island for some factory training with the Viessmann folks. On the plane trip back it seemed as though I was surrounded by people who were coughing and sneezing all over the place. Such is the nature of flying in close proximity to fellow human beings.
I know what walking death feels like.
In any case, I got back to Denver on a Friday evening and, instead of spending the night in Denver, I decided to drive straight to the cabin for a fresh start. When I got to the cabin, I did my usual startup, including the water heater, well pumps, etc., unloaded the car and just felt miserable from the head and chest cold my fishing partner from the week before had shared with me. So I decided the best thing to do was to take a nice, hot, steaming shower and breath in some eucalyptus vapors to break up the congestion.
As I climbed into the shower, I realized that I had not given the water heater the time it needed to fully recover to a good hot condition, but it was too late to change my mind; I was already in there. In an effort to generate some good, strong vapors, I turned the shower to fully hot, which in reality was just a little over lukewarm at that point. I stood in there, with the eucalyptus vapors, breathing deeply, trying to break up the congestion.
They say that it takes between two days and two weeks to feel the effects of exposure to Legionnaires' disease, but I can tell you this, as soon as I got out of the shower, I felt like I'd been run over by a truck. It felt like the onset of the flu. I figured it was probably part and parcel of my recent trip to and from the East Coast and didn't really give it much more thought. As the weekend wore on, I felt worse and worse to the point that I didn't even put the boat into the lake to go fishing and, for me, that means I wasn't feeling well at all.
We eventually returned home to Denver, but I got gradually worse. I was thoroughly convinced that I had contracted the flu. I had all the classic symptoms. Aches, fever, lack of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, chills, everything. My wife told me I should go see the doctor and, as a typical man, I refused, stating that it was the flu and that there was really nothing that the doctor could do for me.
Then the coughing fits set in. I started coughing, and could not quit. My lungs felt like they were on fire, and I thought I had herniated myself from the coughing convulsions.
When I finally started seeing pink in my phlegm, I considered going to the doctor. Just one problem. I was too weak to get myself out of bed and go see the doctor. I finally called my bride and told her of my immediate need for assistance. She offered to call an ambulance, but again, being a man, I refused and told her I could make it until she could get there. By the time she got there, I was delirious, weak and sicker than I had ever been in my whole life. I actually had a near-death experience. This was on a Wednesday following my Friday exposure.
Upon arrival at the doctor's office, the people looked at me like I was a zombie. I now know what walking death feels like. They whisked me into the X-ray lab and took pictures of my lungs.
The doctor looked at my pictures, listened to my lungs with a stethoscope and declared, "You've got bacterial pneumonia!"
I was shocked. I'd never had any lung issue in my life. I said, "As in Legionnaires' disease?" to which she replied, "Most likely ..."
Then the whole picture started coming together in a whir. Exposure to my fishing pal's cold two weeks prior, additional exposure on the plane ( depressed immune system) and direct exposure to the bacteria in the shower of my mountain home.
I asked her if there was a test I could take to confirm it, and she said, "Sure, but by the time the lab results get back here, if we hold off on giving you the necessary antibiotics, you could be sicker, or worse. It's your call."
Obviously, I went with the antibiotics, followed by an antigen blood test, and followed by an additional followup antigen blood test six weeks later. The first test showed that I had been recently exposed to the bacteria, and the second test confirmed that it was Legionella pneumophila.
Tune in next month as we continue to research this disease and its impact on our comfort delivery systems. Until then, Happy Antibiotic Hydronicing!
Mark Eatherton is a Denver-based hydronics contractor. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 303/778-7772.