A flu nightmare in Panama
PANAMA. As the number of swine flu cases rises around the world, so is a gradual backlash -- with some saying the threat the virus pose...
PANAMA. As the number of swine flu cases rises around the world, so is a gradual backlash -- with some saying the threat the virus poses has been blown out of proportion.
In Panama, since before any confirmed cases of swine flu, health officials had adopted a policy of screening people entering the country through any of its ports for possible flu symptoms. Suspicious cases were to be placed under observation.
Concern over the new virus, which led to the different measures taken by governments around the world, has been constantly justified because lack of immunity makes it potentially risky.
Yet drawing a line between “a cause for concern but not alarm,” as described by US President Barack Obama, has proven difficult, with many non-contaminated victims paying the price.
Hidden between the precautionary measures are cases like Pete Sukosky’s, who’s pink eye (conjunctivitis) turned his latest visit to Panama into a travel story from hell.
In an article recently published by The Philadelphia Inquirer (“A flu nightmare, without swine flu”) Sukosky claims that worried that he represented the first flu case in Panama authorities handcuffed him, denied him phone calls, and paraded him in front of reporters.
His tests turned out to be negative.
Sukosky is a seasoned traveler, fluent in Spanish.
"I think I was a victim of this sort of hysteria that has been sowed about swine flu," he told The Inquirer, back on the job as a drug-company sales representative in South Jersey.
"Honestly, I love Panama City," he said, as he conceded having played some role in what happened -- leaving the hospital and kicking a table both out of fear and frustration.
Swine flu was inciting fears worldwide on April 29 when Sukosky arrived in Panama after a week's vacation with friends in the Colombian coastal city of Cartagena.
After spending the night, Sukosky, 32, woke up with the swelling and redness of conjunctivitis.
"I showed up at the ticket counter, and when I took off my sunglasses [the agent] said, 'You look terrible.' " He was directed to an airport clinic, where drops were put in his eyes. The clinic told him that he could get more medication at Santo Tomas Hospital.
There, he paid the $2 fee to be examined and get eyedrops.
"First they were asking me where I had come from, I had a sore throat -- I had been smoking Cuban cigars -- and then all of a sudden they wanted to do a swab test," said Sukosky, who lives in Maple Shade.
They told him that swine flu had been confirmed in New Jersey.
He waited six hours for results that he'd been told would take 30 minutes, went out to eat, and was called at his hotel to return to the hospital, where he waited two or three hours more.
"Finally a doctor comes in and says you tested positive for influenza A" -- the broad category that includes many seasonal flus and H1N1 -- "and you have to stay overnight" for a definitive test, Sukosky said.
When he saw a nurse locking a nearby door and pocketing a key, he left again for his hotel. "I knew I wasn't sick," he said. "I was a little bit scared. I truly thought they might just be playing with me for being an American. "The health authorities -- clad in scrubs, masks, and goggles -- military and police showed up in the morning, along with reporters and cameramen.
"The first thing I said is, 'I'll go, but I want to call my family in the States,' " Sukosky said, but he said he was told he could not.
When the police blocked a public phone at the hospital, preventing him from calling the U.S. Embassy, he got angry. "I was raising my voice, but essentially it was fear."
He kicked a table. Glass vials fell. Handcuffs came out, and he was taken through admissions in the front of the hospital, where "every patient covered their mouth and took off running," Sukosky said, an event that he believes was staged for the news media.
He was eventually allowed to use a phone. He called his mother in Avondale, Chester County, who called the US State Department.
He was given what he believes was Ativan, an antianxiety drug, and was out for the night.
Embassy officials were en route to the hospital, responding to the Panamanian government's report of an American with swine flu, when they got the message that his mother was seeking their help, he said.
Asked by a reporter about the case, the State Department declined to release details, citing patient confidentiality. A spokesman did confirm that an official who Sukosky said visited him at the hospital works in the embassy.
The definitive test for H1N1 came back negative, and Sukosky was released. He arrived home May 5.
In his last hours at Santo Tomas Hospital, Sukosky was able to talk at length with the medical staff and a police officer about his frustrations, especially the denied phone calls.
"In the end I think they were pretty sympathetic," he said, and understood that "I was far from home and I had a family that was worrying about me."
Would he do anything differently?
"I would definitely enable my cell phone to work overseas," he said, rather than depending on access to a public phone. "And I would definitely have the phone numbers for the embassy as well"
"There was a lot of hype about swine flu," he said. "I just got caught up in it."
Sukosky’s ordeal is an unfortunate case in health officials’ measures to curtail the spread of swine flu in the country, after which 29 people were found with confirmed cases.