If this were an episode of "House,"the cranky, pill-popping doctor would long ago have diagnosed my brain abscess as caused by an ingrown toenail. Dr. House often finds the solution to his mystery cases in the family medical histories of his patients. But in my case the family medical history only complicated things.
In the age of prosperity and antibiotics, tuberculosis is a disease of people who live in cardboard boxes under bridges. (At least in countries without, ahem, a national health insurance program.) But as anyone who knows Romantic poets, Victorian novels or grand opera is aware, it used to be more widespread.
My mother had tuberculosis when I was 3 or 4. She spent a year in a sanitarium and had part of a lung removed, yet she lived to be 75. (She might have lived longer -- her sister lived till she was 90 -- if she hadn't given in to depression and essentially starved herself to death, refusing to eat. Which is why I'm no foe of antidepressants.) Moreover, her father, who lived with us until I was 8 or 9, also had TB. So whenever I have to fill out one of those medical history questionnaires the doctor give you, I mention this exposure.
TB is not all that contagious, I think. None of my mother's six siblings contracted it, nor did my father. But I've had a history of upper-respiratory crud -- from sinusitis to pneumonia (twice) to an empyema, so doctors are quick to send me to X-ray.
Which is good, except that this time they decided that TB was a prime suspect, even though the usual pinprick skin test was negative, and they sent me to lock-up: a private room in the contagious ward, accessed by a kind of airlock and only by people wearing face masks. I spent three days there producing sputum samples -- coughing (even though I didn't have much to cough) into a little plastic cup full of weird-smelling chemicals.
I don't have TB, and I suppose I should be grateful for their thoroughness in making sure of the fact. But for a time there I wondered if instead of being Bette Davis in Dark Victory -- alerted to the onset of death from a brain tumor by losing her eyesight -- I was going to be Greta Garbo in Camille. Fortunately, I'm neither.