If you get sick, New York City and Long Island are among the best places to be for medical care, I’ve heard. I’m not feeling that at the moment.
In fact, after a recent illness, I’m still wondering if I had the Zika virus, malaria or nothing at all. Go ahead, call me paranoid. But I have health insurance and was willing to pay for the blood and urine tests. Can’t someone help a girl out?
I returned in late January from an awesome vacation in Costa Rica with a group of friends: a little surfing, a little sunning and a good amount of mosquitoes. I was aware of the Zika virus, but because I’m not pregnant, I wasn’t worried about it. But along with the ceramic shot glasses I bought, I also arrived home with an array of mosquito bites.
No big deal, I thought. Until the day after I got home and I started feeling … not right. Chills, sweats, and a massive headache, and I don’t get headaches. Only about one in five people infected with Zika virus will actually become ill, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the most common Zika symptoms are fever, a rash, joint pain or conjunctivitis (red eyes). I thought I was clear. The next day, I was able to go to work and I felt great all day. But in the evening, back came the headache, the chills, the lethargy.
When I still didn’t feel right the next morning, I started making calls to get tested for Zika. Even though I didn’t exhibit the most common signs, I felt I had some of the symptoms and I just wanted to know for sure. I have two young children at home and there’s a lot we don’t know yet about this virus.
I first called the New York State Department of Health’s Zika information hotline. The woman who answered the phone patiently took down my information, listened to my symptoms and encouraged me to call my doctor and get blood and urine tests. She actually said it sounded more like I had malaria than Zika, but I should get tested for both: If I did have Zika, they could learn more about the onset of the virus and the symptoms.
‘Can’t you just take a blood sample?’
So, I called my primary care physician. When I told the receptionist my story, she said my doctor was with his last patient of the day and that I should call back in the morning. Seriously? Yes.
I hung up, then called back and asked the doctor to return my call. When he did, he said he had no idea how to handle it and that I should call the infectious disease division of Northwell Health on Long Island to get tested.
The woman on the phone there said that if I don’t regularly go to their office, I couldn’t get tested there. Her suggestion? Go to the nearest ER for the tests. That seemed to be an over-the-top, way too costly way to go about getting just a blood and urine test.
“I have insurance,” I told her. “Can’t you just take a blood sample?”
“No, sorry, have a good day.”
I then called a health clinic on Long Island, closer to where I live. After sitting on hold for a while, the woman who answered the phone gave me a rambling series of reasons why they would not take my blood. There was too much paperwork involved and she has to ask the medical director, which she was clearly unwilling to do. She also said she didn’t know what to do with the samples if she were to get them from me.
Go to the ER, she said.
So, I called the state health department information line back and told them how difficult it was to get someone to take a blood sample and she suggested calling the doctor’s office back and giving them the hotline number so they could walk them through what to do. I called back the health clinic, and attempted to give them the number where they could get all the information they needed. Their reply? No, we won’t do that.
I’m a persistent person and I thought I’d give this just one last try. After all, the New York State Department of Health told me the trick is to just find a doctor who’s willing to “play ball.”
As a last resort, I called my kids’ pediatrician’s office. In the past, they’ve given flu shots to parents, so I thought surely they’ll help a parent whose kids go to their office. Nope, in fact, the receptionist who answered the phone and heard my plight said, “This is the first we’re hearing of this Zika thing” and “we can’t help you.” And she hung up. Without even saying goodbye. Ouch.
After having yet another night of chills and headache, I still went to work the next day, but I went right to the Time Warner Health Center inside CNN. They checked me out, called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which said my symptoms sounded less like Zika and more like a mild case of malaria. The health practitioners encouraged me to go to NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell to get the rapid test for malaria, along with tests for Zika, dengue and chikungunya.
It was far from rapid. And when I got there, I realized this was … an emergency room. I sat in the ER from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. for a blood test that only tested for malaria. They refused to run the test for Zika and felt it wasn’t necessary to test for dengue and chikungunya. I asked the doctor who examined me, why wouldn’t they test me for Zika? She said because I’m not pregnant. And if I was pregnant, I asked? She said she didn’t know — she would have to figure it out.
By this time I was actually feeling much better, but had heard that the waxing and waning symptoms of malaria, if I have it, could reappear in weeks or years after contracting the virus. That alone was reason enough to get the test and rule it out.
Still in the ER, I waited. And waited. And waited. No result. The doctor’s assistant said he didn’t know when the result would come in and that they would just discharge me. “We’ll call you,” he said, “if the sample shows you have malaria.”
His sentiment left little confidence that they’d stay on top of it. They had me sit even longer to be discharged. It’s as if they forgot I was there. I got frustrated and just left.
It’s now the beginning of February, and I never did hear from the hospital about my test results. But I feel great, and I’m thankful for that.
How to get a test for Zika virus
So, what should you do if you think you could have Zika?
Not long after I had my blood test, CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden said “not everyone who wants a test will be able to get one at this time.” But if you might have been exposed and you’re pregnant, thinking about getting pregnant, or a man who is going to have unprotected sex with a woman who is pregnant or may become pregnant, the CDC suggests contacting your doctor about being tested for Zika. That recommendation came last week. By now, or even in a few weeks, it might actually be easier to get a test.
This week, I contacted Northwell Health, which said it’s advising ob/gyns to test any pregnant women who have traveled to affected countries. But the process they have to follow — getting authorization to perform urine and blood tests, completing forms about the patient and performing the tests, sending them to the lab and forwarding them to another lab — has caused “considerable challenges.”
I also reached out to NewYork-Presbyterian, where I spent time in the ER. In a statement, a spokesperson said the hospital follows the New York State Department of Health and CDC guidelines regarding testing for Zika virus and noted that “the guidelines are evolving as more information on the virus is found.”
I get that there’s snow on the ground in New York and it’s not mosquito season. I get that Zika isn’t a big worry here. But it doesn’t mean that New Yorkers haven’t been exposed. They do go on vacation and visit friends and family in places that have the virus. However, most of the doctors and nurses I encountered had no idea what to do and didn’t seem interested in finding out.
The bitter irony? The only mechanism to get tested for Zika was to go to the emergency room and sit there for hours, probably exposing myself to any number of other illnesses.
And the real rub? I couldn’t even get tested for Zika virus.