Draft: Romania’s Silent Killer

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Foreigners visiting Romania often worry about health hazards implicit in visiting what was until fairly recently a Communist dictatorship. I tell them not to worry about it, since in the cities the water and food are all perfectly clean by European and American standards. However, there is a serious health hazard that stalks Romania, one which foreigners rarely think of. If the reports are true, then this epidemic is responsible for numerous illnesses, hospitalizations, and even deaths. It is little publicized in official sources, but nearly any Romanian on the street will be able to tell you all about it.

I’m talking about curent.

Curent in this context means "draft", as in a drafty door, or opening a window to let in a draft. People from outside Romania may believe that a draft is a nuisance (if you’re cold) or a welcome relief (if you’re too warm), but the Romanians will set you straight. If you catch a draft, you are in mortal peril.

The early symptoms of catching a draft include a headache, toothache, soreness of the neck, stiff joints, stuffy nose, sore throat, coughing, or sneezing. If untreated, the draft will continue to worm its way into your system and metastasize into pneumonia, arthritis, polio, and dementia. People have died from catching drafts. Especially vulnerable are the elderly and small children, which is why members of both demographics are traditionally dressed in the warmest clothes that they can find all through the summer—the best defense against the draft is a set of wool stockings and a scarf, even if it’s 40 C outside.

I had been in Romania for a while and heard about curent a few times, but the true seriousness of curent only struck me when the summer began. At the school where I was teaching I wandered into the kitchen, where a group of six women were preparing a meal for some guests. It was hot outside, and several pots of boiling water were on the burners around the kitchen, turning the crowded little kitchen into a sweltering sauna. After a few minutes I went over and opened the window, only to be immediately shouted down by the women. I was letting in a draft.

But weren’t they hot? Indeed they were, and I could see the sweat and discomfort on several of their faces. But the health dangers of cool moving air were far too great to risk for mere comfort.

I observed similar things on several other occasions. On crowded public buses during the summer heat, any attempt to open a window would be countered by immediate protestations about the draft. Friends and neighbors would close the windows of my room for me if they noticed them open, to protect me from the draft’s depredations. I heard a young woman complaining of a persistent headache and nausea which was blamed on sleeping with her head too close to her computer’s exhaust fan. It was a small draft, but it was enough.

Curiously, a draft’s lethality seems to be greatly reduced outside of Romania, to the point where many foreigners don’t concern themselves with it at all, and even claim to enjoy having a window open on a warm day. That doesn’t mean that it’s not real, however. Indeed, it’s as real as Korean Fan Death, another silent killer whose victims lie largely in a single country.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Thanksgiving

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We’ve been sick in my house.

It began with the littlest, who spent one restless night being tormented by vomiting and diarrhea. The next day he seemed to be better, but when the afternoon rolled around we found that our other son had thrown up during his nap, and was curled up shivering on the floor and whimpering. He spent the next several hours being cradled in my arms and vomiting periodically, finally perking up just before bedtime.

Then it was my turn. Just after our kids went to bed I vomited once, then swiftly deteriorated into intense nausea, stomach pain, and headaches. From 11pm to 5am I woke up every half-hour on the nose and emptied my belly into the toilet, though of course my stomach was empty after the first few times, leaving me with dry heaves that felt like my intestines were trying to expel themselves through my mouth. Intermittent diarrhea completed the torment. As of now, late the next day, I’m only partially recovered, having waddled through the daylight hours bearing up under only mild nausea, exhaustion, and a headache.

My poor, long-suffering wife has so far avoided the bug, but she’s suffered two consecutive nights of essentially no sleep taking care of her children and husband. The house is a disaster—it’s amazing what two children under four can do when their parents are too ill or exhausted to stop them. But we just might be finally looking out the other side of this.

So naturally my thoughts turned to thanksgiving.

There’s nothing like a period of sickness to make you suddenly grateful for health. I don’t get sick very often. It is easy for my to consider my hardiness as the natural state of things, and to be proud, somehow, of the resilience of my immune system, as if I had forged it myself out of white blood cells and antibodies. A few days of sickness will teach me humility. It is hard to be proud when you’re clinging to a toilet bowl, reeking of puke and sweat and diarrhea, too miserable to even wish to get better, hoping only to somehow get through the next few minutes. After emerging from an episode like this, the return of health and wholeness can be appreciated for what it is: a gift, a blessing, grace.

I read today the following words over at Fr. Stephen Freeman’s blog:

We see ourselves as the agents of change – or responsible for many of the disasters that litter our lives. Those who “succeed” imagine that they are the masters of their fate, or, perhaps the ones who responsibly “chose” God.

For the weak, the addict, the genetically impaired, the myth of choice and the power of freedom are often experienced as a merciless taunt. We not only fail – it is judged that we fail because we have not willed to succeed. Our weakness becomes a curse, while the blessed enjoy their prosperity and their health.

I am, for the most part, one of the blessed. I have been given a lovely family, a stable job, excellent friends, and a surfeit of other gifts. This bout of illness serves to remind me not to look down on those with fewer gifts, and confuse blessing with merit. I don’t deserve any of this, and it can be taken away, for a few days or forever.

But while I enjoy the gifts that I have, I give thanks.