While in the Clinical Research Center, about a week after my return, I came down with pneumonia. This raised on the part of the staff a level of concern that, initially, I did not understand. Their worry was that I had what they called “hospital pneumonia” and not the more ordinary “community pneumonia.” The former was said to be resistant to antibiotics, and, on the off-chance that I had it, I was put on a cocktail of antibiotics, delivered intravenously, that I had never heard of. They were harsh and corrosive, and, after a day or so, the vein into which they had been introduced would collapse. In time, the staff in the Department of Infectious Diseases, managed to grow a culture on my sputum, and from this they learned that I had “community pneumonia.” When the word came through, I was put on Amoxycylin, and I recovered with reasonable alacrity.
What I did not know the time was that the previous summer a woman with an antibiotic-resistant strain of Klebsiella pneumoniae, who was in desperate straits, had been brought from another hospital to the Clinical Research Center at NIH; that the antibiotics given her had failed to do the job; that, in the six or seven months that followed, the disease had spread to seventeen other patients at NIH; and that five of these had, as a consequence, died. The “hospital pneumonia” that the staff feared that I had contracted was the so-called superbug; and, as they almost certainly knew when they treated me, another patient – a boy who had had arrived in April – had been diagnosed with the disease on 25 July, the day after my return to the facility. He died this past week.
That I am now cancer-free and that I did not contract the superbug is a matter of dumb luck, and it gives one an appreciation for what modern science can do and for what it cannot do. It should also give one pause.
The particular superbug that ended the life of my fellow patient at NIH is found today in only 6% of American hospitals, but there are other antibiotic-resistant diseases lurking in other hospitals, such as Staphylococcus aureus, MRSA, E. coli, and Clostridium difficile, to mention just a few. In the years to come, their number will grow, and in the pipeline, I am told, there are almost no new antibiotics. If nothing is done, our children may live in a world akin to that of our forebears – in which there are no antibiotics capable of being deployed against the most common diseases.