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Having a little skin in the game

J. Adam Calaway

By J. Adam Calaway, Director of Communications and Public Relations

Posted May 23, 2013

The reality of traveling to Uganda didn't really sink in until April 4 - shot day. Before that, the process had consisted of passport paperwork and purchasing plane tickets (which someone else did for me).

Each developing country requires a different set of shots, based on potential exposure. For perspective, some of these shots can't be administered at your local doctor's office or health department because either (a) the disease they prevent is so rare that the vaccine isn't available in the U.S. or (b) the vaccine is so rare it's centralized at one point. Comforting, right?

Most international travelers from the Sooner State invariably land at the Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH) in Oklahoma City. For those who have never been to the OSDH, let me paint you a picture - it's a melting pot of humanity.

I arrived on a cloudless spring day with pep in my step. Adventures always generate personal energy and somehow you think that everyone else will match your excitement. They typically do not.

Entering OSDH, I'm greeted by a man who I'm convinced played Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. When I asked where to go for international travel shots, he pointed to a rather large sign that reads "International Travel" in block letters. His frown called me stupid. I smiled sheepishly and thanked him.

On the far wall of the main room at the OSDH, there are six windows that resemble bank teller windows, except the ladies here are ensconced behind thick sheets of bulletproof glass. In hindsight, this should have been a clue.

At the fifth window, I found a pleasant lady with a broad smile. She asked me about my trip, while whipping through paperwork on a clipboard. When I asked if she had traveled abroad, she said, "Oh, heavens, no. I would never go to one of those countries."


I took my place in the sea of maroon plastic chairs and surveyed my fellow OSDH detainees. One guy about eight rows back had his hoodie pulled low and was sound asleep (because the chairs were so comfortable). A woman sat quietly a few rows in front of me. To her left, a mother wrangled a fidgety child.

All in all, a pretty normal crowd sans the young man three rows back noisily devouring a bag of Funyuns. For the record, Funyuns are neither fun nor onions. They possess roughly 26,000 chemical compounds and emit an odor akin to summertime road kill. If you look at the list of ingredients on the side of the bag, it just says: Seriously you don't want to know. Yet, this - I'm guessing - teenager ate them with an eagerness only seen by the kids in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

As I pondered the deeper meanings behind Thomas the Tank Engine (playing on the room's large TV), I noticed I was not issued a number, but a letter - K.

K? K stood for what? Konundrum? No, that's not right. Was it random? No explanation. It will go down as another unanswerable question of the OSDH like What's that smell? and Why does it look like 1972 in here?

About 20 minutes into my 10-minute wait, Jenni came and fished me out of the waiting pool. Jenni was about 55 and lean, with a toothy smile. She had red hair which I took as a good sign. Gingers trust other gingers. It's hard to explain, but I felt instantly connected to my shot Sherpa.

We weaved our way back into the bowels of the OSDH building. We passed two other smaller waiting rooms, both plastered with antidrug and abstinence posters, before landing in a small gray cubicle the size of a refrigerator box. Other shot recipients were within arm's reach. So much for privacy.

Visitors to Uganda are only required to receive a yellow fever shot. However, Jenni provided me a Typhoid Mary menu that listed all the potential diseases and the outcome to my health if I were to contract one. You can order up anything you want to appease your inner hypochondriac: tetanus, meningitis and the hepatitis twins A and B, among many others.

Jenni went through them one by one as though she was giving a dramatic reading of King Lear. Bottom line: Jenni was convinced I was probably going to get sick from this trip. At one point, she leaned close and whispered, "They have several diseases over there that we don't have here." This is the moment my confidence died. Umm ... yup, I know, Jenni, that's why I'm here.

I also learned a new phrase that will haunt my dreams and I now impart it to you - traveler's diarrhea. (Shudder. Gag. Sigh). "You're probably going to get this," she said. I asked Jenni if she had ever experienced any of these diseases from her travels. She said, "Oh, heavens, no. I would never go to one of those countries."

Double nice.

As she wrapped up her presentation, Jenni gave me three warnings, "Don't drink the water. Don't brush your teeth with it. Don't swim in it." Apparently, if I look at the water I'm doomed.

Secondly, she said these exact words: "If you see someone coughing up blood, don't go talk to them." Wait, what? So you're saying I'm not supposed to rush in and splash their blood on my face? Why, Jenni? Sheesh. If someone within a 10-block radius of my house in Ardmore started coughing up blood, I'd move.

In the end, I ordered up yellow fever and Hep A shots. Jenni expertly administered them. I never felt either shot. (A few weeks later, I would follow up at the Ardmore Health Department and get tetanus and meningitis shots. I did feel those.)

Having someone intentionally plunge live viruses into your body does impart a certain clarity. I now had skin in the game - literally. This clearly isn't a vacation. No one heading to Disney World is worried they'll contract typhoid from Mickey Mouse.

This trip - at some small level - carries with it risk. In reality, it can be mitigated (malaria pills and shots, planning and proper resources), but the chance that a problem might occur always generates apprehension. In the end, I come back to this thought: all great moments in life - marriage, children, trips to Uganda - all come with some level of risk. Life is risky, but the reward is well worth it.

At the very least, they don't ask me to eat Funyuns. I wonder if they have a shot for that?