03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

"I Don't Want to Die in Chile:" Swine Flu in the Desert

It was supposed to be a celebration.

Our son Everett had survived his first semester at Yale. He left his last exam to make it back to Baltimore for his mother's last newscast. I was retiring from TV news after more than 30 years at the anchor desk to write and be my husband's travel partner. All three of us were so looking forward to 'chilling in Chile.'

The best laid plans...

Hours after my sign-off, the blizzard of 2009 hit the East Coast. Before it would end a record-breaking 2 feet of snow would bury us and our travel plans. Not to be victimized by a little weather, we jumped in a rented SUV and drove to Raleigh, North Carolina to catch the only available flight that would connect with our international flight.

It wasn't easy, but we made it to Santiago. Our final destination was the remote Atacama. Billed as the driest place on earth, our eco- vacation in the high desert (8,000 feet high) awaited us. We were greeted by the Explora staff, a warm and caring group of Chileans that we would bond with in a way nobody could have predicted.

Our first excursion was a gentle hike through Death Valley that ended with a 200- foot vertical sand dune that you slide down... fun! Ev was a bit weary from the trip (we thought) so Brian and I decided to go it alone. After going back to the lodge for a late dinner and a magical visit to Explora's observatory to star gaze... we were in heaven.

The next morning we joined a group bike ride through some salt flats... the payoff being a dip in a lake as salty as the Dead Sea. Everyone enjoyed the cooling swim except for Ev who couldn't stop shivering in spite of the heat. Our boy wasn't himself. Could it be it exhaustion, jet lag, or altitude?

The story was dominating my newscasts and my husband's medical journals... but it was happening to other people's sons and daughters. Everett had all the signs: high fever (106!),
Excruciating head and body aches, nausea, listlessness, etc. But it took an early morning visit (courtesy of our hosts at Explora) to a clinic in the nearby town of San Pedro to confirm what we already knew: the boy had Swine Flu. The epidemic had hit South America months ago... which is why the local doctor had plenty of Tamiflu on hand. We received two prescriptions: one for the patient who's already sick, the second for his dad who would be sleeping with him for the next week (needless to say neither guy had gotten the vaccine.)

It is not an exaggeration to say I have never been so terrified in my life. Making matters worse, it was the first time my husband, an intensive care doctor who sees the sickest of the sick, couldn't make him better. A few days into the nightmare Brian had me looking into our options... an evacuation to sea level and a referred infectious disease doc in Santiago could only help. But the boy was too weak to move. He couldn't leave his bed without help and passed out in the shower.

He was practically incoherent when he murmured, "I don't want to die in Chile."

Brian was in touch with colleagues at Johns Hopkins Hospital who instructed him to watch for signs of pneumonia. Explora guests celebrated Christmas with a barbecue off-site... we stayed with our son in his room which the wonderful staff had equipped with Gatorade, a vaporizer, computer, and DVD's. Explora is not a luxury resort, but it may be the most nurturing place on earth.

Happy New Year!
After a harrowing week none of us will ever forget (including our new best friends in Chile) we made our way back to Santiago. The only souvenir from Atacama... a lingering bronchitis. The patient is 12 pounds lighter (so much for the Freshman Ten.) He is now home, enjoying his last week of winter break before returning to New Haven. His parents will take longer to heal... and tell anyone who will listen: Get vaccinated. H1N1 is not yesterday's news or someone else's story. It could be yours tomorrow.