Wednesday, December 5, 2007

How to Avoid Food Poisoning

Last weekend my cousin came down with food poisoning. She had a horrible weekend: there was probably a lot of throwing up, dry heaving, and hanging around the toilet. When not retching, she was sleeping it off, hoping that the feeling would go away and magically wake up without the throbbing in her head or nausea.

I’ve gotten food poisoning once before and luckily for me it was a brief experience, lasting only one night, but I remember it vividly.

It happened in early 2003, and I was working for a national accounting firm for a little over a year. The firm was short-staffed and I was asked to lead a complex project that was way over my head. During this project I sometimes had trouble breathing and my heart would race because I was learning things as I went along and doing my very best not to show the client my shortcomings. As an auditor, the worst thing you could do was appear stupid or clueless, and your biggest fear was the client committing fraud without you catching on. Fortunately that was not the case and I got through the experience. The project taught me a lot about myself and about getting the job done no matter what. It also taught me that whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.

(Let me clarify here that I was an auditor for a public accounting firm, and not for the IRS. My job was to make sure that a company’s financial statements were presented fairly and in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles. Public accounting firms are hired by companies whose stock is traded on the stock market or by companies that need to present financial statements to their lenders. Whenever I told people I was an “auditor” they recoiled in horror and probably imagined me grilling them over their tax returns. For the record, I only know enough about taxes to prepare and file my own returns. That being said, I tell annoying people that ask what I do for a living that I am an auditor and that is usually enough to shut them up.)

Towards the end of fieldwork, the project manager took the team (meaning me and another person) out to lunch. It’s customary for the manager to take the team out to a nice lunch every time he/she comes out to visit as a way of showing their appreciation for the hard work. We went to an Italian restaurant and sat down for a fancy meal. I ordered a nice salad with dry cheese (parmesan?) and a pizza. I made small talk with the manager about lots of things, like how the work was coming along and how the client was treating us (only a few more loose ends to tie up, the client was pleasant, etc.). Then I told the manager that the restaurant decor (bright yellow walls with terracotta tile flooring) reminded me of the bathroom I was renovating at home. What a weird comment – I was basically juxtaposing food and toilets – and I could only imagine what was going through his head. I blame it on stress and lack of sleep; I was so tired during that time that the mechanism in my head that filtered these comments was on strike. Little did I know how much that comment would later come back to haunt me.

After lunch, we went back to work, focused on getting the job done. Around 4 pm I started getting a headache and a funny feeling in my stomach but I ignored it and soldiered on: THERE WAS SO MUCH WORK LEFT TO DO. I continued ignoring the pain until 6 pm, at which point it started to feel like someone was hitting my head with a sledgehammer, and it was impossible to concentrate. The pain was so bad that I left work early (6 pm was considered early back then, even if you started at 7 am) and collapsed on my bed an hour later. That’s when the nausea hit, forcing me to get on my knees and worship the porcelain god. I held that position for at least an hour; in between episodes I lay on the bathroom floor and begged my stomach for mercy. After the dry heaving stopped, I took a shower and went into a coma for the rest of the night.

Amazingly, I was fine the next morning and ready to go back to work. It was as if the painful episode from the night before didn’t happen. I got dressed, pick out something to wear and was putting on my makeup when I noticed the sunny yellow wall in front of me and the cool terracotta tiles under my feet. It all came rushing back to me at that moment – my comment about the restaurant décor matching my bathroom, and the realization that the food was contaminated. Euh! Euh! Euh! Yuuuuucckkk! Thoughts of the chef preparing my salad and pizza in an environment like a bathroom, where the most revolting germs live, danced in my head and almost made me sick all over again. I had to sit down for a few minutes and drink some green tea to settle my stomach. Never ever eat in restaurants that match your bathroom décor! My comment should’ve been a warning to me that the food I was going to consume was tainted – why else would I have made such an observation? I should have put it together somehow.

The next time you’re in a restaurant, even a posh one, think to yourself: does this restaurant look like my bathroom? If it does, back away from the table and find another place to eat. This may spare you from the pain and anguish of food poisoning.

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