The gut-wrenching, stomach-turning consequences of international travel

     (<a href=''>Medical sample kit</a> image courtesy of

    (Medical sample kit image courtesy of

    Returning from vacation in a third-world land earlier this year, I developed traveler’s diarrhea. I spent five full days in bed, getting up only to run to the john. I was so exhausted that I could barely hold my head up high enough to watch TV through the middle of my trifocals. I read every book on my nightstand and was nearly ready to revisit “Through the Looking Glass.”

    Perhaps you’ve been there. Tired of being sick — not through the looking glass.

    So I visited my internist’s office, where an assistant invited me to visit the bathroom and produce a sample. A sample “stool culture.” If that sounds like a museum exhibit of mid-century modern chairs and benches, think again. What she actually wants is a representative portion of the germs that live in my intestines.

    She bestowed upon me a large brown grocery bag containing three vials: one the size of a small margarine container and two with diameters as tiny as a ring for my tiny granddaughter’s tiny pinkie.

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    Spare the details, spoil the story. The bathroom had six stalls, but the large one, which would allow space for me to turn around, perhaps, had no coat hook. Not wanting my purse or scarf tassels in my business, I entered every stall until I found one with a hook — the smallest cubicle, in fact. The one for 9-year-olds. It was too small to allow turning around. I faced the side wall and placed the containers on the arc that tops the toilet-paper roll. Not quite enough space, but to put them on the floor, there wasn’t adequate space for my feet.

    I filled the margarine tub and delivered it to the laboratory. The disgruntled lab tech (Who would be happy to accept such brown paper packages — and not even tied up with string?) opened the bag and announced that I had to fill the tiny containers, too.


    Spoon the sample — omigod — into the smaller vials using the dippers attached to the caps. Did I remember to bring a spoon to my doctor’s office? Not even a bendy plastic coffee stirrer? What was I thinking?

    Here’s the ghastly part: Perform this deed in the same bathroom. Over the sink. The idea didn’t thrill me, and it would not delight users of this space to follow, if they ever learned of it. I thought: At least I don’t have to perform this stunt at home.

    I do as instructed, replace the vile vials in the brown bag, and leave. I would have cleaned the spills on the toilet-paper dispenser with a warm, wet paper towel and some hand soap, but I couldn’t. No hot water. No soap. For real? What to do?

    I left the public bathroom — in a hospital building — in a state of filth.

    The receiving tech told me, essentially, that she only works there, that the lab is an independent contractor, and she doesn’t give a poop what happens until she can go home.

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