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Feel pity for those who don't have the flu; Workplace: Avoiding the bug does not mean escaping the suffering.


The news declares "Flu epidemic!" hospital beds fill up, and hacking rings throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.

But not everyone has become a Nyquil-aholic or a Kleenex junkie. Many are still standing -- no coughing, no body aches, no fever. And yet in the midst of this flu outbreak, the healthy must suffer, too.

They have to deal with everything from feeling overworked to developing their own system of flu warfare and etiquette. In some cases, the side effects -- the psychological ones, at least -- are apparent.

Over coffee at the Inner Harbor, Maria Geronimo, 24, a nurse at Sinai Hospital, says so many hospital staffers have been out with the flu that she and her friends have acute cases of stress.

"It's been pretty crazy," says Geronimo, an Annapolis resident. "We do have empathy for ourselves."

Nicole McGuill, 32, who works for a Northern Virginia software company, has a few things to say about her sick co-workers.

Not only does McGuill not feel sorry for them, but in some ways she's downright resentful. At work, she says, they cough on the phones and other places, like "the guy who was sitting at lunch hacking a lung up." Not to mention those who blow their noses with abandon in the cafeteria.

Her friend and co-worker, Susan Funke, 44, isn't dripping with empathy either.

Of the flu- and cold-ridden, she scoffs: "They don't take care of themselves. The office sounded like a TB ward."

Get a flu shot, she says, in a "get-a-life" tone.

Frequent work absences in the last month are raising the unpleasant suspicion of flu fakers: perfectly healthy individuals who slide through the system with flu excuses.

"There are people who take advantage of it," says John Bernstein, 46, director of the Maryland Environmental Trust, a state-sponsored agency. "You know who in the office is aware of how much sick leave they have."

It makes him appreciate the die-hard employees even more. "There are other people, even if they're sick, who come in, get the work done," says Bernstein, a Glyndon resident.

Putting up with flu fallout in the workplace is one thing, but imagine if you were constantly surrounded by hundreds of mini germ-monsters.

"If they start coughing, I just say, 'Take it easy,' " says Diana Six, a physical education teacher at Pinewood and Riderwood elementary schools in Baltimore County. "You never know what everyone's carrying around."

Six adds that this year seems like the worst in a long time for flu-related absences. To minimize her risk of getting sick, Six keeps rubbing alcohol by the telephone and washes her hands after every class period.

She's also found a sense of humor helps to cheer up the little sickies. She'll throw up her hands at a sniffling student and make a joke to the effect of "I don't want to catch what you have."

Learning flu etiquette, or how to politely extract yourself from an ailing acquaintance, is another burden of the flu-less.

Brenda Fischer, 26, explains how she dealt with her buddy, Shirley Schmitz, who was suffering recently.

"We all thought, 'Stay away from us,' " say Fischer, a lab technician at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Schmitz, 26, also an Aberdeen technician, agrees: "They all alienated me."

But Schmitz's brush with the flu didn't make her any more sympathetic toward fellow sufferers, including her husband, Matthew.

"He was just pathetic," she says. "He thought he was dying."

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