TB diagnosis bursts bubble of complacency

A small bump goes a long way.

A thin silver needle punctures an extended forearm.  A small injection occurs, immediately leaving a small bubble on the surface of the skin. It is now time to wait 72 hours, where a bump or flat surface is the difference between graduating or not graduating.

Monica Lin is a third-year student in the Early Childhood Education program at Ryerson University.  To ensure the safety of the children she would be working with each winter semester, a tuberculosis test is administered every two years.  This year, a small, unwanted bump on her forearm stopped her from completing another successful year.

“I was sitting on the bus a few days after I had done the TB test,” Lin said.  “I looked at my arm and what should have been a little dot, was a purple bump.  I knew something was wrong.”

Lin tested positive for a tuberculosis infection.  This infection could potentially push her goal of helping children aside.  What’s more she has to endure it without her family.

“My whole family is in Taiwan,” Lin said.  “I never thought that this would happen.  All I wanted to do when I found out was to be back home.”

According to the Toronto Public Health website, tuberculosis (TB) is a contagious disease caused by TB bacteria that usually attack the lungs.

Elizabeth Wilhelm, a nurse for the Tuberculosis Prevention and Control Program, explained the importance of getting tested for tuberculosis when working with children.

“Tuberculosis is highly contagious when active, and children have weak immune systems,” Wilhelm said.  “It can spread from their lungs to their brain in a short amount of time, and can be fatal.”

When working with children on a daily basis, it is necessary to get tested every two years to ensure their safety, she said.

The field placement that Lin’s program offers every winter semester was put on hold as she took the necessary precautions to make sure her infection doesn’t become active.

“One third of the world’s population carries the tuberculosis infection,” Wilhelm said.  “10 per cent of those carriers will have the infection become a disease.”

A chest x-ray showed that Lin carried the inactive infection. Consequently she had to begin taking antibiotics daily to keep the TB infection dormant.

“It’s hard for me to take the pills the same time, every day,” Lin said. “I have school, work and a social life. I know it is for the best, but it is tedious.”

Lin’s mother Ya-Wen Jun is a youth care worker in Taiwan. She was one of the reasons that Lin decided to apply to the Early Childhood Education Program at Ryerson University.

“My mom worked hard to help other people,” Lin said.  “I used to go with her to various shelters.  I can still remember how attached the children were to her.”

While Jun is doing what she can to help her daughter get by, she does not lose hope.

“I am sad for my daughter,” Jun said.  “God gave (her) a battle to fight, and I know she will win.”

Lin’s diagnosis raised the awareness of TB within her family. Lin had called her father, Shin-Hua Lin, in Taiwan, and insisted that they get tested.

“I don’t know how I got TB,” Lin said. “I think it may have been from when I was in Taiwan. My first thought was to get my family to do the tests too.”

Lin’s father and her two brothers, Peter and Quintin Lin, all tested positive for the tuberculosis infection.

“If Monica did not do the test, my whole family (would) have the infection and not know,” Jun said.

It’s unclear how the majority of Lin’s family carry the tuberculosis bacterial infection.  Wilhelm said that it may originate in their home country.

“The risk of contracting TB is especially high in a country like Taiwan where there is a high percentage of TB carriers,” Wilhelm said. “It is spread through airborne transmission.”

Despite her infection, Lin feels that it is a blessing in disguise of sorts.

“I would rather be diagnosed with the TB infection than to live my life without knowing,” Lin said. “I will be OK in the long run, and I am glad that now my family will be too.  Who knows what would have happened if I didn’t do the test?”

TB infection is treatable as long as the medication is taken daily for six to 12 months, Wilhelm said. As for Lin, she is able to take part in an international field placement in Taiwan this May, when she will be working at a children’s shelter, to make up for lost time.

She hopes to  graduate from Ryerson University next year, and plans to pursue a career working with children in Taiwan.