From hotel to hospital: The perils of reporting in Pakistan

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The last time I worried about being the victim of a poison gas attack was in Baghdad, back when we still believed in the WMD fairy tale. The last place I ever expected a poison gas attack was in a five-star hotel here in Pakistan’s capital.

That, however, is more or less what occurred Monday morning when I stepped into room 245 of the Marriott Hotel. I ended up in the hospital an hour later.

It is still unclear exactly what happened, but first it’s important to say what I think did not happen: I greatly doubt that the country’s powerful spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or any other government office had anything to do with the poisoning.

It is true that I had arrived only the day before from Kabul and that it was the first visit to Pakistan by a New York Times correspondent in more than two years, when our then bureau chief Declan Walsh was expelled at the military’s insistence on 24-hours notice in May 2013.

Now I had been sent on a brief reporting trip to Islamabad to start making up for all that missed time in an important country, and was looking forward to a cushy stay in a place that is generally a lot safer than my usual haunts in Afghanistan.

Normally I would be the first to say I don’t believe in coincidences, but in this case I make an exception. It’s just too implausible. If only we lived in such a cloak-and-dagger world, what a good movie it would make, but fortunately we don’t.

In the case of my misadventure in at the Marriott in Pakistan, the trail led to a fumigation company in Islamabad that has been employed by the hotel for the past year, without any incident, according to hotel management.

And the chemical reportedly deployed, alphacypermethrin, sold under the brand name Fendona, is not fatal to mammals (let alone journalist-sized mammals) except in outlandish concentrations. There are a few recorded cases of human fatalities but they mostly read like Darwin-Award contenders: For instance, using a similar pyrethroid compound in liquid form in place of cooking oil to prepare dinner.

Monday morning, the Marriott was being fumigated by the pest-control company, and it had apparently just sprayed the corridor on the second floor although not, the hotel management said, the rooms themselves; most, like mine, had their doors closed.

Some of the spray might have filtered through the gap at the bottom of the door, however, and I had turned off the air conditioning in my room.

The moment I stepped inside I started coughing but thought little of it since I had just gotten over a cold. The coughing grew worse and worse, along with a variety of symptoms to be found in the truly scary anti-pesticide literature: rhinitis, mucosal irritation, upper respiratory distress, headache, dizziness, nausea, epigastric pain, vomiting, even brief convulsions at one point. My nose started bleeding, and as I tried to stanch that, blood came out of the mouth instead — probably just a sinus detour. (This may be more information than anyone needs, but there’s no point in getting sick if you can’t tell people about it.) Pretty soon the bathroom looked like someone had been ax-murdered in there, and I remember thinking — in my somewhat addled state — that I had to clean up the blood before the hotel staff saw it and summoned the police.

I called reception and asked if they would send a doctor, and they said hewould be there in 15 minutes — five-star hotels, you would expect that — so I tried sitting down. I was also mysteriously sleepy between bouts of violent hacking, but going to sleep seemed like a bad idea because I was not really sure from where my next breath was coming. Through the fog in my head, it occurred to me that fresh air might help, but the room had no windows that opened, so I stepped outside in the corridor and immediately felt a little better. When I went outside by the pool, the symptoms all eased dramatically.

Then and there I decided I was never again going to stay in a hotel where the windows do not open, no matter how many stars it might have.

The Marriott’s managers fessed up immediately to the ongoing fumigation and, at my insistence, agreed not to charge me for the night.

The American embassy helpfully directed me to one of the city’s two best private hospitals, Kulsum International, nestled on the upper floors of an otherwise shabby-looking shopping mall, at least in part because there was a University of Chicago-trained pulmonologist there. The diagnosis: minor damage to the passages in my lungs, which was treated with corticosteroids and a nebulizer with the sort of medications used to relieve a severe asthma attack.

Sometime in the middle of the night, a couple of worried Marriott officials dropped by to share their condolences — and confusion. No one else in the hotel, it seems, succumbed to the gas. Was I perhaps allergic or asthmatic? Unfortunately for that theory, I am neither.

After they took their leave, I saw that the hotel officials had left what was the biggest gift basket of fruit I had ever seen. It could have fed an entire primary school, and since we have a policy at The Times of never accepting presents, I asked the hospital staff to give it to someone needy.

I could see the words “American” and “Lawsuit” taking shape in the Marriott official’s minds when they visited me at the hospital, especially after I refused their offer to return to the Marriott with an upgraded room. They need not worry. Life is too short to spend it in court, especially in Pakistan.

As I went back to reporting, I was mindful that Pakistan is the world capital of conspiracy theory — the grander and more absurd, the better — so sooner or later someone will be spreading rumors that I was deliberately poisoned. After all, most Pakistanis still believe that 9/11 was carried out by the C.I.A. and Mossad. Reality, whether Al Qaeda lunatics or sloppy exterminators, is usually not so interesting as fantasy.

Even The Times’s medical insurance provider gets off easy on this one. The private room rate at the Kulsum International Hospital was less than half that of the Marriott, and the Wi-Fi was rather better. It crossed my mind just to stay there for the rest of my visit. The food was equally indifferent, but room service was faster.

This article originally appeared on The New York Times