Wednesday, January 12, 2011, 1:12 a.m.
St. Joseph’s Health Centre Emergency Room
[ This is an expansion from a portion of My Hospital Week, an article from a year ago. The general idea’s the same, but I’ve added a few details that don’t appear in the original article.]
I wake up because I can’t breathe. I inhale, but for some reason, air refuses to make its way in.
My head is abuzz with a number of disturbing questions:
Where is everybody?
Why isn’t anyone answering the call button?
Why can’t I breathe?
All are very unnerving, but they’re chump change next to the really big question:
Is this what dying’s supposed to feel like?
The room is ice cold, yet I, along with the half-done-up hospital gown I’m wearing and the wispy thin blanket wrapped around me, am drenched with sweat.
I have just realized that the icky sensation coming from the crook of my right elbow was the IV needle popping out of my vein, the result of thrashing about in panic from not being able to breathe. I pull on the cord for the emergency call button and realize why nobody’s answering: the other end is dangling freely. Like the needle, I have yanked it out of its proper place.
I wonder if I have just killed myself.
I try again, taking what should’ve been a deep breath. This time, a little air makes it through. If I am to get help, I’m going to have to get my sorry dead ass out of the bed and reconnect the button.
I try to sit up, but someone’s turned up the gravity. I have to grasp the bed railing and pull myself upright. This feat is made more difficult by the fact that my paws are slick with fever sweat. As I rise to perpendicular, a warm sensation starts at the top of my chest and works its way slowly down to what feels like the bottom of my lungs.
Please let this not be what dying feels like, I think.
Then that bloodyminded part of me chimes in. That’s probably the same part of me that insists there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the ridiculous choice of bringing an accordion to work, conferences, bars and so on, the part of me that looks at all the so-called sensible options and then picks something else. It says:
Fuck death. I’m not going out like this.
The only nearby source of light is the mostly-green glow of the monitor displaying what could laughably be called my vital signs. The heart rate monitor reads 150. Somewhere, on the wall behind the monitor, is the socket for the call button’s cable.
Business mode kicks in. Find the socket, re-insert the plug, hit the button, get help, not die. It’s that simple.
I need light, and that’s when inspiration strikes: I can use my phone. It’s still in my left pocket. I fish for it, and as I do so, I realize that sitting up has had a heretofore unnoticed but very welcome side effect: it’s easier to breathe. It’s still work, but I’m actually getting some O2 in. From there, hooking up the call button seems anticlimactic.
I have just beaten death. Yes, it will eventually win, but for this round, I get the shiny medal.
Later that morning
Surviving that horrible first night in the ER meant that I could graduate to the intensive care unit. A year later, with a clear head and not at death’s door, I can say “You know you’re in bad shape when the ICU is a step up.” But back then and there, in the shape I was in, I had no idea how badly off I was. As far as I was concerned, they were just moving me to another room.
It is one thing for a doctor to explain a patient’s situation to family members who don’t have a medical background. It’s something quite different when one of those family members is a doctor. It is again profoundly different when one of the family members is a colleague in the same hospital. That was the situation my doctor found himself in when talking to my mother (she’s Chief of Cardiology at the hospital), so all he could do was list what they were able to figure out about my case.
I had some kind of bug that was giving me severe fever-like symptoms and my airway had shrunk to 6 millimetres. They were seriously considering giving me a tracheotomy. They had no idea what I had – Flu? Pneumonia? Something else? – and lacking better information until the lab results came in, opted to take the shotgun approach and flood me with a full spread of antibiotics. My status was described as “touch and go”.
Sunday, January 16th, 2011, mid-morning
I wake up from my first night untethered – no IVs, no monitoring devices, no nuthin’. I’m no longer in a hospital gown but now a t-shirt and pajama pants. I’m out of the ICU and in an ordinary hospital room. That means that I’m also outside the Faraday cage and now internet access, which means I can tell the world I’m not dead.
The doctors tell me that they’re letting me go a day early – they have to free my bed for the next person with symptoms like mine – as long as I agree to stay at Mom’s house for a week and not go outside while the temperatures are 20 degrees below zero (Celsius; that’s –4 Fahrenheit). They give me prescriptions for oral antibiotics so powerful that they kill all sorts of bacteria, including the useful ones in your gut, giving me a fortnight of the trots.
The cause of my illness is still a little bit of a mystery. The best guess is that I got the flu, and one of the side effects was that a related infection inflamed the tissues around my throat, causing them to expand and shrink the airway to a trickle. I’d been on the road a lot and missed my opportunity to get a flu shot at work. It had been unusually cold for the week prior to my getting checked into the hospital. There was a particularly nasty variant of the flu going around the province. My defenses may have been down due to my recent separation and the ex’s moving out only days prior to my getting ill. Or maybe I just walked across the wrong sneeze.
As far as I’m concerned, the whys and wherefores mean very little: all that matters is that I’m getting out of the hospital, and better yet, I’m doing it alive.
The Months Between Then and Now
I’ll let the pictures tell the story…
Monday, January 16th, 2012, 8:30 a.m.
I was discharged from the hospital a year ago today. I thought I’d snap a bathroom mirror self-portrait like the one I took at the hospital after I’d been moved from the ICU into a regular room for old times’ sake; maybe I’ll make it an annual thing.
My then-coworker Christian Beauclair asked me shortly after I’d recovered if my near-death experience has changed me, and I wrote that my reply was something like this:
“I don’t think I’ve changed in the way that you sometimes hear about in the news, or see in the movies,” I said. “You know, like going crazy and taking up base jumping, or maybe running away and joining a commune or any other freak-out that you’re supposed to have after a near-death experience. It’s not so dramatic. It’s a little more subtle – I’m still doing things that are me, just…more so.”
I quit a very secure, high-paying job and joined a startup. I moved to Ottawa for the summer and went on a travel binge, racking up 20 flights in 2011. My family has noticed that I’m a happier person. Friends who’ve known me for a long time have told me that I’m like a distilled version of my earlier, more jovial self. Newer friends wonder what I’m on. The new girl probably thinks I’ve lost my mind, but she probably also thinks that’s why I’m fun enough to keep around.
As for me, I still find myself occasionally looking around, taking a deep breath and feeling impressed that everything still works.