What I Learned from Almost Dying – and What the Hell Happened to Me?

A bunch of my friends under 45 have already had cancer. I’ve confessed many times that an incapacitating illness is my greatest fear, and not just for the obvious implications. What happens to a one-woman business when that woman disappears? Would there be a strong enough safety net for my family for school transport and general daily life? Missing the gym for a cold has felt like agony – what would happen if I was really laid out?

And then God was like, “Girl, I’m about to show you how that all goes down.”

Nietzsche or Kelly Clarkson - must be true, right?
Nietzsche or Kelly Clarkson – must be true, right?

Now, like any good storyteller I am prone to hyperbole: the following is not exaggerated or embellished in anyway.

Monday, May 16: I feel uncontrollable chills and just can not get warm. It’s 67 degrees outside. My back has been hurting anyway from something stupid I did at the gym so I go to bed early. A few hours later I wake up vomiting and that is how I spend the rest of the night.

Tuesday, May 17: I am in a feverish haze all day. I’m basically delirious and not sure if I am saying things out loud or in my head.

Wednesday, May 18: I think I’m feeling a little better. I stay in bed but imagine I am on the uptick from a stomach flu.

Thursday, May 19: I am not on the uptick. My fevers aren’t breaking. I go to the ER at Pennsylvania Hospital. They give me two liters of fluids and some tylenol and discharge me. I beg them to admit me. I tell them I feel very sick and I don’t feel safe. I implore them to keep me overnight to be monitored. They refuse and kick me to the curb. I await a bill from them for at least $350 – with insurance. (Reason #1 the US Healthcare system is f#&*ed)

Friday, May 20: My fever is at or above 103 all day despite taking Tylenol and Ibuprofen. My sister in law is a nurse at Methodist and offers to bring me in with her so I will be properly seen to. Just before she arrives I projectile vomit across the room like Linda Blair. I tell my husband to forgo all eco values and go get some Clorox Bleach stat.

What follows is blurry:

I arrive at Methodist and don’t think I’ll make the walk to the triage. I am promptly ensconced by at least a half dozen nurses who inform me that my blood pressure is scary low and I am in septic shock. I know of two people who have had sepsis – an old friend with AIDS who died shortly after and Tony Soprano after a gunshot wound. I have an IV put in my groin to try to stabilize my blood pressure. I also get IVs of fluid, every antibiotic known to man, and a catheter which apparently, while under morphine, I told the nurses I was psyched about. I think I was too shocked to feel scared. I didn’t see Jesus or a white light or Prince standing in the purple rain. I just felt sure that I would not, could not die on this table. (OK apparently I misremembered this as my sister-in-law told me I asked the doctor at least 100 times if I was going to die).

"Mike, why the hell would you take a picture of me being transported to ICU?" "I thought you might want it for your blog." "Good man, good man."
“Mike, why the hell would you take a picture of me being transported to ICU?” “I thought you might want it for your blog.” “Good man, good man.”

Saturday, May 21: I guess I passed out in the ICU because the next thing I remember is that it’s morning and my sister in law is standing over me telling me that I’m being ambulanced to Jefferson because I need special care. I still don’t really grasp that I’ve almost died. Nurses, though, confess to me later that they were not sure I was going to make it.

I spend three days in the ICU – a place where there are no bathrooms because it’s just presumed you will be performing all bodily functions through a tube. I am in pain. My stomach distends more by the day and at this point I look nine months pregnant. All bacterial cultures come back negative. The MRI shows swelling of my colon and not much more. The doctors really don’t know what the hell is wrong with me, let alone how it happened. Everyone has to wear blue plastic hazmat suits and gloves to enter the room because they don’t know the degree of my contagion. It’s like a scene from Outbreak.

Monday, May 23 (I think) That afternoon I am approved to move to a normal room and I am desperate to shower. Of course I can barely walk and I shower in a chair. I finally eat a bit after a week but can only eat very small portions. It’s like I’ve had a gastric bypass but gained 20 pounds.

What the actual fuck has happened to my body?
What the actual f%^& has happened to my body?

I spend another three days in various levels of pain, discomfort, and fear that there are no straight answers. I walk 30 feet and it’s a triumph. I haven’t seen my kids in 10 days. But I am comforted by the amazing outreach of support – friends and family helping with the children so Mike could be at the hospital, people sending flowers and meals, and just generally showing true compassion and concern.

As I approach discharge day I ask the case manager how I could go about having a nurse check on me for a few days, just to check my vitals as I am terrified of a relapse. She explains that it would not be covered by my insurance. I said I would pay for it. She said you can only pay for nurses in 8-hour-shifts and even then she isn’t sure if I’d qualify. I order a blood pressure cuff on Amazon.  (Reason #2 the US Healthcare system is f%^&ed)

My official diagnosis - which still makes very little sense to the doctors.
My official diagnosis – which still makes very little sense to me or the doctors

Thursday, May 26: I am thrilled to finally go home and wash the scent of hospital soap off me. I feel that hospital smell seeped into my pores and it’s like I can’t scrub it out. My son is thrilled to see me. My three-year-old daughter couldn’t care less and just wants to play with my phone. I’m still massively bloated and in some pain, but I’m able to eat a bit and finally get a good night’s sleep without being prodded with needles and beeping IVs all night long.

Now I try to walk a little more each day, though this distended belly and extra 15 pounds of (what, exactly?) does nothing for my vanity. I try to eat. I try to stretch. I try to stay awake for decent intervals of time and get back to writing and answering emails (by the way I found it weirdly hard to start typing again – I still don’t have the keys mindlessly mastered the way I used to and I’m beyond the help of spellcheck).

I am terrified of a relapse. Since we don’t know what caused this, I’m scared of getting reinfected. What if it was some cheese I ate and I eat that cheese again? I know I have some type of PTSD from all this, and I’m just trying to cope and recover.

I go back and forth between gratefulness and optimism and depression. I waited all bloody winter for these beautiful summer days, trained for races I’ll be canceling, not wearing that bikini to the beach. But I am alive and healing and home with my family. And I know how to gradually rebuild my strength – this will be harder than coming back from pregnancy because even three days postpartum I could push a stroller, but I can do this.


Apart from surviving with likely no permanent damage, of course.

I’m not a religious person, but I believe that this happened to teach me two very important lessons – lessons I needed to learn the hard way.

  1. Right before this happened I was obsessed with the idea of coolsculpting, basically a newer less invasive form of liposuction (that still sounded pretty invasive). As hard as I work out and as well as I eat, I’m continually frustrated by my belly fat and often looking pregnant if I eat too much or lose awareness of my posture (which is always). And then God laughed and said, “I shall show you what a big belly looks like and make you thankful for your rockin’ post-baby bod. You aren’t modeling for Playboy anytime soon so you better just learn to love your body for the strong machine it is.” Point taken.
  2. Even with a wonderful partner and children, it’s easy to feel alone in the world. I’m not embarrassed to admit being prone to feelings of loneliness and isolation. Sometimes I feel like that girl with 2000 Facebook friends who no one is inviting to lunch. I have deep-seeded insecurities and sensitivities – if I don’t get invited to a party I will be absolutely sure that everyone hates me. It’s just in my nature. But what I learned from this was enough to assuage so many fears and insecurities and make me feel whole in a way I’ve never experienced. The outreach from friends around the world was simply amazing. The meals delivered, the flowers, the gift cards, the offers of help with our children – just a genuine outpouring of love and concern. Despite how scared I was, I felt safe in a way I never truly had before. Of course, not everyone came through in a crisis. But I learned that the family I have built over my 37 years on earth far exceeds what I was born into. From my childhood friends to my college crew to work associates and newer parent friends, my safety net was strong and sturdy and unbreakable. I was never alone. I was more loved than I imagined.

I expect my recovery to be slow but steady and set small goals for myself each day. Today I walked four blocks – but then had to sleep two hours to recover. I WILL get strong again – mentally, physically, and emotionally. I will count my blessings and try to be a better friend and caregiver to people who might seem strong but are silently struggling. I will find some way to make this up to my amazing husband who has been everything. 

“We can rebuild her. We have the technology. We can make her better than she was. Better, stronger, faster.”

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