For five days it has been gradually harder and harder to breathe normally. So here I am again, short of breath (SOB, there are so many who would agree), in the hospital, miserable, scared and set up for hourly mortification.
It started when I called 911 and the first officer arrived, around my age and handsome as heck. He cocked his head contemplatively, sniffed a few times and I waited for him to say how nice it smelled, with all my candles, potpourri and assorted lovely smelly thingies. Instead he said “I smell gas.” Mortified. “I don’t think so”, I replied. “Oh, well, I guess it’s just the cat box.” THE CAT BOX?!? “JESUS!!” I gasped (remember I am short of breath) “Are you telling me my house smells like a cat box?!?!?!” He shrugged. I babbled. It must be the work we just had done. It must be the paint. It must be the sump pump. He smiled politely. His face said “Whatever lady.”
The EMT’s arrive, one of whom had transported me last time. They did a painfully slow intake. Decided they would help me down the brick front stairs and onto the stretcher right at the bottom, rather than haul the whole thing in. I was wearing a cotton housecoat, no makeup, hair in every direction, and, mortifyingly, stretch gray hospital socks with rubbery spots to keep you from slipping. I looked like a homeless person. Mortifying. I am in open view of everyone driving down Sunset Avenue, with an average of thirty cars going past a minute. Mortifying. I can lower myself onto the stretcher, but I am too weak to lift up my legs, so they have to do it for me. Mortifying. Then they transport me just like that. It is SNOWING, but they don’t even put a sheet over me. I am too upset to speak up. FOR FUTURE REFERENCE: Every sick person needs to have an advocate with them.
Get to the hospital. I am told to ‘scoot’ over from one gurney to another. My scooting days are long over. My legs are way too weak to push me over. Using a sheet to lift me, it takes them THREE tries to move me. I know it is because of the angle they are at, (the gurney I am to land on is flat against the nurse’s station) but it is still mortifying.
The tech comes to put leads on my chest for an EKG. Women have these things on their chests, commonly referred to as breasts. Most women, with a few notable exceptions, prefer to keep these breasts covered. I belong to the second category. The tech proceeded to whip up my nightie and expose everything I owned to the world. I tugged the sheet up, he pulled it down. I tugged it up, he down. Up, down, up, down. The test was over before I could completely succeed in keeping myself covered. Mortifying.
I am using the commode in my little ER curtained cubicle when a colleague of Mary Kate’s (my daughter) opens the curtains wide and, smiling hello, slowly puts my registration paper work on the over bed table looking at me all the while. Mortifying.
A very sweet young Eastern Indian resident is assigned to admit me and take a complete medical history. She is nervous and thorough and so scripted I feel as though I am talking to someone in a call center. Her questions stumble over each other like dominoes, “Uhm, ma’am, so what was your, uhm, first symptom of multiple sclerosis? “ I barely answer before the next question comes “And, uhm, ma’am, what medicine did you take at the time?” Answer. “Ok, and uhm, ma’am, why are you carrying rope in your bag?”
I look over at my tote bag to see what the heck she is talking about. This is what she is seeing:
I look at her incredulously. “Do you mean my knitting?!?” She looks at me as though she has caught me in a whopper. “It is yarn, I am knitting a hat for my grandson.” I am tempted to say “I am carrying it around in case I decide to hang myself", but I am afraid she will take me seriously. Ending up in the psych wing would not be so bad, but I am afraid she might confiscate my ‘rope’.
I am sent for a nuclear scan to rule out blood clots in my lungs, a common cause of shortness of breath. By now it is about 9 p.m. and I have been at the hospital for six hours. I am tired, in terrible, constant pain from the lymphedema in my legs and still gasping for air when I exert myself for the least little thing. For this test I need to lie flat on my back for about twenty minutes on a hard, thin slab of plastic. The administer of the test is an impeccably dressed, very formal but very nice Eastern Indian man. He is also very small, and despite the fact I am only 5’3”, I get the sense I could squash him like a bug. He explains the very simple and painless test to me, but when he gets to the table part I look at it and then back at him dubiously. I explain I cannot lie on my back for more than a few minutes without significant pain. The shortness of breath is also worse lying down. And finally, once I sit on the table, there is no way I can swing up my legs by myself. Each of them, grotesquely swollen with edema, appears to be the size of this man. He assures me he can get my legs up, we will put a wedge under my knees and all will be well.
Sadly, he was completely and totally incorrect.
Within five minutes I had screaming pain in my back. The more the pain increased, the more my anxiety increased and the worse my breathing got. This was all open, nothing like an MRI, and he was continually reassuring me and counting down the time. He was so solicitous. But soon I thought I was going to throw up. Then I had to raise my arms over my head. No can do with a right shoulder that has a joint replacement. Precious minutes ticked by as he puzzled over positioning my arms and still getting a quality picture. By now I was crying and my breathing was ragged.
Finally, it was over. Apologizing all the while, I involuntarily screamed in pain as he helped me sit up, Even sitting up, I was having trouble catching my breath again. He helped me onto the gurney. I was completely panicking, as I was having a harder and harder time breathing. It felt as though my lungs were completely immobile. Hysterically, I popped up off the gurney in a standing position, frantic to get air. He looked on helplessly. I looked at him and gasped “Please…get…someone…to…help…me!!” And Holy Mary Mother of God…I was coded.
In medical terms a code is called when someone is in desperate shape and they don’t want to announce that fact to the entire hospital. “Code Red on Brennan Six” sounds so much better than “Guy thrashing on floor on Brennan Six, turning purple we think he is a goner come quick”. The thing is, most people are now fully aware a Code Anything is Bad News. They’re no dummies, they watch TV. Mine was a relatively low level code, a Rapid Response Team. “Rapid Response Team to Nuclear Medicine” echoed overhead, as I had heard dozens of time before (always saying a prayer for those involved, lives that were usually in the process of being irrevocably changed), but now it was, incredibly, for me. Within minutes I was surrounded by eight Saviors in White Coats – who stood by and did nothing but ask me questions and told me to calm down. But they did do this very, very nicely indeed. I looked at them while I wildly tried to get air into my lungs. “Breathe slowly”, they said soothingly. “That’s it?!?!” I thought. How about intubating me?!?! Or a trach?!?! Or rub my back?!?! Or cut off my head?!?!?! ANYTHING TO GET AIR INTO ME!!!!
But they did none of those things, just got me back on the gurney.
Then, for extra comic relief, my little Asian admitting doctor burst through the door with her arms spread wide. Everyone in the room towered over her by at least a head, and they all swiveled to look at her as she gasped "This is my patient! I know EVERYTHING about her!!!" There was a moment of silence and everyone went back to what they had been saying, totally ignoring her.
We headed back to the ER for another EKG and who knows, maybe a foot rub. I sputtered out “Maybe an anti-anxiety might help?” Ohhh, no, no, serious group murmur, murmur, murmur. You would have thought I asked them to go down and score it on the boardwalk. “No, you just relax” they replied. And I think chemicals would go a long way in accomplishing that, thank you very much.
In the elevator, the Team Lead was going “Blah, blah, blah, Ativan, blah.” ATIVAN!! Now there was something I could wrap my brain and airways around. Finally. But they were so busy in the ER when I got back down there, my little Ativan got lost in the shuffle. It was up to me to fix my own breathing, which by now had started to settle down but I was still panting on 6 liters of oxygen. (For lay people: that is a lot of oxygen.) The team scurried away to document the event and how they saved my life without even sullying their immaculate white coats.
I sat on my gurney gasping, praying and silently begging forgiveness from the kind little man whose evening I had, if not exactly ruined, had certainly put a dent in with my weeping, my pleas for help and screams of pain.
Yikes. This was just the first night.
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