Since coming back from the hospital for something that at the outset didn’t seem any more threatening than an innocuous cold, I’ve been spending a lot of time dwelling on the subtle difference between it was killing me and it could have killed me. When a crushing headache landed my friend in emergency they discovered some sort of blood leak in her brain. It was killing her. Without intervention she would have died. I wasn’t dying but without care I would have died.
I could have died is a silly, pointless train of thought to be riding when antibiotics are so commonplace they barely seem any more miraculous than aspirin. But something about walking the thin line that separates being from not being, brings the melodramatic silent film star that’s always lurking quietly in your heart, out in search of her light. It makes you look at your kids in a different way, at the kid sitting in front of you in the coffee shop tentatively dipping his tongue into the whipped cream on top of his hot chocolate in a different way. Every mundane thing you take for granted glows in the silent film star’s ambient light.
Mundane is exactly how the whole thing started. A cold. Bad enough for aspirin every few hours to quell the chills and break through the lakes of congestion in my head, but not bad enough to even take time off work.
Three days and it cleared out. Except a week later it was in my right ear. Not really cleared out, it had been lurking around until it could find a new place to squat. Some sort of internal self-regulated security deployed into action and within a day the cold was kicked out of my ear.
It was another whole week before it took up residence in my other ear, on a Wednesday. Since it was incapacitated after a single day in the first ear I expected my security forces to have it cleared out by Thursday. There was no way I could have guessed that this cold wasn’t just squatting – it had moved in with furniture, pictures on the walls and socks already lost in the dryer.
Even though my new house guest woke me up on Wednesday night, pounding on the walls of my ear, it still didn’t occur to me to take it more seriously than any other rude interloper that had ever passed through. Thursday finally rolled around and I was surprised to still be in so much pain. I decided to stop squabbling with the intruder and spent the day in bed, hoping for a truce. Kill it with kindness was my plan of action. When I wasn’t in bed I had taken to walking with my head tilted to the left, cradled in my hand. My daughter said I looked pathetic and if I felt so bad why didn’t I just go to the doctor?
My resident had undertaken an extensive renovation project, expanding its quarters down into my throat. Swallowing and speaking became painful and difficult, though not yet unbearable and impossible. Sleeping on Thursday was even more difficult than the previous night. I spent most of it Netflix binging, nodding off occasionally. By Friday morning an excruciating ordeal was taking place in my ear every time I swallowed and because I was having so much trouble swallowing, I had a perverse compulsion to do it every couple of seconds.
No longer caring about my kids, my job or the dogs pleading for a walk, the only person in the world that held any interest for me was the doctor. Nine am finally rolled around and I put her office on speed dial until I could get through the morning rush of calls.
“I’m sorry I can’t hear you,” the receptionist said as I attempted to spell my name for the third time in as loud a whisper as I could manage while tilting to one side with my head cradled in my hand.
By 11:00 the doctor was inspecting my ear. “Your eardrums are clear.” That was a surprise to me because I was quite sure the left one had exploded some time during the night. After instructing me to say ahhh, it was the doctor who pointed out that I was having trouble opening my mouth.
The dwelling the cold had been constructing was a throat abscess, for which she prescribed very strong antibiotics. “If you’re not feeling better in forty-eight hours come back.”
Forty-eight hours was Sunday. Shuffling off with prescription in hand I made my way to the pharmacy. “These are very strong antibiotics. You have to eat when you take them.”
“Eat?” I whispered. It was the only word I bothered trying to formulate during our transaction. How was I going to slide food down my throat when coaxing saliva down instigated such an angry, fire throwing response.
I called my mother to tell her I was sick. “I can’t hear you dear, what did you say?”
Croaking out the words, “Abscess in my throat,” I was a little startled when silent tears started streaming down my face. Glad she couldn’t see just how far into the depths of self-pity I’d fallen, I hung up the phone and ladled some soup into a bowl.
The soup didn’t cause too much more of a row than regular spit, but the pill the doctor had prescribed was the size of the top half of my thumb. Taking a deep breath and filling my mouth with water I managed to force it down then went to bed to recover from the ordeal and wait for the magic of antibiotics to start taking effect.
The hours were passing at the breakneck speed of days. When it was finally time to take the second antibiotic of the day I was alone in my bed, the kids having left to spend the night with their father. After forcing down the rest of the soup I held three pills in my hand. The enormous thing the doctor had prescribed and two aspirins. Staring down at them I felt like a weight lifter contemplating a barbell loaded with way more weight than he can possibly lift.
Surprisingly the first small aspirin gave me more trouble than the hulking pill. It felt like it was stuck or lodged on some ledge along the dwelling the infiltrator was constructing in my throat. What if I choke? I thought, staring at the second aspirin. The 911 operator won’t hear anything except the rasping gurgle of my last breath.
Trickles of water managed to send the aspirin on its fever fighting way. Waking, sleeping, waking, sleeping, waking, I was relieved the night was passing. I was getting sleep. The antibiotics were starting to take effect. I looked at the clock. 11:00. Barely two hours had passed, not a whole night, and contrary to my wishful, hopeful, pleading imagination, I was not getting better. For some reason I thought swallowing might be easier if I was more vertical than horizontal, maybe because of gravity. So half sitting up I returned to Netflix, my only comfort. There are eleven Star Trek movies. Over the course of Thursday night and Friday night I watched them all.
Saturday morning finally crawled out of the dark. Time to risk choking to death on my life saving medicine again. Using a mango smoothie as food I survived the ordeal. Some time later the phone rang. It was my mother asking how I was. Before I managed to finish my inaudible reply she was asking how long I was going to wait before going to the hospital. Since the doctor had said forty-eight hours I was planning to give the antibiotics till Sunday.
Hanging up the phone, I rolled over on my bed. Talking had become a whisper away from impossible and took the strength and endurance of the overloaded weight lifter.
The hours and I passed the day moving at the speed of a glacier and at some point my kids came back. Worse than during childbirth I wrote when my son asked how I was feeling. All I wanted to do was sleep, but every time I came close, I woke up gasping. My house guest had expanded the renovation project into my airways.
I couldn’t decide what was worse, not sleeping or the possibility of asphyxiating during my sleep. It was the culmination of an inability to swallow, speak, breathe or sleep that convinced me to call my mother for an escort into emergency at midnight on Saturday, twelve hours short of the doctor prescribed forty-eight hour wait.
Emergency room treatment consisted of several steps.
Step 1: Three Tylenols to break the fever. The patient nurse stood beside me full of words of encouragement for the daunting task of swallowing.
Step 2: An intravenous drip. “We’re going to start with morphine for the pain.”
Morphine? I was almost surprised to learn the pain I’d been living through for the past couple of days really was an unbearable as I thought it was. Then came the intravenous fluids because I’d become dehydrated.
The doctor came back for Step 3: Local anesthesia. “I’m going to make a small incision in your throat to drain the abscess.” The small incision was made with a giant instrument that looked like it had the capacity to perform liposuction on the most ample part of my belly. Despite the morphine and the local anesthesia, the pain was startling, but after less than a minute he was done and I could swallow. “People usually feel an improvement right away,” he said, while washing his hands. “The ear, nose and throat specialist will see you tomorrow. No food. No drink.” And he was gone.
I spent three nights in the hospital (and two and a half days, with the intravenous drip for fluids), antibiotics, and steroids to shrink my uninvited guest. No food or drink was allowed until dinnertime on the second day.
“How did this happen?” I asked the ear, nose and throat specialist.
“If it happens once it’s just back luck.” He smiled. “If it happens again we take out the tonsils.”
“If I hadn’t been put on antibiotics, could I have recovered myself?”
My experience was business as usual for the hospital staff, but before going in I was only getting worse. My defense troops had been beaten. Without the doctors and nurses and aggressive antibiotics riding in as the cavalry and taking up my defenses for me, the invader would have won. Modern medicine is much more miraculous than I usually bother remembering it is.
I could have died. Soon I’ll stop dwelling on it. Watching that kid dip his finger into the whipped cream at the top of his cup I relish the taste of my own coffee, while noticing things I take for granted every day. From the mundane to the miraculous.