Approximately two months prior to my fiftieth birthday I sensed this one was going to be quite extraordinary. There were many nights I was startled out of sleep to find myself covered in a cold sweat. It wasn’t the intense hot flashes I usually had that made me throw the covers off. These sweats made my body shiver and my teeth chatter as if I was immersed in a vat of ice cubes. These were gut-wrenching sensations, placing me on alert as if I was arming myself for a fierce battle. It wasn’t that I was overly anxious towards receiving the AARP card in the mail or at the thought of viewing a birthday cake covered with fifty and one blazing candles. Weeks continued to pass and by this time my husband felt totally exasperated with me after hearing me repeatedly whine, “I’m not going to survive my fiftieth birthday.”
“You’re nothing but gloom and doom.” He’d reply, rolling his eyes at me.
There just wasn’t any reasonable explanation for my sudden sense of dread, even though memories of my healthy older sister suddenly passing away in her sleep at age fifty haunted me as I approached the same critical age.
My daughter became quite concerned when I started making late night calls to her, expressing my feelings of love. “Mom, are you taking Ambien again?” She’d ask. She pleaded with me to go to sleep and stop this madness. Before long she started believing that maybe I was withholding a serious medical issue from her, but a conversation with my husband convinced her I was just being crazy towards turning fifty.
About three weeks prior to my birthday I started having slight gastric issues, experiencing bouts of gas, only slightly annoying. I would swallow anti-acids and go on my way. Still on three regularly scheduled doctor appointments I casually mentioned my gastric symptoms, was examined, and diagnosed with gas. It never curtailed any of my daily activities, though I did feel slightly full if I ate too much. After a few days the gastric discomfort totally subsided.
The day before my fiftieth birthday I woke up feeling slight gas sensations again, as if someone was tightening a belt up under my chest. My husband asked if I wanted to go out to eat. Being a picky eater, I decided to decline. Still waves of depression over my birthday engulfed me as I walked around trying to move a big burp up to my throat that day.
“Come on, when are you going to snap out of this?” My husband asked.
I snapped back at him, “Let me know how you feel when you turn fifty in a few months, because I know midlife crisis is gonna hit you hard. And don’t be looking for sympathy from me.”
The next day the bloated gas sensations continued so I decided to call my doctor to tell her the over the counter gas medication wasn’t working. She advised an ER visit to get myself checked out. I saw myself sitting for hours in an uncomfortable plastic chair, only to be handed samples of, “Gas-X,” and be sent on my way, along with a big medical bill. Still I went anyway because my husband kept bugging me. After an initial examination as the doctor prodding my slightly bloated abdomen to find nothing, he decided to order an abdominal x-ray as a precaution but informed me it probably was just indigestion. Through the entire weeks I hadn’t experienced any pain, even when the doctor examined me.
When the doctor stepped back into the room, I immediately realized something was seriously wrong because of his shocked expression. The next words he uttered sliced through me like a surgeon’s scalpel without any anesthesia.
“I’m sorry, but you have a serious ruptured appendix. And there’s a huge abscess running across your upper abdomen. We have to go in there right away and clear it up. If you’d waited until tomorrow to come in, it might’ve been more serious. You could’ve slipped in a coma and…not to say this isn’t critical, but how long have you been walking around like this? Didn’t you feel excruciating pain? Appendicitis will bring a grown man down to their knees.” He shot questions at me, pressing on my abdomen as he shook his head in astonishment.
I was beyond floored, physically feeling nothing when he pressed harder on my abdomen. I didn’t feel abdominal tenderness or rebound pain, but I wouldn’t have, because my appendix had already ruptured. My stomach was slightly bloated but no hardness. I didn’t even have an elevated temperature, projectile vomiting or any other warning signs of appendicitis. I only had a sense of pervasive doom. All sense of personal dignity was stripped away as I was hastily prepped for emergency surgery.
There was a slight discussion between the ER resident and my surgeon. The resident wanted to wait until I was medically cleared by a cardiologist and the surgeon believed the surgery had to be done immediately. The surgeon’s words made the decision on the evening of my fiftieth birthday. He said, “If you had waited until tomorrow to come in, it might’ve been real serious. We can clear this up now.” As his words pounded around in my head, I was rushed through the hallways. I started to sob and pray. I quickly reached my children via a cell phone and told them how much I loved them. The OR team didn’t even give me a chance to settle on the table completely or count down before they started an IV and injected anesthesia, rapidly putting me under.
After surgery I woke up, drifting along in a fog, hearing someone speak in a squeaky, high pitch, Mickey Mouse voice, saying, “Monkey’s uncle.” That voice was mine. I kept repeating those same two words. I was in a hospital bed with a raw throat as I breathed through an oxygen mask strapped to my face. Cardiac monitoring pads were glued to my chest. My now swollen stapled abdomen was covered in layers of gauze bandages with an abdominal drain connected to a clear plastic container filling with bloody drainage. A urine catheter was draining miniscule amounts of dark urine, IV tubing connected to one arm, and an automatic blood pressure monitoring cuff alternately squeezing my other arm.
Several hospital staff members along with family members were hovering over my bed closely observing me. I had awaked to a medical crisis, critical post appendectomy complications which would go on for three weeks in the hospital. Physically I woke up without the ability to walk or perform any activities of daily living, experiencing vivid visual, auditory, vocal and physical hallucinations.
Unaware of what was occurring to my body, I started singing gospel songs at the top of my lungs to all my roommate’s chagrin. The nurses eventually removed other patients and doctor’s ordered my room to be kept private. Teams of medical specialists filtered in to examine me, attempting to discover why my body was having such extreme critical complications from an appendectomy, ruptured though it was. My pain medication pump of morphine was immediately discontinued the morning after surgery, thinking maybe it was causing my bizarre hallucinations and physical behavior, but they continued. Even though I had a large abdominal incision with a drain and staples, I physically exhibited no physical evidence of pain and didn’t ask or was given pain medication.
In my mind I believed I had a, “car tire-sized, gel mass,” wrapped around my middle. I even heard sloshing sounds as I shifted around in bed. I was experiencing unbelievable auditory sensations but I continued to sing for hours on end, not sleeping, even while family members and staff attempting to quiet me down. One minute I remembered everything happening to me, and the next minute I couldn’t recall that time went by. To this day I remember most of what occurred in the hospital, and it still feels as real to me as I write words today.
The day after surgery my surgeon strolled in my room. He informed my family that my kidneys had stopped working, probably a temporarily situation but I had to start dialysis immediately for an undetermined time in order to save my life. My weight from extra unfiltered body fluids had rose thirty pounds. I was again rushed through hospital hallways to implant an uncomfortable dialysis shunt in my carotid artery in my neck. Somehow I believed they were installing internal electrodes to control my limbs, because I physically couldn’t move on my own.
All my senses became highly enhanced. Certain aromas and sounds triggered strange physical and verbal tics. When light hit my face or the call bells rang in the hallway, my extremities would turn rigid as boards, my verbal intonation altered to a cartoonish high pitch, and I performed bizarre facial grimaces as if I was experiencing a grand mal seizure. I was sent for a CAT scan of the head and a MRI of the brain. All the tests turned out to be negative for seizure activity or physical abnormalities. The doctors were totally baffled about my extreme physical condition and behaviors.
Word quickly spread around the hospital about my unique medical case. Doctors were called in from every medical field for consults. Soon the entire hospital staff started to visit my room, offering well wishes and prayers, aware my doctors were uncertain of the eventual outcome of my mental and physical status.
Lying on a lounge chair in dialysis for the first time, I listened to the swishing sound of the blood filtering machine and continued to sing and pray with eyes closed. Prior to this hospital stay I hadn’t attended church in quite awhile and wasn’t in the habit of saying daily prayers even if I did believe in God. When I opened my eyes I noticed a glowing male dialysis nurse gazing down at me. He smiled and started singing along with me.
“You’ve been crying out that you’re ready to go to heaven.” He said, before starting to encourage me to get well. He said I should have faith and let time heal me. Much later I found out he wasn’t part of any physical delusions and was indeed a dialysis nurse, who happened to be an ordained minister. Being aware of my critical condition from hospital records he said he was praying for me. How many southern accented, male dialysis nurses do you know, who are also ordained ministers? My entire hospital experience was totally bizarre.
My husband who is somewhat shy came to visit me daily for hours. He’d step off the hospital elevator and hear his wife singing at the top of my lungs, waving her arms high up in the air as she sat in a lounge chair in front of the nurse’s station. He’d see people stare at me as I was wheeled through the hallways shouting, “I see my dummy body being wheeled behind me.” Doctors and nurses attempted to reassure him, telling him I’d probably recover but they couldn’t explain how long it was going to last or what was exactly causing my medical complications. The medical staff asked him if I suffered from schizophrenic behavior, and maybe this illness triggered a schizophrenic or bipolar episode.
A psychiatrist came in to examine me because there was a strong possibility they were planning to send me to the psych floor. He prescribed sedation medication and sleep medication, both useless in stopping my strange symptoms. They ordered a one on one aide to try to keep me calm at night. My surgeon told my family they were probably going to send me to a rehab facility because of my dialysis, and the fact I couldn’t walk or care for myself any longer. He couldn’t understand what happened to thoroughly explain what caused horrendous critical post-op symptoms in a patient.
My hallucinations vividly continued with voices telling me what to do and what to eat. I saw and heard family members and friends, people who weren’t even in the hospital. One night after feeling totally exhausted I tried to relax my trembling limbs and escape my visual hallucinations. I visualized an out-of-body experience, real or not, but the vision was so clear, even today. I finally drifted off to sleep after being awake for an incredible week and a half. Maybe my love of sci-fi influenced these visual sensations or maybe not.
The next day I woke up, feeling a nurse pressing down on my abdomen. She asked how I was feeling. For the first time since I was admitted to the hospital I was able to clearly answer her in a strong and normal sounding voice. Even better my kidney function reversed from their failure state to producing large amounts of urine, all to the staff’s delight. My kidney function fell to normal counts practically overnight and the doctor made the decision to immediately halt dialysis treatments and remove the neck shunt. You could hear joyous screams throughout the hospital as hospital staff members joined in with me and my celebratory screams.
Within a few days I was ambulating through the hallways with a walker. Hallucinations and voices were still there but were less intense. When I was finally miraculously discharged the medical staff came into my room to say their good-byes. I left the hospital described as a miracle case, with doctors still unsure over what occurred with me and it seemed to almost instantaneously turn itself around. After being home for two months, I began to feel more like myself, fifty years old and glowing, appendix free.
It’s important to know your own body, recognize any changes and speak up to your doctors. Somehow I had a feeling something serious was going to happen to me, just didn’t know I was going to be a walking oddity with a freaky, three week old ruptured appendix, and live.