I woke up in a start – hands strapped down, blurred vision, and unable to speak. I looked up – it was the same fuzzy room I had been dreaming about overnight. Or maybe I hadn’t been dreaming at all?
I looked over and saw my husband was next to me. He was holding my hand, and he looked scared and tired but also happy and relieved. Only moments before, I would come to find out, my body had been pumped full of fentanyl to induce a coma-like state, and when they stopped the flow I would either awaken or I wouldn’t.
I tried to talk to my husband but quickly realized I was intubated. I had so many questions – where was I? What was happening? And where were my damn glasses? I caught his gaze and stared at him intently – maybe if I looked deeply enough he could read my mind? No, that kind of stuff only happens in the movies.
A doctor soon said, “You’re in the ICU.” I was making motions with one of my strapped down hands and a nurse said, “I’ll release your hand, but please don’t try to pull out your breathing tube. (Apparently I had tried to do that quite a bit in my sleep, hence my arms were detained.) They released my right hand and my husband handed me some paper and a pen so I could write something. This was the moment of truth for the hospital staff and my husband – was I brain damaged?
I wrote only one word – glasses. Because, after all, I couldn’t see a damn thing! And with that, my husband handed them over and made the world come back into focus for me, and the doctors knew more hurdles had been overcome – I could see, write, and hear.
I was on more steroids, antibiotics, pain medications, blood thinners, and fluids than I could count. I would spend ten days total in the hospital and be on IV drugs for an additional six weeks at home. I am the type of person who likes to take a natural approach to almost everything I can, but I grew to love and respect the conventional medicine that saved my life.
How did I end up here? What monstrous illness or injury spurred this kind of medical emergency?
A simple ear infection.
A week before, I had just mild symptoms of illness – a sore throat mostly. My left ear had been filled with fluid for a while, but that was typical for me. It didn’t hurt, and I got used to not being able to hear well, though I’m sure my coworkers and family members weren't particularly fond of it. “What did you say?” had become my automatic response. And yet it was more of an inconvenience than anything I thought would adversely affect my health.
By the end of the week, my ear began to ache and my head started to throb. It came on so suddenly that I left work in the middle of a late Friday afternoon meeting to head to the closest retail clinic. I was told I had a “raging” ear infection, given a Z-pak®, and headed home with probably the worst headache I’d ever experienced.
Throughout the weekend I had body aches and fever spikes, plus that headache would flare up as well. But that was just part of being sick, I thought. I did laundry, took rest breaks here and there, and did the typical weekend routine as best I could.
It struck me as strange that the antibiotics were not improving my condition, so I tried to figure out what more could be wrong with me. While researching on the internet, I ran across flu and meningitis. I told myself I must have the flu, and that antibiotics didn’t work on viruses so that could explain it. There was no way it could be bacterial meningitis, I told myself – I didn’t have the telltale rash. Plus, I was on antibiotics already, so I figured anything bacterial would have been targeted.
My husband and I watched a program together on Sunday night and I felt relatively decent at bedtime, but over the night my headache returned and I began dry heaving in the bed. On Monday morning, my husband and I were supposed to take our youngest child for her 6 month check-up but he couldn’t rouse me enough to get me going. Thinking I just needed more rest, he took her alone.
My mom came to check on my while he was away and I have a very vague recollection of her being in the room. She says we spoke, but I don’t remember it.
After my husband returned from our daughter’s check-up he prepared lunch for the kids, got the baby down for her nap, and then tried to awaken me again. This is when he realized something was very wrong. He tried to give me an oral rehydration solution to drink, but I was completely unresponsive. I needed to get to a hospital, so he called my parents to come help get me to the car. Then he took my temperature – 105.9. I was cooking from the inside out.
Once my parents arrived they somehow managed to get pants on my listless body and drag me to the top of the steps. However, they soon discovered they could not get me down the stairs and my husband dialed 911. We live in a suburb of a large city, so they were here within minutes.
My four-year-old son bravely watched the paramedics take me out to the ambulance. My husband told them which hospital he thought would be covered by our insurance, but they responded that there was no time. I had to get to the closest hospital right away. My parents stayed with the children and picked my oldest up from school, and my husband drove to the hospital separately.
We were not reunited for many, many hours while they were performing a battery of tests on me (all while I was unconscious). I know that was an extremely scary time for my family. Was I going to make it? What was wrong with me?
Finally, after a spinal tap, I was diagnosed with pneumococcal meningitis, a bacterial meningitis caused by streptococcus pneumoniae. No wonder I didn’t have the “telltale” rash – that’s caused by a different type of bacterial meningitis! This is why I always say you can’t rely on Internet diagnosing. And no, all antibiotics don’t kill all bacteria – and clearly the one I was on was not strong enough for this beast.
I didn’t awaken until sometime on Tuesday. One in five people with bacterial meningitis die. Twenty-five to fifty percent have lasting brain issues. Somehow I survived these odds.
So many things went in my favor – quick-thinking husband (left in my state for few more hours and I would have been dead), smart doctors starting me on the right antibiotics before meningitis was even confirmed (not all hospitals follow this protocol for suspicion of meningitis, unfortunately), and a whole lot of prayer and positive vibes.
Being separated from my children for ten days was very hard on me emotionally, and after giving my best at pumping so I would not lose my milk, my daughter weaned onto formula after my supply had dwindled to a slow leak. Plus, I was so weak and I needed to focus on my recovery so I could be there for her in the long term.
My recovery was long, but relatively smooth. I went from barely being able to walk at the hospital to using a walker at home, to going around the block in a matter of weeks. My PICC line gave me a bit of trouble and I had to have it replaced two times in two days. Plus, I had an allergy to some of the antibiotics which required me to take an antihistamine before every antibiotic during my recovery at home. This made me incredibly sleepy!
I wondered to myself why I got so sick in the first place. After all, I am a relatively young 30-something. I learned that the bacteria, streptococcus pneumonia, had traveled from my throat up to my ear where the standing fluid was and started to cause problems. From there it became acute mastoiditis, an infection of the mastoid, which is a bone behind the ear. I am one of the unfortunate few who has a small hole at the top of my mastoid which leads right to the tissue surrounding the brain – the meninges, hence causing meningitis.
I’m prone to standing water in my ear because I have Eustachian tube dysfunction, so now I have an ear tube just like the little kids get to prevent ear infections. I’ll have it replaced around every six months indefinitely to drain the fluid. Thankfully in adults it is a simple outpatient procedure right in the office. I’ve already had it done once since I was sick 8 months ago.
But that still didn’t explain why my body didn’t fight off the bacteria. Why did it get to such an advanced state? I asked my infectious disease doctor about it in the hospital and she said it was just a fluke. But when I was having my PICC line removed six weeks later, she said, “I remember what you asked in the hospital, and I just want to run one more test to rule out any immune problems.”
Well that was the start of an interesting new roller coaster that isn’t completely sorted yet. After months of testing, it appears my body does not build immunity to streptococcus pneumoniae (and other bacteria). I haven’t been formally diagnosed with immunodeficiency, but I now carry around a strong antibiotic with me at all times to take if I ever have a fever.
The anxiety about this had been creeping in more and more. What once was deemed a “fluke” incident in an otherwise healthy person now seems like something that could happen to me again. But I am not going to let fear win. I am proactively taking steps to remain healthy and keep my immune system strong – healthier diet, vitamins and supplements, and even a bit of exercise.
And hand washing. A lot of hand washing!
If I have learned anything from this, it is that if someone you love is sick, keep checking on them even if it annoys them. We assume sick adults can take care of themselves, but the line between normal and life-threatening illness can happen in a blink.
I encourage everyone I can to read up on the symptoms of meningitis. And I am also doing something I never thought I would do – encouraging them to get vaccinated. Haemophilus influenzae type B, pneumococcal disease, and meningococcal disease can all lead to meningitis, and can all be prevented through vaccination. While I was in a grey area with my beliefs about vaccines previously, vaccinating my kids on an alternate schedule, I’m now making sure my children are all up-to-date. I would never want anyone I love to go through this terrible disease!