Sunday, October 21, 2007

Meningitis, Pharyngitis, and Mono: Oh My!

It began with the thing in my neck.

I recovered. I regained function in my neck and back, and I had two blissful days where I felt fine. There was no more stiffness, no more splitting headaches. But then, on a Sunday morning, I woke up with flame in the back of my throat. It felt like I'd spent the night swallowing rough cuts of metal, which ripped the back of my throat raw and red. I wrote it off. I blamed the sore throat on a night spent breathing through my mouth, on the humidity. I fully believed I'd be fine the next day.

I wasn't. I was worse. So I did what I do best: I lied to myself. I told myself it was going to be okay. I told myself I wasn't really sick. I did this for one simple reason: I don't get sick.

The fact that I don't often get sick really works out in my favor, since I'm the World's Worst Sick Person. I whine, I cry, I writhe. I want nothing more than to stay in bed all day long, with someone standing by to bring me gingerale, tissues, and lozenges. I want to watch all my favorite movies--especially the ones that make me cry, cry, cry. I want to watch Shopgirl and Garden State and Love, Actually. I want to weep into my pillow because these movies, oh these movies are so sad and beautiful, and also because I am sick, oh so sick, and I hate being sick. I hate it more than anything.

But there was no getting around it. Something was wrong with me. I went to the store and checked out with the saddest shopping basket ever: vitamin C tablets, Dayquil, Nyquil, tea, and honey. Then I trudged to work and set myself up in front of the department microwave, so I could produce mug after mug after mug of tea.

Teaching like that was difficult. Well, swallowing was difficult, so teaching, which involves speaking in one of those loud and peppy voices that seeks to engage students who are always struggling between two general states--thinking about what they're going to eat next or wondering if they should pay attention to their instructor--was downright impossible. With every breath I considered reaching down my throat to rip my esophagus or trachea or whatever was in pain right out of my body so I wouldn't have to deal with it anymore.

I went to bed early that night but then realized I couldn't sleep. No matter how hard I tried or how hard I wished for it, sleep completely ignored me. I stared up at the ceiling all night, trying to talk myself out of swallowing. When I couldn't talk myself out of it, there were only two options left: one, I could swallow and curse and cry or, two, I could spit into a tissue just to avoid sending something sliding down my throat. I chose number two a lot that night. For those seven hours, I was the least glamorous girl who ever lived.

The next morning when I woke up surrounded by crusty wads of tissue, I knew something had to be done. I was going to stop being sick if it killed me. I got up and took a long shower, turning my chin toward the ceiling and letting the hot water pour directly onto my neck. I was just going to go about my business and fool my body. I was going to convince it I wasn't sick.

When I arrived at work that morning, my officemate turned to tell me the latest gossip. I was sitting over a steaming cup of tea when he said, "You know, Linda's got meningitis."

My whole body turned cold, despite the fact that it had just taken a giant sip of the world's hottest cup of Asian Plum tea. "What?" I asked.

"She's got meningitis," he said.

Just a few days before Linda and I had sat with a few other members of the department on the porch of a local bar. We'd all gotten some food, and when Linda offered me a bite of her chips and salsa, I said, okay, sure, great.

But now those chips and salsa appeared in my head, potentially daggered with meningitis bacteria roiling around the mix, setting up court next to the hunks of cilantro and onion. In college and grad school, the campuses had been rocked by news of girls who'd died of meningitis. Each time the memo announcing the tragedies circulated I would look at them with wonder. How was it possible, I thought, to die from meningitis? How were these girls not recognizing something was wrong with them? How were they not getting treatment in time?

And those were the thoughts that popped into my head at that exact moment. I turned back to my tea and pretended to be calm, even though my brain was screaming, Oh God, oh God, oh God!

There was only one thing to do: Google meningitis. Which I did. I scrolled down to the symptoms and read stiff neck, headaches, sore throat. There were other symptoms, too, but those were the ones that stuck out--mainly because I had (or was still having) pretty wicked cases of those problems in the last few days. Now my brain was screaming, You're going to die! You're going to die! You're going to die!

And that's how I went to teach. I went to teach thinking I was going to die, that surely something horrible was wrong with me, that one of the last things I would do on this earth was teach writing to a room full of auto students who were daydreaming of dynamometers.

After class, I careened home and called my brand new insurance company to find myself a primary care doctor. My insurance had just kicked in a few days earlier, and I hadn't yet gotten around to figuring out who I was going to want for my doctor. Earlier, though, I'd scoured the insurance's website for doctors in my area, and I'd randomly picked a woman doctor whose name sounded kind, strong, capable. When I called her office the girl who answered the phone told me the doctor wasn't in, and she wouldn't be in for a few days. She told me she could take a message, if I wanted.

When I described to her what was happening, the girl on the other end asked if I thought I might be having an allergic reaction.

"Wait," I said. "An allergic reaction? Uhm, no. I was recently exposed to meningitis, and I've had three pretty convincing symptoms of it in the last week. I'm not allergic to anything."

"Alright," the girl said cheerily. "Well, I'll be sure to give the doctor that message. She'll get back to you soon!" And then she hung up.

Well. Okay. Alright. I flipped my phone shut. I paced. I kept thinking about those girls from college. I kept thinking about them until I put my shoes on and ran down to my car and turned it toward the emergency room. There was no way I was messing around with the possibility of not waking up in the morning just because I was too lazy to get something checked out, just because the doctor's office was more concerned with my nonexistent allergies and had no time to squeeze me in.

As soon as I walked through the automatic doors of the hospital, I remembered one very key thing: I hate hospitals. It wasn't always like that. When I was younger, hospitals were exciting. They usually meant birth and babies and balloons and cupcakes. But now that I'm older hospitals are considerably less happy places. They mean blood clots and cancer and strokes. When I think hospital, I think about missing graduation because I was laid out against a starchy bedspread, my leg as bloated as some pickled hock of ham. When I think hospital, I think my grandmother gagging from the chemo. I think my grandfather thrashing around in his bed because he lost most of his sight. I think, Oh God.

The ER staff got me into a bed immediately. The nurses seemed fairly concerned about me. They told me to just relax, the doctor would be in to see me in just a few minutes. They smiled and patted my hands.

Behind the curtain next to me was a woozy-sounding old woman who had slipped and fallen in her apartment. No one had noticed her absence for five days. Now the nurses were asking her questions like, Did you have a bowel movement when you were on the floor for all that time? And when they stepped out of her earshot, those same nurses confided in each other. When we move her, don't forget her dentures, they said. Did you see those things? Disgusting. They are in such bad shape. They're awful.

The old woman hadn't come by herself. Some harried-sounding younger woman was there, too. She kept saying things like, "Well, I'd love to stay with you, Rose, but I've got a lot of work to do tonight. I have to do laundry and make dinner. I'll try to come back tonight, but I just don't know if that's possible. If I don't make it, I'll be here first thing in the morning. Okay? Okay, Rose? Is that alright?"

And Rose--presumably cloudy from whatever pain killers they had jabbed into her veins--murmured yes, yes, it was okay, it was alright, it was just fine.

"I love you, Rose," the younger woman said, but the way her voice sounded made it very possible that it was one of the biggest lies she'd ever told in her life.

"I love you, too," Rose said. She was foggy, so foggy, and she was slipping into sleep.

The younger woman went out into the hall to talk to the nurses, to tell them she was leaving. "You have my number," she said. "You can call me if anything goes wrong, okay? If she wants to, let her call me."

And then she was gone, and Rose was gone, too. They wheeled her upstairs and then brought in a gurneyed man to take her place.

The man sounded worse than Rose did. He was clearly in a lot of pain. He had a strong-sounding voice, a voice that sounded like one of my students'--a student whose wardrobe consists mostly of denim and Carhartt. He sounded tough, but he sounded positively broken. It sounded serious.

From what I picked up, he'd had liver and kidney problems. He'd had several operations in the last few months. He was a regular at the ER. One of the nurses who swung by to see him said, "Oh! Hey there! We haven't seen you in here lately! Did you miss us?"

They had a bad time of getting an IV in him. They had to call a special nurse in to do it--a nurse who'd had experience with his type up in the oncology wing. Before she arrived, the first nurse tried four times, each a bust. I'd never heard a man sound more desperate, more ready to throw in the towel.

But this man wasn't alone. He had his wife with him. He also had his daughter, who I'd guess was about ten years old. From the first moment she spoke, I wanted to rip through the curtains and smack her mouth. Her father was almost in tears and could barely breathe, but she kept tugging at her mother and saying, "Give me money, Mom. Give me a dollar. I want candy."

When her mother finally gave her a dollar, she went away for several minutes but not long enough. She appeared again just when the nurse was trying to fit her father with an IV for the third time.

He was almost in tears. "Please, God," he whispered.

His daughter zipped the curtain open and sighed. "I'm really mad," she announced to everyone in the room. "I wanted Skittles but the machine gave me Snickers. Stupid machine."

And because no one acknowledged her or her problem, she repeated that same statement three times until her mother finally snatched the change out of her daughter's hand and told her to be quiet.

I was two seconds from climbing off my own gurney and slicing open my curtain to tell that little girl there was a special place in hell for her--a little girl who couldn't recognize and appreciate that her father was in so much pain and it just wouldn't quit because they couldn't get an IV in him, because they were stabbing him over and over and over and nothing was happening and all he could do was just lie on that hospital bed and pray that someone in that hospital would know how to fix him, and soon. Besides, who complains about getting a Snickers bar instead of Skittles? I mean, really. Skittles? If my father had been rushed to the ER and was in so much pain that he couldn't make it through an entire minute without sucking back a whimper and a wash of tears, I would march right out to the vending machine and buy myself the entire stock of Snickers bars and not worry about any of the other inferior candies glittering behind the glass.

But then the doctor came to see me. When he glanced down at my paperwork and information--including my emergency contacts--he blinked hard. "New York?" he said. "You're from New York? Where?"

"Buffalo," I said.

"Me too," he said.

Ordinarily, that might not have been that strange, but I couldn't help but think back to the first visit I paid to my new gynecologist after I moved to Minnesota. While my legs were hoisted high into the sterile air, the doctor had gone on to tell me that he, too, was from Buffalo. I don't know what it is about me, but I seem to attract gray-haired male doctors who hail from the city of good neighbors.

And this good doctor was concerned. He asked me about my exposure, asked me about my symptoms, looked at my throat, clucked over whatever he saw in there, and then swabbed me. He told me it was good that I came in, that it was appropriate that I was concerned, but he was pretty sure it wasn't meningitis--at least not the bad kind. He said he had daughters my age and he wouldn't put them through a spinal tap to make sure. "And I'm really good at spinal taps," he said, "but I just don't think you need one. We'll run these tests, see if you have strep, and we'll go from there."

So we waited. I was given another thirty minutes to sit and listen to the man next door, to his mournful wife, to his chattering daughter. I graded essays to pass the time. I tried not to think about where I was and how much I hated it.

When the discharge nurse came back with my test results and paperwork, she told me I had pharyngitis.

"What's that?" I asked.

"A sore throat," she said.

She told me I needed to gargle, drink lots of water, and sleep. Which I went home and did, faithfully. I went to bed thinking it would clear up, that everything would sort itself out in a few days.

It didn't. In fact, it got worse. It got so bad that it wasn't so much that I didn't want to swallow--it was that I couldn't swallow. I wasn't sleeping. I was losing my voice when I was teaching. I was drinking cold medicine like it was water. I was standing in front of the sink at 3:00 AM and gargling with salt water.

The Boy From Work was scheduled to arrive in the early morning hours of Friday, and I'd been awake most of the night. And I stayed awake after he arrived and after we went back to bed. I stayed awake and watched him sleep peacefully, easily, like it was no big thing. I knew I couldn't go on like this for the brief six days we were going to be in the same state, so I got up early and called the doctor who was supposed to get back to me days before but hadn't.

The girl who answered said, "We can get you in two weeks from now. How does that sound?"

Visions of murder slashed through my thoughts. How did it sound? It sounded like hell, like torture, like insanity. I had to take a minute to steady myself and my voice, which I knew was on the verge of warbling through a sob. When I was convinced I could speak without crying, I begged. I begged for a spot, for five minutes, for anything the doctor could give up because I was not in the mood to go to the emergency room for the second time in a week.

Luckily, the girl on the other end of the line took pity on me. She sighed and grudgingly told me she could find five minutes in the doctor's schedule before she left for the day. She told me to come in early because I had an awful lot of paperwork to fill out.

And I did. I went extra extra early because I was grateful and wanted to prove that I was a good patient, not some awful hypochondriac who had just delayed all of their days because she was convinced she was suffering from some obscure disease.

And it turned out I wasn't overreacting. Not by a long shot.

When I finally got in to see the doctor, and when she finally cracked my mouth open and peered inside, she raised her eyebrows. "Wow," she said. "Wow, wow."

"I know," I moaned. "Help me."

"Something serious is going on in there," she said.

"You're telling me," I said.

She heard my meningitis story, and she listened as I told her everything they did and said at the ER. Then she presented an alternate theory. "You might have mono," she said. "You've never had it?"

No, I'd never had it. The closest I'd ever come to mono was in high school when my best friend, who was prepping to audition for the music program at Fredonia, got mono and, unknowingly, walked around with it for weeks. Later, she was diagnosed with it, but she'd already messed up on her audition and didn't make it into the program. She blamed it all on me. She didn't blame the mono or the fact that her older and unwed sister had just given birth to a gay man's love child and everyone in the family was waking up at night when the baby fussed and, perhaps sensing the strange familial future it would have, screamed.

But now the doctor kept feeling the back of my neck. "No swollen glands there," she said, "which would signal mono. I'll just give you some antibiotics, and we'll keep an eye on it, okay?"

And that's exactly what we did: we kept an eye on it. I feel good. I feel normal again. But I've only got a few more doses of antibiotics left, and then we'll see how I do on my own. There's a part of me that's sort of terrified that when I swallow that last pill I'll somehow backslide into those terrible places again, and that ugly cycle will chug back into motion. I don't know if I can do it all over again, especially now that the boy who could bring me gingerale and tissues and lozenges is far, far away, back home, with my mom and my dad and anyone else who would be more than willing to boil me tea and sit with me while we watched Hugh Grant bumble through some busted but beautiful relationship. If I don't have any of those things, another bout of sickness is just going to suck. Really, really suck.

1 comment:

Jason said...

Hope the steroids do the trick and that it doesn't recur and that you feel better now.

I hate hospitals/clinics/doctors.