Friday, December 28, 2007

Clear As A Bell

My journey to the depths (of an intense illness).

December 28, one year ago, I began to feel a weird, slight pain in the center of my back. Funny, I thought. I didn't remember wrenching my back recently.

Little did I know that light discomfort was the beginning of two months of torture.

The pain and discomfort slowly ratcheted up day by day, until by New Years Eve, the pain was nearly unbearable. It had also begun to stretch around, to the front of my torso. I had been popping Excedrin's non stop, tried to rest up, and hopefully shake it off. I didn't want to back out of a New Years gathering with several friends that night, but I'd never experienced anything like this before. Something was very, very wrong. I called my doctor at home, and described the symptoms. She said she wasn't sure, but it sounded like a lung infection of some sort. She advised I rest, and if it gets worse, to go to the emergency room at the hospital. At this point I was still convincing myself that it was just a pulled muscle of some sort. I felt I had to at least make an appearance at the New Years get-together. So we went there, just to ring in the new year, then head back.

My friend Rich was at the party. He's a pharmacist, but he should have been a doctor with the brain he's carrying around. He heard the symptoms, and immediately said it was probably pneumonia. I counted the minutes in a feverish haze, and drank glass after glass of water. People thought I was smashed drunk, the way I was stumbling around and sweating. By five of midnight, I was vomiting in the bathroom and having trouble breathing. I made it back just in time for the countdown. Afterwards, we said our good byes, and we headed home.

I hardly slept all night, unable to lay down or stand up without sudden shocks of stabbing pain throughout my torso. Sitting up seemed to be the only option to reduce the pain, and then only if I sat perfectly still. Thankfully the next morning, whatever the affliction was, it had seemed to subside slightly. I decided to ride it out one more day, and see the doctor after the holiday. At the doctor's the next morning, she listened to my symptoms again, and agreed with Rich's diagnostic that it might be pneumonia. She placed the stethoscope all around my chest and back, and listened. She then said the words that would echo in my head for the next two months:

"Clear as a bell!"

'Clear as a bell' ??? There was definitely something wrong! She obviously had no idea what it could be. To be safe though, she prescribed some heavy-duty antibiotics, and instructed me to go to the hospital for x-rays. I picked up the prescription, and went to the hospital. They said they'd send the results to the doc.

I've never really suffered any kind of serious illness that I couldn't shake off by a little rest and a little activity. So I returned to work for the rest of the week, and took it easy. The symptoms, thought still there, had indeed begun to alleviate. By the weekend I thought I was out of the woods completely. That was January 6, I believe, and the weather, you might remember, was incredibly warm that weekend. In the high sixty's I think. I took my kid target shooting with our bows and arrows, at the Granby Rod and Gun Club. The fresh air seemed to help immensely. I felt just about normal.

Then Saturday night came. Out of nowhere, I began to feel an increasing, painful tightness right in the center of my chest. My left arm began to feel numb. Then I began to get huge, immobilizing shocks of pain, throughout my chest. I thought I was having a heart attack. I could hardly move without another burning stab of pain. I could barely breath. I had my son call my sister, and she said she'd take me to the hospital right away. I thought I'd better call an ambulance, as I began to wonder if I was going to be able to stay conscious much longer. It was that painful. The ambulance came and off I went to the Hospital, my sister followed me there.

I had never been in an ambulance, but they very professionally got me breathing, semi-normally. They didn't think it was a heart attack I was experiencing, but they couldn't figure out exactly what it was, either. We got to the hospital, and this time they did a CIT scan on me. The scans were sent off to some lab for diagnosis. The shot me up with morphine, gave me more prescriptions, held me there for several hours for observation, and then sent me on my way. My sister stayed there waiting the whole night, until I got out. The sun was rising when we got back home. I got back home, shaken up by the whole experience and the mysterious illness. Throwing all caution to hell, and still high on the morphine, I smoked my final cigarette. That was January 7.

The morphine wore off and I was again back in dire shape by Sunday night. I remember the trip to the pharmacy that night as one of the most difficult things I'd ever had to endure. The pain was incredible. Monday came and went in a sweaty feverish haze. Tuesday I went back to the doctor's, but my regular doctor was out that day. The one I saw, could only prescribe more antibiotics and pain killers.

The rest of the week, the pain seemed to ease some, but severe nausea and shortness of breath was the new daily torture. I endured that week and waited for the antibiotics to win the battle. Another weekend came and I ended up at my parents house. I was pretty much a useless pile of dirt by now. I couldn't eat all week, and was looking pretty gaunt and sickly. My mother implored me to eat some soup she made, I couldn't. My father implored me to check back into the hospital.

I made one more trip to the doctors. This time my regular doctor was there. Checking me again with the stethoscope, she gave an alarmed look, and told me my left lung wasn't doing anything at all. She said I needed to get to the hospital, right away. I looked back in disbelief. Now she tells me.

At the hospital, they did more x-rays, and found my left lung was completely full of fluid. They inserted a tube, and drained three liters of the sickly yellow goop, from just my left lung. It was indeed pneumonia. I was furious. It took two weeks, three trips to a doctor, two previous hospital visits, three x-rays and a CIT scan before the problem was found.

"Clear as a bell!"

It turns out it was a particularly vicious and unusual form of pneumonia. Two more specialists (a lung doctor and a disease specialist) were brought in to diagnose the illness. The lung doctor had to operate on me. He had to open up the side of my chest, and go in to physically clean the affected lung. That was after a further three days of agony, when they saw that the fluid wasn't subsiding. In the end, they said it was a near miracle I didn't lose the lung.

I ended up spending eight days total, laid up in the hospital. When I finally got to go home, it was with an I-V tube in my arm. I was required to pump doses of penicillin based antibiotics into myself every eight hours, to battle the remaining bacteria that the doctor could not get to. The home-bound recovery ended up taking several weeks more. After the first week, I returned for a check up, and they found that the illness was not subsiding very quickly. Another week, and it was apparent something was still wrong. Non-stop nausea, loss of appetite, light continued pain breathing. They recommended I stay on the I-V and get exercise.

I had to return to light duty work, almost three weeks out of the hospital. The activity seemed to do me a world of good though, and I began to feel like I was on the upswing. A few days after that I went to see another doctor for the results of the most recent blood work. He had some sobering news; a type of white blood cell, neutrofils, was almost non-existent in my blood. The penicillin-based I-V that I had been religiously pumping into my system every eight hours, had in fact been wiping out my natural defenses. At some point I had become allergic to penicillin.

I couldn't believe it, it had begun to feel like something devilish was trying to do me in, and refused to let go, even though it felt like I had gone through so much already. Now as I was feeling better, it was looking like I might end up back in the hospital. It was very discouraging. It seemed like it would never end.

However, luckily we had found this in time, (I hadn't caught anything else) and they immediately put me on a different type of antibiotic, a non-penicillin based pill type. Good bye to the I-V.

From there I began my true recovery, and by the middle of March I was feeling like my health had truly returned. There were some side effects though. I just haven't been quite the same since. There is permanent scarring in my lung, and I can still feel it when I take a deep breath. It still tingles around where they made the incision in my side. Reminders.

The repercussions:

I have not returned to my doctor since. I don't want to hold anything against her, but I guess I am, in spite of myself. I have questions about the whole overblown, hyper-expensive health care system. How could they not have caught this earlier? However, I am grateful for the things that were done right. I think if it was 50 years ago, I would have been a gonner.

I had lost 20-30 pounds during the illness, and have since gotten it back, plus an additional 20lbs or so, so that I am now a little overweight. Some of that though, I attribute also to not smoking since then...Oh yeah, and I stopped smoking, for now, but hopefully for good.

But the main, biggest, deepest affects the whole 2+ month ordeal had on me, are these:

Several times during the experience, I truly wondered if I was going to die this way. Or if I was going to end up some sort of invalid, and a burden on others. I didn't know when or how this was going to end. It was just more sickness and pain, day after day after day. I was in the grip of a deadly illness. But it ended, and I feel I was given another chance. Like I was shown the other side of being healthy, and returned.

Without health, we're nothing but moaning sacks of wet dirt. Almost completely useless to ourselves and others, and in pain. It's an entirely different world. Night and Day.

The old-timers were right. Your health is the most important thing.


Tommy said...

Cool. Well written. Stay healthy.

Mary E.Carey said...

What a riveting story! I've been thinking about how fast you can go from hale and healthy to helpless since my dad, who ran over 100 marathons died in April. He had run a marathon a little over a year before then was diagnosed with a virulent form of bone marrow cancer a few months later. Good thing you gave up smoking ad thanks for reminding us how lucky we are if we're healthy.