Sunday, December 21, 2008

Remembering a "Brush with Death"

Last year on this date, I couldn't stop crying. This year, it took me until 7:53 P.M. to remember what day it was - the second anniversary of the day I was admitted to the hospital. I take that as a good sign.
The story of my son's exciting and traumatic birth began Dec. 18th, 2006. I was six months pregnant, and the ONLY things wrong with my pregnancy were that I had only gained twelve pounds, and that the baby was not as big as my ob-gyn, Dr. Rundle, would have liked him to be at that point. It was Monday, a week before Christmas, and I wasn't feeling good. Nothing urgent, just flu. I called Dr. Rundle's office, described my symptoms, her nurse asked me a series of questions (odd things, such as "Any headache? Changes in vision?"), and said it sure did sound like flu. Lay down, drink fluids. I called in to my afternoon shift and did just that. Tuesday, boy was that flu beating me up. I was sick as a dog. The nurse called again to see how I was, and ran through the same strange list of questions. No, really, it was just VERY bad flu. Wednesday came and passed, and I couldn't lay in any one position comfortably. Again, the nurse asking about headaches and blurred vision. What was UP with that, I wondered. Thursday morning, I was bound and determined, I WAS going to work. I had missed three days, I was in charge of the accounting and bills at the school program for which I worked, and Thursday was Bill Day. I was going to get those bills out one way or another. I spent the whole morning holed up in the teachers' lounge writing receipts and logging payments from the rest of the week, but looked so bad that my supervisor said not to come back that afternoon. I was perfectly happy not to - but, I had missed so much work that I figured I had better get a doctor's note. That I had already missed three days of work was the ONLY reason I dropped Husband off at his job and went straight to Prompt Care that afternoon. It was the last place I wanted to be, because all I wanted to do was go home, curl up and die.
Luck of the draw at the walk-in clinic, I got Dr. Gerber (for all eternity to be known as Prince-Among-Princes-At-Springfield-Clinic). He took my blood pressure, felt my stomach, and said that it was most likely flu ("well of course," I thought, "just write me a note!"), but based on the quadrant in which the pain originated, he wanted to do a blood test and make sure it wasn't a gallbladder problem to which pregnant women are susceptible. Yeah, sure, okay. I had blood drawn and went out to the waiting room while they tested it.
When the nurse came and got me, she re-took my blood pressure, and looked at the result as if the machine were broken. Then another nurse popped in and asked, "Which hospital do you prefer?" I said I guessed St. John's, and she left again. Lots of talking in the hallway. Something about which ob-gyn was on call right then. Then Dr. Gerber came in. "Your gallbladder is in distress, your liver is in distress, your platelets are down in the 30s, you have a collection of symptoms for something we call HELLP Syndrome, did you drive yourself here? You are driving straight to St. John's, you will be admitted immediately. Don't go home, don't go anywhere else, you need to be in a hospital NOW." It wasn't my gallbladder.
I left voicemails for my bosses and Husband on my way to the car ("Dear, I can't explain because I don't understand, but you need a ride to St. John's when you get off, because that's where the car and I will both be"). Being admitted is a haze of sorts in my memory. Various IV drips, a belt to monitor the baby around my waist, more blood being drawn, lots of vomiting before I started feeling better, and neither Husband nor I actually understood anything. We weren't exactly into asking questions, and all the medical personnel surrounding me were dashing about. Nice little "Now here's what we're going to do" explanations were not the priority. Getting me hooked up and stuck to everything conceivable WAS. My room had the atmosphere of an ER. One nurse did tell Husband in the hallway outside my room that I was "a very sick little lady", but she didn't elaborate and he didn't ask. It was the 21st of December, two years ago today.
The next morning (the 22nd), "bright and squirrelly" as my dad would say, Dr. Rundle was at my bedside in her jogging suit, looking as if she still needed coffee, trying to figure out what had gone wrong. Her nurse had been calling me all week with those weird questions precisely for this reason - HELLP presents with stomach pain, vomiting, etc, like flu, but is supposed to include ridiculously high blood pressure, high enough to cause headaches and distorted vision. I never DID have the high blood pressure, and so the big, obvious, trademark symptoms weren't there to tip anyone off. She kept saying, over and over, how VERY glad she was that I'd gone in, or no one would have guessed it was anything but the flu. You don't send a woman six months pregnant out into the snow and ice when she has flu-like symptoms on the chance that she has a really rare blood disorder instead, you tell her to stay home and drink fluids, which would eventually have been really bad, considering that later that morning I went into labor. A quick-thinking nurse rolled me onto my side, which stopped it. Later that day, Dr. Rundle and all the other ob-gyns from her office came in to ask me how determined I really was to STAY pregnant, because the baby COULD be born then if we wanted. I said I wanted to stay pregnant as long as I could. They didn't look entirely comfortable with that, but left.
Sunday the 24th the neonatal specialist took his sonagram machine on a walk to come see me. I'd been wheeled up to his office the day before, at that time the baby was a little stressed but okay, and I guess he was just curious to see what was going on 24 hours later. Rather than have me sent up, he brought the machine down to my room, which was funny. Baby was "fighting - not struggling, but fighting." The nurse who came on duty that night was the same one who had been there when I was admitted, and she commented that she was surprised to see me. I assumed, incorrectly, that she had expected the baby to already be born...
That night about 10:30, my liver started yelling again. Nurses coming and going, more blood being drawn, lots of calls to the lab, because they couldn't give me painkillers without bloodwork. I will put HELLP syndrome liver pain up against natural childbirth any day of the week. I was going out of my mind. It was about 1 a.m. that they finally got the okay for Demerol, which apparently doesn't only numb the pain, it also makes you really not care about it. I was on Demerol until 10:30 Christmas morning, when I went under general anesthetic for a c-section. Everyone who sees my son's birthdate says, "Oh, it's the Christmas you'll never forget!" WRONG. It's the Christmas I'll never remember. I wasn't coherant until after 5 that evening.
The rest of the week I was busy trying to pump milk three months earlier than my body had planned to. I was discharged that Friday, and the nurse checking me out asked "So how does it feel to have a brush with death?" and I laughed, thinking she was exaggerating. I mean, yeah, I was sick when I came in, but I was fine after they started all the IVs and everything, it all turned out okay, right? She said, "Oh no, that's not a joke. You don't know how sick you were." Husband said soberly that he had printed out some online articles for me to read when I got home. He had looked up HELLP in Wikipedia just the night before, and was glad he hadn't beforehand (say, the night right after I'd been admitted).
The nurse who had told him I was "a very sick little lady" was trying to let him know there was a good chance I wouldn't recover. She was surprised to see me still there on Sunday, because she had expected I'd be in ICU or dead. My being admitted had been so frantic and rushed because it WAS such an emergency situation. I read the Wikipedia article, noting in my mind that my platelet level had been of Level One, i.e. very severe. And I took it all quite calmly until the next December 21st, when it hit me like a ton of bricks.
A year ago, I couldn't stop crying. This year, I forgot the date until the day was almost over. That makes me pretty happy.

No comments: