And this was even a few weeks before most of the world had ever even heard the words CoronaVirus.
It was still February when having a cold was just another expectation of the next health season cycle that comes along month after month.
For me on that seemingly harmless Saturday, I’d spent a few hours with a hacky cough, sore throat, and overall achy-ness. Simple cold and flu symptoms.
I mean how many cold and flu bugs had I ridden through over the years without needing to see a doctor to get healthy and well again? Hundreds? More?
Personally, when I start feeling this way I set up Plan A: I usually just chomp down my favorite over-the-counter remedy followed with huge doses of EmergenC, then burrow down into my couch and ride it out for a few days.
Basic common sense, right?
So with that plan in mind, I certainly didn’t anticipate finding myself near death without so much as a warning.
Instead, I found myself in the ICU of a Kansas hospital for 10 days, ( 3 days on a ventilator) with tubes up the ying-yang; trembling head to toe in an attempt at fighting off fever and chills.
What the hell?
To top it off, I was heavily sedated to keep me from pulling out the breathing tube that connected me to the ventilator.
Had I gotten my hand on the tube, it could have been nearly impossible to reinsert should it accidentally become dislodged in my confused, drugged state.
When waking from a coma while on a ventilator the first thing one discovers is a breathing tube filling your throat and gagging the crap out of you. Horribly frightening.
That little cold bug attacked me with a vengeance. While my bug wasn’t the Coronavirus (it was actually Haemophilus influenzae B bacteria), it was just as dangerous and with many of the same symptoms.
I had a fever of nearly 104, the inability to speak at all, (my lips moved but nothing came out,) and a huge red blotchiness on my neck that kept growing by leaps and bounds, threatening my ability to breathe should it head inwards to my throat.
I was scared to death for on top of everything else happening I kept overhearing bits and pieces of conversation between my team of docs and my daughter (also a doc) discussing my situation. It didn’t sound good.
I was especially concerned when I heard them talking about whether a standard breathing tube would work or if they would need to perform an emergency tracheotomy; a surgical procedure cutting a hole into my neck to keep me able to breathe should the swelling in my throat close off my ability to do so.
That, combined with sedation ( kind of like being really drunk without the fun) which leads to crazy hallucinations, it was hard sorting reality from delusions. I kept praying that the whole thing with a huge nightmare and I’d wake up any minute. But no such luck.
My daughter and my man friend held my hands for most of that 36-hour vigil. While I don’t remember most of it now, I’m told that the process of inserting (and removing) the breathing tube is something you wouldn’t wish upon your worst enemy.
And despite the fact that I was under sedation, I still experienced some of the fear, pain, and anxiety that goes with a procedure like this. We patients don’t often understand what the heck is going on. And when you’re in a situation like mine, where I couldn’t speak nor write, panic was my frequent, unwanted foe.
When I was still awake I even tried using my cell phone’s keyboard to type my urgent words for my family, but I was so shaky that my inaccuracy only made me look like a kindergartner.
Finally, after 50 minutes of playing with letters on a child’s slate, I was able to eke out to my desperate family, the words I so desperately wanted to them to hear: “Tell them I’m a nurse!”
I think my team was disappointed in my answer and I could read in their faces that they felt a bit down after all the work and time involved for what seemed to be an irrelevant detail. But for me it was huge.
Later (when I could talk again), I explained to them, how I wanted them to quit talking to me like an idiot. And how I desperately wanted to be a part of the team overlooking my care. It was my body, after all.
Not being able to share the ability to communicate made me feel like I was in prison. Or perhaps stranded on an alien planet. By then my fear and frustration levels were at a max.
Yet I quickly realized that the simple act of hand-holding can be a huge, emotional lifeline for someone lost in the confusing drug-induced state of sedation.
At the same time, simple touch was a huge prize to my family members when I finally squeezed back, sending them the first inclination that I was returning to real life.
Being unable to speak with the tube in my throat, made communicating difficult for sure. But just feeling the connection in our touch was some of the best medicine that kept me going. Of course, a simple thumbs-up hand signal didn’t hurt either during my more lucid times.
Another lesson I learned during my visit to the ICU is this: Timing is everything.
If I’d followed Plan A (outlined at the beginning), I’d likely have waited much too long to see a health care provider, thinking what I had was just another cold.
Fortunately, one of the nurse aids where I live, saw me moving my lips without any accompanying sound and likely a very confused look on my face. She was actually thinking I was having a stroke and she called 911 immediately, while I kept trying to convince her I was FINE.
By the way … What’s up with all this “I’m fine” rhetoric by people who are clearly not fine?
I realize that most of us hate taking the time, energy, and money that goes hand-in-hand with a visit to your favorite clinic, doc’s office, or God forbid, an Emergency room.
But not every person who’s “Just fine” is actually as uncomplicated as they would like you to believe. In my case, that simple little cold I had, could have proven fatal if I’d played the Wait and See game any longer than I did.
I have to admit that I too sat on the fence, debating what I should do as my cough grew and my throat started complaining. It was 5:30 AM when the whole coughing started after all.
While not many clinics or doc’s offices are open that time of day, the ER is always there. And while you may think it’s a bit extreme, I remind you just how fast things blew up that morning for me.
I can’t tell you just how many ‘ fine’ folks I have run into this cold and flu season but whose medical condition didn’t match.
In fact, a couple of friends played the I’m Fine card with me recently …one ended up in the hospital with pneumonia and the other friend has difficulty breathing but continues insisting he’s fine as we listen to him struggling to push each breath out of his lungs.
Is it fear of hospitals? Of pain? Or worrying about paying the bill?
Or perhaps with men at least, does it have something to do with pride? You know the kind: “The tough guy.” And tough guys don’t get all upset over a runny nose and a little cough. Perhaps it has something to do with the “real men don’t ask for directions,” philosophy.
On the other hand, a gal pal of mine drove me to the emergency room when I’d been pretty ill some time back. As the nurse was getting me checked in, my friend was describing some very uncomfortable symptoms she was experiencing. She described how her heart wasn’t beating right, how she had shortness of breath, and how her pulse was quite high.
As she was explaining her symptoms to us I asked the nurse who was admitting me what she thought of my friend’s symptoms. The nurse promptly called for more help and rushed my friend to the cardiac unit where she needed an emergency heart cath and stent placement that saved her life.
Good thing we were in the hospital already. If she would have experienced her symptoms at home and told her husband she was just fine, as she had other times, would she have gone in early enough? Maybe. Maybe not.
Would you know when to call for help? Or would you still be holding out, insisting you’re fine? Despite the thousands ill or dead each day?
Don’t let pride or some other reason keep you from possibly saving your own life or someone you love.
Don’t just be fine. Be safe. Be healthy. Stay alive.
Mary Jo Fay, RN, MSN