Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Bronchitis AND Pneumonia: GO HARD OR GO HOME.

Well that sucked.

I’ve been a teacher for years. I have on occasion (read: frequently) exhibited unhealthy behaviors that promote illness, including but not limited to:
  • running in all messes of freezing cold precipitation 
  • staying up too late 
  •  drinking too much 
  • drinking too much again the next night 
  • not eating healthily 
  • getting dehydrated 
  • sharing water bottles with any number of people 
  • not getting enough sleep for weeks at a time 
Despite all this risky behavior... I HAVE NEVER FELT THAT AWFUL IN MY ENTIRE LIFE. 
I’d like to start by telling you what it was like through other people’s eyes. I’ll tell you what it was like for me.. Don’t worry.. I have lots of stamina and a rambling ability that rivals televangelists.

MY BOYFRIEND will tell you that he knew I was sick because I wasn’t putting on a brave face or trying to act like I was okay. I’m not sure what he’s talking about, because I find it difficult to hide anything at all from anyone. Every year there are a couple of close calls when I almost admit to total strangers that I have menstrual cramps. But maybe he sees something I don’t. Maybe I hold some modicum of my discomfort in. That sounds like something real live grown-ups do, and I usually don’t associate myself with that demographic, but maybe I’ve changed.

He’ll also tell you I was a zombie who farted a lot, but you can ask him for more details on that one.

MY FATHER will tell you that I flip-flopped between bouts of intense pain and wittily making light of my situation. When he found me, I was shaking in a wheelchair of the ER, which they gave me because I kept falling down. I wasn’t fainting, per se, rather I was experiencing repeated bouts of kneesnotworking syndrome. It was the strangest thing. One minute I was standing, and the next minute, it felt like my feet, calves, knees and thighs were resting on top of one another, but not connected in any way, like jenga.

It was awful. I’ve had swine flu, regular flu, scarlet fever, and a variety of other illnesses. I’ve also run a marathon. Believe me when I say that this body ache was the worst thing I’ve ever felt EVER. LIKE EVER. My muscles stung constantly. There was no ache. There was no up and down. You know how the fire drill is a repeating beep sound? Well, in the south, we had tornado drills, and instead of beep beep beep it was one long beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep. That was what the pain was like. One long kick in the muscles that somehow stayed consistently awful without letting up.

I tried stretching and got yelled at (“Hey, the girl who just collapsed and is in a wheelchair is trying to do yoga, someone tell her to cut that shit out.”) I tried wheeling around in the wheelchair to use my muscles, but it only helped temporarily, and I was so weak. Everything hurt. Pain vibrated through me.

MY FATHER will also tell you that after telling the same symptom story to 2 people, I got tired of repeating myself. I took out my writing notebook, made a list of symptoms, and started showing it to anyone who asked. As new symptoms appeared, I added them to the list. At the beginning, I gave a half-smile and explained that I was a writing teacher. By the end, I stopped caring.

Then we have the issue of hospital food. I happen to be very well acquainted with this hospital's cafeteria from my mom’s surgery. Their macaroni and cheese sits like a brick in your stomach but hot damn is it a good-tasting brick. However, I have trouble walking in this hospital since I associate it with my mom being weak and covered in iodine and tubes, and I was having trouble walking in general, so that wasn’t an option. Luckily, I had a back-up plan.

Have you ever had a night when you got too drunk, and you wake up the next day and dread opening your eyes to see the scene in front of you? You just KNOW you’re going to open your eyes and see that you’re still in your clothes, expensive DKNY stockings ripped beyond repair, raccoon eyes smeared across white pillowcases, contacts plastered to dry eyeballs, cell phone dead, half-eaten Lean Cuisine next to you that was healthy before you dumped no less than 1.5 cups of parmesan cheese on it? And then you open your eyes easily (what? I removed my makeup so it’s not gluing my eyes shut?), blink 28 times because you can’t see (I took my contacts out?), and see that you’re wearing matching pajamas next to your plugged-in cell phone and a to-do list neatly written on a post-it? I love those nights. None of that has any right to happen, because I decided that ONE LAST SHOT of Jameson’s (it’s always Jameson’s) wouldn’t kill me except it totally did, yet somehow I wake up in a perfectly orderly calm nonchaotic fashion? I love those mornings, when in a drunken stupor, you inexplicably managed to execute every single nighttime ritual, even ones you sometimes forget about when sober.

Sometimes in bad situations, this happens to me. It’s like there’s a panic switch and when I flip it, my body shifts into a silent autopilot that does everything right without panicking. Sometimes when a student tells me something and it has to be dealt with RIGHT THEN because it’s a big bad and there are 26 others students there only 7 of whom are quiet, this switch gets flipped. I make up something for them to do, assign it in my military voice, pick up the phone, and get shit taken care of. Or when someone I love is hurting and everyone’s standing around wringing their hands unsure of what to do, and I start barking orders. Most of the time I don’t think it’s that I do anything that special, it’s that I do SOMETHING and I do it RIGHT THEN. People need you to take action more than they need you to take the perfect right action. It’s kind of like driving in Boston. If you wait around and contemplate every move you make in traffic until you’re 100% sure it’s the right one, you’ll end up wrapped around a telephone pole most of the time. You’ve just got to pick something and go with it.

Anyway, on Wednesday of last week, this switch got flipped. I called my roommate/savior from the road and the second I heard her voice I dissolved into tears. She’s one of those people who was born a nurse and spent most of her life waiting until she could legally become one, and it shows in her voice. She’s a healer, a fixer, a problem-solver, and an empath. She’s exactly who you want to hear on the other end of the line when you’re struggling to stay in one lane of the highway and not faint, but she’s also the reason I lost it. I knew it would be okay, and I could stop goinggoinggoinggoinggoinggoing and just HURT because she was going to make it okay. 

I got home, and since I was resigned to letting other people take care of me (finally!), I was able to think for myself. I took a shower, shaved my legs, deep-conditioned my hair, brushed/flossed, and put on scented moisturizer. I picked out my favorite track long sleeve, an XL a relay meet that’s soft as fuck and stained from that fantastic rainy run when Tori and I went puddle-jumping. I tried on three pairs of knee socks to find a pair that was soft but sturdy. I packed 4 books, 8 colored RSVP pens, my writer’s notebook, my phone charger, and an extra pair of socks for good measure. I even made sure I was wearing cute underwear in case something terrible happened and my clothes had to be ripped off me in what would look like a scene from Grey’s Anatomy except with my added cellulite. I also packed an assload of mesclun mix lettuce, a mini-tupperware container full of Ranch dressing, and cut up a cucumber. I was prepared.

How I had the peace of mind to do this I don’t know. As my dad frequently reminded me, he didn’t have that luxury when taking my mom to the ER for her infected finger, which explained why he couldn’t devote as much time to picking out cute socks. I guess I was just on autopilot. Good thing.

SIDENOTE: I realized when I needed to eat that I hadn’t brought a bowl for the salad, and my Tupperware wasn’t large enough. (BOYFRIEND QUOTE: “What’s with the container of leaves in your bag?”) I remembered having food poisoning years ago and the little pink plastic dish they gave me to puke in, so yes… I asked for one. To eat my salad in.

I hate emergency rooms. It’s my belief that the relationship you have with a person enables you to help them more effectively (in any profession: teaching, writing, healthcare, etc). Thus the fact that no one knows you in the ER makes it that much more difficult for all involved. They gave me an albutirol breathing treatment, Tylenol, anti-nausea stuff, and a couple of other things, none of which helped much but did stop me from feeling like I was teetering on the edge of bad and worse.

There’s a difference between telling someone there’s no magic cure to fix them and telling someone there’s no magic cure to fix them but here are some ways to help deal with the symptoms until the body can fix itself. I’m a teacher. I’m here to learn. I’m a smart, agile thinker with maybe a bit too heavy a hand on the WebMD app. Telling me there’s nothing that can be done short of ibuprofen, water and rest is like telling me stare at a stab wound in my leg and wait for the knife to leave on its own recognizance.

All they told me to do was sleep, take ibuprofen, and drink water.


Every tiny movement shot pain through me. My body was heavy and unwieldy and not staying vertical. You don’t just send me on my way with a codeine prescription. I vaguely remember getting the prescription filled at CVS. Walking through the aisles was akin to swimming through molasses. I opened a container of goldfish, ate half, put the remainder next to the Fresca and paid for my prescription only. I ended up home. Codeine made me puke. It always does.

The next thing I remember is Saturday morning.

I have glimpses of being awake long enough to eat enough to take codeine and hopefully not puke (but I did anyway). I slept for 21-22 hours a night. When I couldn’t sleep anymore, I took sleeping pills. I drank lots of water. I took ibuprofen. I coughed and coughed and coughed. Everything stayed the same.

That kind of weakness is nothing I’d wish on anyone. I was hot then cold then hot then cold then FREEZING because I’d sweated through my sheets. My gums bled because I brushed my teeth after each time I threw up and I threw up a lot. I started eating whatever I wanted because it was going to come up anyway my roommate S's girlfriend/MY SOUL SISTER QUOTE: “Twice the flavor, because you taste it coming up, and half the calories!”).

At some point on Sunday afternoon I realized I still wasn’t getting better. I hadn’t turned a corner. I still felt just as shitty as I did on Wednesday night in the ER. I still couldn’t walk more than 10 feet without taking a break. I still struggled on stairs.

On Monday morning I woke up unable to talk. Well, I tried to talk. But talking stung my throat and I coughed up blood so my mother finally relented and actually texted me to communicate (Mama, you’re good at texting, why don’t you do it more often?). I called a cab company to take me to the hospital to see a doctor in the practice, but I sounded so bad they wouldn’t come get me. My father, luckily, did. Of course they were laying a gas line in my street so I had to walk 30 feet to his car. I almost didn’t make it.

The doctor was one I’d never seen before: tall, handsome, black and very quiet. I began with this: “I have felt like this since last Sunday night, and I’m sorry, but please don’t tell me there’s no magic cure except rest, water, and ibuprofen, because if you say that I will snap. I don’t mean to be a bitch, but I’m not getting better.”

This guy was SO COOL that I wish I could change my PCP to him. I love my doctor, I do, but this guy was amazing. He poked and prodded and listened to me breathe for a good five minutes, but then he started having me say numbers while he listened through a stethoscope. He explained that he was listening very carefully to see how different sounds traveled. When I repeated “Ninety nine” sixteen times, he called someone in for a second opinion. He sent me to get another chest x-ray, which showed congestion and stuff (??) on the bronchus. This wasn’t new. Upper respiratory infection was the diagnosis from the start. But when he compared the x-rays, his face changed. I saw that cool “A-ha!” House M.D. moment crawl across his features. I had bronchitis. Bad bronchitis.

He started listing what OTC meds I would need, and when I asked him to write it down, he said, “You don’t know what these meds do, do you? Let me explain. Then you’ll remember which ones to get.” It sounds simple, but I didn’t know. Twenty seven years and I didn’t know that post-nasal drip irritated the throat and caused a cough, and Sudafed worked by drying up the nasal passages to prevent this dripping. I didn’t know how ibuprofen and acetaminophen worked differently, and how to use them both to their maximum effectiveness. I didn’t know the first thing about my lungs. MIND = BLOWN.

Back in the car I was dizzy and light-headed when my phone rang. I wish I could tell you exactly what he said, but I was so out of it I don’t remember the details. Something about how he’d consulted more research, called an expert in another part of the hospital, sent my x-rays over, and determined I had bronchitis AND PNEUMONIA. Bam. Antibiotics sent to CVS not a moment too soon.

Bronchitis AND pneumonia. I guess I’m incapable of doing anything halfway. I have to go all out. The pneumonia was in the pre-stages the first time I was x-rayed, so it didn’t show up. Because it was combined with the bronchitis, it was effectively hidden or camouflaged or overshadowed or WHATEVER by the bronchitis. No amount of ibuprofen and water and rest was going to fix that.

Seven hours later I felt like a different person. I was still hurting, but the fog had cleared. I was still weak, but I could finally pick up the cat without needing a five minute break afterwards. I pranced through the living room and announced to Stephen, “I have pneumonia AND bronchitis, WHAT!!” to his bemusement. After that, I did need to rest. Prancing takes a lot out of you.

Tuesday and Wednesday (today) have been a mixed bag. Sometimes I feel okay, and I think, “Man, it’s only 11, I should go into work and teach the rest of the day,” and then I’m hit with a coughing fit and I have to sit down for 2 hours. Last night I coughed myself awake 5 times, and I coughed so long I actually gagged. But the moment I realized I was getting better was when my boyfriend said, “What’s that face?” and I grasped the wonder: the body ache was gone.

Last night when I was writing out my sub plans for today, I had the biggest, goofiest smile on my face. My job is stressful day in and day out. Combine that with the fact that I’ve been more or less sick since October, and it’s been a while since I smiled while making lesson plans. Usually, when I come home, I’m so emotionally or physically destroyed from the day that it’s hard to feel anything else. But I found myself grinning as I typed, “if they aren’t engaged in the discussion, ask them how many of them have ever been bumped or pushed or shoved in the hallway right outside the class. Then, connect it to the metaphor of the poem: A pinball is also bumped, pushed, and shoved in a pinball machine.” I LAUGHED (yes laughed) as I typed, “If all else fails, tap into their deep appreciation for complaining. Remind them that the author wrote this poem about disliking middle school, and they have plenty of things they also hate about middle school.” It was a wonderful feeling. I can’t remember the last time I felt it. I LOVE figuring out interesting ways to get through to adolescents. I LOVE figuring out what makes them tick. I LOVE their quirks, their volatility, their mood swings, their perfect combination of asserting their individuality and independence while still seeking your approval. I LOVE IT. I’m not thrilled that I had to take six days off to become reacquainted with this love, but maybe that’s what had to happen.

1. Dad, for spending your day in the ER with my mother then me last Wednesday, and for taking me to the doctor’s on Monday and leading me around the hospital as I bounced from office to x-ray room to office and back again.

2. Mama, for the matzah ball soup and love and support.


4. My boyfriend, for never leaving my side, not getting mad at me for being comatose for the better part of a week, taking care of me, getting me ice packs, and holding me together.

5. Roommate, for your support, comfort, validation, back massages and love. And the first ride to the ER.

6. Roommates, for putting up with me.

7. Friends and colleagues for your well-wishes. It means a lot. Seriously.

8. Whoever subbed for me for the past week and everyone at work who helped when I was gone. I know it sucks having a teacher out.

9. Pitch Perfect, for introducing me to the cup song, which I practiced to entertain myself in the waiting room.

10. Awesome Doctor Man for obvious reasons

11. the cat, for keeping me company.

12. Dick Wolf, for creating Law & Order: SVU (which I was too sick to watch until yesterday… That’s how you know shit’s bad).

One final note: The x-ray technician will tell you I’m a pro. She led me into the changing room and said, “Take off all your clothes, even undergarments, and put on this robe.” I responded, “Oh please! I came prepared.”

“T-shirt, no bra?”

“You bet.”

“Ain’t your first rodeo girl, woohoo!”

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