This story begins like several others from my early 20s:
A year ago last night, I was hanging from a light post in front of Wrigley Field.
Alas, instead of a Bud Light-induced fit of euphoria where I exclaimed my love for late-night bars that serve taquitos, or a similarly-caused clinging to make the world stop spinning, I gripped the post while grabbing my neck and screaming.
It was 11 p.m. on a Monday, and no one was in front of The Friendly Confines to lend assistance.
I had just spent the evening with a friend, parked on the couch, cheering for those on Intervention to relapse, and eating order-in Lou Malnattis. Discomfort crawled around my neck all night, and I remember touching the hardening spot for the past few hours, wondering what that unfamiliar twinge could be.
I don’t remember getting home that night, but I somehow I did. I parked myself on what I deemed the ‘death couch’ (I vastly prefer the couch to my bed while sick), applied a hot compress that failed its purpose the minute it was no longer hot enough to distract me from the pain, and tried to rest and prep for what I was sure my lymph node indicating that I was about to have a hellaciously sore throat.
The next morning, hand-to-neck and tear-streaked, I made my way to the minor emergency clinic for a walk-in appointment. The doctor there prodded my sore spot, exclaimed, “You either have mono or AIDs,” and walked out to grab a mono test and his prescription pad. As a long-time blood donor, his latter proclamation didn’t scare me — though it did clue me into what sort of medical professional I was seeing. (That being, one with an exceptionally shitty bedside manner.) As for mono, I shrugged, thought, “Man, that would suck,” and waited in that cold room for the pharmacy scripts.
I picked up my antibiotics and liquid pain relief from CVS, then headed back to the death couch.
Things get a little hazy at this point due to the pain which was proving the hydrocodone suspension to be ineffective. Fingering at the hump, I realized it exceeded the size of my entire extended hand.
Now, I’m not one to overreact to illness. But having a hump in one’s neck is cause for concern. I called my insurance company-deemed GP, urgently requested an appointment RIGHT NOW, and was in the office as soon as I put on pants and crossed the street to the offices.
I again got another prodding as I sobbed through the pain, then she held my face and asked, “Do you have $20? I want you immediately in a taxi to Northwestern’s ER. I’ll call to let them know you’re on your way.”
You know how a child scrapes a knee and you immediately start into the, “Oh wow. I’m soooo glad you’re okay,” routine to distract him or her from having a meltdown to what is probably temporary pain? Well, no one was there to tell me I was going to be okay, the doctor was urgent in her insistence that I get over there pronto, and this hump in my neck had been throbbing for two days now.
I entered the ER in such sobs that another patient’s mom sat next to me, handed me tissues, and kept me upright until my name was called.
The ER physicians were prepped by my doctor already, inserted an IV into my hand, pushed Dilaudid, and then started asking questions to see what the problem could be. With the fast-acting morphine providing relief, I could once again speak English, relay the issue, tolerate the doctor and three interns touching my sore spot, and not overreact when they took me in for an MRI ‘just to be sure’.
I napped, got another shot of the miracle pain relief, and waited for the doctor and his young followers to come back and tell me whatever it was that they were going to tell me.
“Ms. Keena, you’ve got a clean bill of health. Here are some better pain meds, keep a hot compress on it, and it should go away in a few days.”
Some people pray for this sort of thing. However, when in pain like that, I’d rather be told that I’ve got a Siamese twin growing from my neck that I’ll have to raise as my own child than hear that all’s clear, there’s no known cause, and that I need to sit and wait it out.
I took my improved pain script, again planted myself on the death couch, and settled in for the night. I awoke the next day to massive pain and a phone call from one of the interns from the day before, “Do you have $20 for a taxi?”
I stumbled myself to the ER again, and checked into the front desk, where the man’s ears perked at my name, and my doctor from yesterday was immediately summoned to usher me in.
My thoughts: I AM SO SCREWED.
I put on the flimsy gown, accepted another IV, had the Dilaudid pushed again, and then took the news. Upon hearing the doctor’s proclamation that, wow, he’d never gotten to see a case of this, I made the executive decision to not Google the disease I was just told. I passed the news along to my brother and one trusted friend to let them guide me to what was going on yet let me not stress about things unnecessarily.
Smartest. Decision. Ever.
Before the first dose of Dilaudid wore off, I found myself settled into a hospital room that would be my home for the next two weeks.
My room was a steady stream of teams of doctors, and as word spread, the few friends that I let know what was going on. With frequent check-ins from the graven Infectious Disease team, I kept that list of friends pretty small. Unlike the butt rock incident in the following January (which was shared with everyone due to my perceived notion that I wasn’t actually in harm of dying), I didn’t want that impending cloud of doom out there, spreading and growing.
Two weeks in the hospital. A bit of slicing to my neck. A month at home with an IV and a self-administered sacks of drugs. Weeks of therapy to regain mobility on my entire upper left side. Months of pills that gave my tongue a mossy coat and my mouth a metallic taste.
A year later, things are mostly good. I have a scar that’s pretty boss, though it’s fading into my neck’s crease as more time goes on. Checking my blind spot while driving takes more than the split second it used to. I can lift my arm over my head now, but the muscles in that area are sometimes angry at the things I do. My physical fitness feels like it’s at about 90%, which frustrates me but reminds me of the gravity of what happened last September (and then of January’s butt rock events).
It’s hard to look back and think ‘what might have been’ thoughts about my own mortality over the past year, but I can boil it all down to a single statement:
TL;DR: I am hard to kill.