Sunday, August 29, 2010

I think I set a World Record For Almost-Dying: Part Seven: Why you must always lie to doctors.

I almost died twice in one week. This is part seven of that story.


Part 1.

Part 2.
Part 3.

Part 4.
Part 5.
Part 6.

Doctors, this is why we have to lie to you: Because if we tell you the truth, you'll go and act on the truth, and that's not always the best course of action.

Let me explain that.

After walking into the ER for the second time in less than a week and telling the admissions nurse that I had trouble breathing and chest pain, I was ushered into a smaller room, where they checked my blood pressure and pulse-oxygen... again... and then shown back to the same exact room I'd had the Saturday before.

That made sense to me, because I was still under the impression that this was some sort of delayed reaction to being stung. Those were some bees, I kept thinking to myself, insofar as I was able to think to myself, that being rather difficult because I was really having a hard time focusing at all.

They laid me down on the bed and had me change into a hospital gown and put that little paperclip on my finger to (supposedly) monitor the oxygen in my blood and then put that little tube around my face and hooked me up to oxygen, talking to me the whole time. It was a new doctor, a woman who looked a little young to be a doctor. But, then, everyone looks a little young to be everything, nowadays. I get pulled over for speeding by police officers who can't have graduated high school. I watch baby-faced kids get paid millions of dollars to play football. Even the president seems a little young to be the president, even though he's older than me. He went sledding with his kids, he buys Jonathan Franzen books... he's young and probably shouldn't be making decisions about how many billions of dollars to give to special-interest groups. When Clinton was president, he was supposed to be young for a president, one of the youngest, but he at least seemed old. He seemed like an old guy trying to be a young guy, an uncle who wants to be cool but isn't. (Was Clinton maybe the youngest? I don't know. I used to know all that stuff about politics, back in college, but things that seemed important in college no longer are. It doesn't matter who was the youngest president ever when you've got a full-time job and a yard to mow and kids to help with homework and a brand-new carpet shampooer to help with the spot where the Babies!, no matter how hard you try to get them to stop, continue to insist on grinding their chocolate chip cookies into the carpeting.)

(Our next house, I've vowed to Sweetie, will have all hardwood and tiled floors. It may feel like a museum or shopping mall, but By God it'll be easy to keep clean. I may install drains in each room and just hose them down at the end of the day, like the way I'm pretty sure they do the restrooms at the mall.)

I laid there and took it all in, answering questions and feeling things go from bad to worse and then level off at worse. I was on the bed and had the oxygen in my nose. Not that I noticed it. I'd always wondered what it would be like to be getting extra oxygen. Would I be a super-hero? Would I feel phenomenal? If bodies run on oxygen, getting extra oxygen must be like having 50 cups of coffee shot into your system, I'd guessed.

Only it wasn't. Instead, there was a little blurst of air near my nose and that was it. I didn't feel any better or more alive. Maybe it's because my nose is always a little stuffed up, even in the summer. I wondered if I should tell them that but before I could do that, I decided that my energy was better spent lying there and just let it be.

After a while, Sweetie made it inside, with the Babies! strapped into a stroller. Letting Mr F and Mr Bunches loose in an ER is not a good idea, but keeping them in a stroller that's really getting too small for them, at nearly four years old, is also not a good idea. Luckily, it was both early in the morning and kind of a freaky thing for them to see me lying on a bed with a tube in my nose, so they were somewhat passive and didn't spend the few minutes they were there trying to wreak havoc. It might have been the most peaceful they were all summer, but Sweetie wasn't taking any chances; we'd gotten in touch with Middle already and had her coming to meet us to take the boys back home and kind of mind them for a few hours while I got this sorted out.

They took a chest x-ray, too, while I was laying there. That was something new. A guy brought a whole x-ray machine right into the room where I was laying, and put some stuff on my chest and then stepped back and took some photos and then left. I'm always in a state of minor awe about the world we live in -- iPods and space stations and microwave pork rinds and all that -- and I tried to be dutifully impressed, too, that there was a mobile x-ray machine, one that could just be wheeled around giving x-rays to people.

But I couldn't muster up the energy. Instead, I laid there passively and tried to concentrate on talking to Sweetie enough so that she would think I wasn't rude, and waited for them to tell me what disgusting-tasting pills I had to take to go home.

Sweetie was very good about things; she sat on her uncomfortable chair and alternated between reading a book and talking to me whenever I tried to talk to her, which was as often as I could muster up the energy to say something, and as often as I could muster up the mental energy to come up with something to say something about.

Let me just say this, and I mean no offense to Sweetie, who is great, and I mean no offense to the rest of you, most of whom I don't know, so don't get all up in a bundle about it: Stop visiting and sitting by sick people.

When Sweetie had the Babies!, she had to go through a whole lengthy procedure that lasted a long time and was very draining... at the end of nearly nine months of producing twins and carrying them around through a very hot summer. Then, on top of all that, she had to help take care of those twins, because, let's face it, I was not in any way qualified to be the lead parent there. Despite all that, Sweetie was inundated with visitors, people stopping by to talk to her and calling her to talk to her and calling her to tell her they'd be stopping by to talk to her... so much so that even with all the help I could give (not very much) she was, by the time she got home, even more exhausted than she'd been right after giving birth. And then people started coming to our house, a practice we discourage at the best of times. I thought she was going to go nuts, and I thought I was going to go crazy, too, because the longer it takes for Sweetie to recuperate, the more time I have to spend doing all the things she usually takes care of. And that is a lot of things.

When I was in the hospital the week before, it'd been late enough on Saturday night that word couldn't get out and people couldn't come visit me. The last time I'd ever been in the hospital, when I had my back surgery, I'd only been there a day, too -- but then, people had known I was going in there and some of them offered to come visit and/or sit with me. I declined all such offers as politely as possible.

I did that for the same reason I both felt bad for Sweetie and felt bad for me, laying there in the ER that morning wondering what was going on and when I'd get my pills: I don't want visitors around when I'm sick. What's supposed to happen, there? I'm laying there in a hospital gown that by design doesn't close all the way up because doctors and nurses need access to places to measure pulses and jab needles. I'm feeling terrible or have just gotten over feeling terrible. I'm shot up with various medications and attached to various tabs... and you want to sit and make small talk with me about the Brewers?

Or whatever.

That's not the biggest problem, though. The biggest problem is that I am completely unable to just sit quietly around other people. I can't do it. And yet, I hate small talk. That's why I stopped going for haircuts and now cut my own hair. It's why I have a pathological fear of getting a massage. It's why I was never very good at dating. (Well, one of the reasons.) I'm not good at small talk but I hate silences when other people are around, so I try to talk to them, no matter what I'm feeling like at the time.

So on that Friday morning, while Sweetie sat there reading and I sat there almost dying, I kept trying to talk to her, because I knew she was there and I couldn't stand not talking to her.

No, I never said I was easy to live with.

Time seemed to drag on for hours in between my halting efforts to keep a conversation going and Sweetie's efforts to both sit quietly and talk to me. At one point, they came in an made me drink something they said was potassium but which had the consistency of melty orange pudding and which tasted like a vitamin C tablet with fluoride. Then the doctor finally came in and said that they'd done tests and were trying to rule out a heart attack.

"A heart attack?" I said.

The doctor confirmed that was what she'd said, and talked about how they could rule that out: blood tests show if you're heart's been attacked, apparently, and they could always do a stress test: put me on a treadmill and see how that goes and if it kills me, then I'd probably had a heart attack, I imagined. The doctor recommended that I get a stress test and said they'd set one up for that afternoon.

It was about 9:30 a.m. I felt like I'd been there the full day already, and things weren't getting any better. I couldn't remember, by then, whether they'd given me anything to try to make things better, beyond the oxygen and that little clip on my finger.

Sweetie and I talked a little bit about the possibility that it was a heart attack, the conversation revolving around the same point that everyone would bring up after that: "You're too young to have a heart attack." And I am, or was, I felt, too young to have a heart attack. But, then, when you're talking about me, I feel that whatever age I am, it's too young for a heart attack.

I didn't feel any better, physically. I felt a lot worse, actually -- the pain in my chest was getting worse, and it was harder to breathe and my head felt full of... well, buzzing. Not like something was in there, but more like the static on a radio when you go by a TV tower -- the sudden interruption of information that's almost complete: a little bit gets through, just enough to let you know that something's really wrong. Plus, my jaw hurt.

But in one respect, I did feel a little better: They had an idea what might be wrong with me and they had a plan to deal with it. So in a small respect, that was a good thing. It's worse, after all, to be in a lot of pain and misery and have no idea why that is than it is to be in a lot of pain and misery and have a reason for it. Reasons, causes, can be attacked and dealt with and given pills and oxygen and x-rays. So while I wasn't crazy about the idea that I was having a heart attack, I was at least mollified that they would know what to do about that.

Side note: I didn't know what they would do about that at that point. I wasn't sure how you treat a heart attack, especially a heart attack that doesn't feel like I'd always pictured a heart attack feeling. I always pictured heart attacks as something violent and sudden, a man all of a sudden kneeling down, going pale, clutching his chest and maybe drooling a little. Bystanders would loosen his collar, check his pulse, yell "He's having a heart attack" and someone would produce a defibrillator and he'd be zapped and sit up, woozily, asking where he was. Beyond that, I didn't know what happened. But that image was far different than the reality, which was a sleepless night and a lot of chest pain that didn't feel like anything, in particular, beyond hurting, and this dizziness and shortness of breath. Where were the paddles? Where was the person yelling "clear!" and pressing them down on me?

But, like I said, they had a plan and I was lying there waiting for a second blood test and a stress test to see if I'd had a heart attack, and Sweetie was letting Middle know it would be a longer day than we'd thought and I was trying to rest up and get my head to clear up for just a bit (and get a good, deep breath in here and there, something that was increasingly hard to do.)

Then Jeff walked in.

Jeff is the reason that we, you and I and all of us, must occasionally lie to our doctors. Jeff is the reason why our health care system will never work. And I'm sorry for that, because Jeff seemed like a genuinely nice guy, but it's all Jeff's fault that you have to lie to doctors from here on out.

Jeff was an RN or something like that. A big guy that was just on the cusp of being burly, Jeff had a beard and an affable manner and a business card that was far too big -- it was the size of a baseball card and it was also the only business card I'd ever been given by someone in an ER. Jeff's business card had his profession on it and also some personal information about him, such as that he enjoyed competing in triathlons. I think it also said something about live-action role playing, but I may be misremembering that, as I wasn't in the best state to focus on Jeff's rookie card.

Jeff introduced himself and went over my history again and asked about my symptoms and then he asked this question, which I should have lied in response to but I didn't because other than when I used to smoke but denied it to doctors I have never lied to a doctor:

Jeff asked "What did you eat for dinner last night?"

I said, truthfully: "A chili dog."

We'd had chili dogs the night before, something I'd been wanting for a while and Sweetie had finally made them. I hadn't gone to town on them; I'd had just one, and the chili wasn't very spicy. But Jeff listened to my confession of having eaten a chili dog and asked a few more questions and then gave a lengthy explanation of how steroids can cause heartburn-- acid reflux, he called it, as though that made me feel better about the explanation -- and how the heartburn caused by steroids, which of course I'd taken for a few days for the bee stings, can be severe and can mimic far more serious health problems...

... like a heart attack.

Jeff went on and one about the steroids and the heartburn and the chili dog and how "big guys like us" can really suffer from acid reflux anyway and how the steroids make it worse and it probably didn't help that I had a chili dog the night before and drank a cup of coffee this morning, and then Jeff said

"So it's probably acid reflux. We'll get you a Nexium and see how that works for you. Are they still going to do a stress test later?"

I said that I didn't know but thought they were. Jeff said it couldn't hurt to do that but that he was pretty sure this was simply heartburn. He got me the Nexium, made a few comments about chili dogs, and left.

And something changed in the ER the moment he did that. I took the Nexium and said to Sweetie that if this was heartburn, I hoped I never got it again because it was so bad. I also said that I didn't see how heartburn could cause shortness of breath and dizziness and the by-now crushing feeling I had in my chest, but I took the Nexium and hoped for the best, thinking to myself that this would really make for an embarrassing but amazing story at work on Monday: "Yeah, my heartburn was so bad from that chili dog that I had to go to the ER!"

And the ER workers' attitudes, too, changed: They stopped paying much attention to me at all, it seemed. I don't know how much attention they were supposed to be paying, but they seemed to pay less and their attitudes towards me changed in some subtle way, it seemed to me. And I have some evidence of that, because I laid there for about another hour or so and they came and took some more blood, Jeff in tow and explaining that this was probably nothing, but they'd go ahead and do the second blood tests just to be sure, and after they did that, I asked the nurse if there was a bathroom I could use.

Every other time I'd ever gone to the bathroom in an ER or hospital, a nurse had offered to help me and had hovered nearby in case something went horribly wrong. So when I asked if there was a bathroom I could use, I expected that someone would walk me over there and hang around outside the door in what must be a low point in any medical worker's day.

Instead of that, though, this nurse just shrugged and said "Sure. It's over there." She pointed vaguely to her left and I was on my own, walking slowly and dizzily and painfully and not-breathingly over to the bathroom and back, where I laid down on the bed again to wait for whatever was next and mulled how quickly things had changed. I guess heartburn doesn't warrant all that much concern or attention, I thought, as I tried to breathe deeply but couldn't. The ER's attitude towards me after Jeff's interview, was, it seemed, "He'll be all right. He's just got to not pig out on those chili dogs."

Jeff was wrong, though. It wasn't the chili dogs.

Next: Part Eight: Is this ALMOST over?

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