That’s how the doctor referred to my two-month stay in the facility. I started in the ER, the ward, then the ICU, and then a semi-private room.
It was late in February when two concerned colleagues rushed me off to the University infirmary. They sensed that something was wrong that morning. I had difficulty breathing as I made my way up the stairs. I braced the walls to keep me steady as I made my way to the office. Cold sweat broke as I attempted to get the parcels from another room. I had to take a seat and rest. It was one of those dry summer-like mornings but I was shivering. My shirt was soaked in sweat but I was cold.
[Infirmary] Meningo scare
It was past noon when the tests were completed at the university Infirmary. By 4pm, the doctor informed me I had to be transferred to another hospital because they suspected I had meningococcemia and the Infirmary didn’t have experts on infectious diseases. Barely caught a glance of the distraught eldest sister as I was being loaded to the ambulance. I then had the longest ambulance ride to San Lazaro Hospital in Sta. Cruz, Manila. Being transported lying down, with the ambulance siren in the background, needed some getting used to but I did manage to get some sleep.
Around five doctors hovered at the ER, firing questions about my medical history at the nurse who brought me from the Infirmary. It felt like I was in a scene in one of those medical dramas where a group of people would encircle you – the patient- to discuss your case. The brother-in-law was already at the hospital to meet me. The eldest and third sisters arrived a few hours later.
Finally, the head doctor arrived and declared that what I had was not meningococcemia. She said that I should have died immediately if I had meningo. That brought some comfort -somehow. One thing I’ve learned these past few months is to identify blessings and to be thankful for them. That’s one disease ruled out. The family dealt with the forms and I was admitted to the hospital. I was supposed be roomed at the ICU but there was no available room so I was brought to the ward. The room was good for five patients but I only had two roommates – one being treated for dengue and the other one for rabies.
Once you’re admitted in the ward, one starts to lose that sense of self. You become a case with a condition that the doctors needed to figure out hence, all the tests and later administer treatment to. You become a patient that timid nursing students and interns will practice on. You will be reciting the same details repeatedly – and patiently – every time another doctor or nurse arrives with their questions. I managed to escape most of the questions because I was asleep most of the time. The sisters dealt with most of the questions – and my hallucinations.
What I was not able to escape were cameras, camera phones, and tablets documenting the signs this body was exhibiting. It seemed that my case was unusual. I was showing signs that weren’t ordinarily experienced by one person. Apologies for the lack of details. I couldn’t really process the doctor’s med speak. For some reason, sharing files (like say photos of the dotted parts of my body) wasn’t a common practice. I think they were documenting my case for a possible journal article. So not only did we have to answer medical history questions repeatedly but I – at least my body parts – was also photographed every time a new doctor showed up. They were nice, the doctors. The experience was just somewhat dehumanizing. I have to say, I have never had that many strangers come near me.
Somehow, it seems like you cease being anything but signs, symptoms, and medical history -and then you become defined by your test results.
You get a shock of reality when your body fails to do what your brain thinks it can. The acceptance that you will not be able to do the simplest tasks you’d take no notice of in a normal day. You can’t even manage to breathe regularly. There’s an oxygen tank helping you otherwise you make do with shallow gasps of air. I remember a time when the doctors ordered that I am to avoid eating for some time of the day because the act of eating was consuming the oxygen, which I wasn’t getting much of, that the brain needed for it to process.
You lose control over your body. You lose track of time and dates. You even lose memories of some days. You become lost in stories that you take as your life and exist only in your mind. My hallucinations caused great anxiety in my family.
There were three key story lines. The first one developed from a notebook cover with vinyl records and musical notes that developed into boat sailing and then a visit to an art museum and a conversation with an installation artist. There was almost no flow in that story. The second one was about a novel author who was a part of this group of experts that was overseeing the initial phase of transferring the earth’s residents to another planet. The author was invited into the group because she wrote a novel that discussed in detail what was already happening. Of all the stories, this one was the most vivid or detailed. The third story involved being hired as an editor for the hospital’s scholarly publications.
I honestly have no idea where these stories came from. They were vague, I know. Perhaps this was the mind’s way of keeping me entertained. There was no television or radio in the room and I still was not able to operate my phone. See, having needles stuck in you have a way of keeping the hands numb and swollen. That left me with very little to do to pass time aside from waiting for the arrival of a new set of doctors, nurses, interns, – and meals 🙂
Faces drifted in and faded. There was the regular prick of needles for blood tests. There were murmurs and fans humming as I waited for evenings – the only time one can escape the room’s heat.
The doctors’ diagnosis? I had infective endocarditis sepsis. Quite a mouthful. Imagine having to explain that to your family. Two types of bacteria caused the infection. The infection resulted to vegetation in the heart. The cardiologist later explained that the infection clung and “ate” portions of my already frayed mitral valve.
Finally, a room became available at the ICU. I proved quite a challenge to move. At least four people did the lifting. I was that heavy.
The ICU had an air-conditioning unit. What a blessing. I had the room to myself. It had its own comfort room, not that I was able to use it. I was bedridden for a most of the two-month confinement.
At the ICU, I was free from camera clicks. The nurses were more competent, even the student-nurses. The needles came more often. The tests took a lot of my blood that I needed transfusion. I had IV needles attached to each hand and foot. The doctors were determining which antibiotic I would best respond to. The antibiotic should be strong enough to fight the bacteria but not that strong that it would affect my liver and kidney functions.
I spent relatively more time awake at the ICU. I still had the hallucinations. This time it involved a family and a cabin with a really nice kitchen. The eldest sister told me that I kept insisting that a Caucasian family paid me a visit in the ICU. I was even irritated with the fact that she would not believe me and that she thinks that I’m of unsound mind. The eldest sister was unnerved when the ICU nurse told her that it was common for ICU patients to see things. It was supposed to be comforting.
There were fewer doctors checking up on my progress during my ICU stay. This time, it involved a specialist in infectious diseases. I was more conscious of the pain of needles as the nurses looked for other veins in my hands and feet they could use. What really tested me was undergoing tests that required not eating or drinking for a looooong time. The eldest sister was only allowed to dampen my lips with cotton soaked in water. When I’m deprived of food, I get cranky 😐 That’s not really an excuse, I know. I kept pestering the sister about the time.
The staff referred to my case a “toxic”. That’s not a good thing. Toxic meant critical or with a high chance of death. Thankfully, my condition improved.
[Semi-private] Chicken and milkfish diet
There was only one IV needle this time. That was a great source of comfort. I was to complete two months of antibiotics.
A low-fat, low salt diet was recommended for me. Breakfast included bread and jam and butter with meatloaf or vienna sausage from the can. Lunch and dinner meals included chicken breast or back and milkfish – without fail. After a month, I’ve gotten so sick of chicken and milkfish that I begged the sisters to buy me vegetable viands when they go out for their meals. There was a refrigerator this time so we had access to cold water and drinks.
During this time, the nurses were already having greater difficulty in searching for an unused vein. The needle needed to be transferred every week -or less. The shortest time was one day. The vein closed in less than 24 hours. And with every transfer, the nurses spent more time in searching for a new vein. I’d know it’s time for the needle to change hands when the hand would be swollen and I’d be unable to close it into a fist. Needle transfers are always painful especially if it takes the nurses more than one try.
I began to develop this fear of “flushing”. That what the nurses referred to the act of removing possible blocks in the vein by using needleless syringe to push in fluid. That sensation of mildly colder liquid entering the vein can be painful especially when it happens quite fast. You’d see the nurses exert pressure on the syringe’s piston to push the fluid in and there’s usually some resistance so they’ll increase the pressure. If they’re not successful with flushing, it would be time for a new IV needle location in the other hand.
Eventually, you get used to it. Towards the end of the two-month stay, the needles become part of the normal routine. One loses count of the number of times blood has been collected for tests or how many times the needle has been transferred from one hand to the other. You just look forward to moving on to the next day – one that seems longer than the previous and is closer to the discharge date.