I don’t want to die today.
That was the thought that was repeating in my head. Coupled with I might die today.
In the past, I have had thoughts of dying. Throughout my life (mostly the angst-ridden teenage years and the codependent marriage years) I had, on more than one occasion, considered dying… thought about my death… about leaving. But I had never thought about not dying. Until two weeks ago.
Two weeks ago, I very much thought about not dying… as I lay on a gurney in the ER, clutching my head, squinting my eyes through darkened glasses, and trying to absorb everything that was going on around me, and failing.
There was so much noise from the other cases that were being brought in, a chaotic symphony of movement of the medical staff attending to sprains, falls, and bleeds. And then I heard two people die. One over the phone, and one in a room nearby. I didn’t want to be the third. Everything happens in threes.
I don’t want to die today.
Interestingly, I wasn’t pleading: praying to God to spare me for just another day. Bartering about how much “better” I’d be if I were allowed to live. None of that entered my mind. My only thought was:
I have so much still to do… I can’t die!
With 10 manuscripts in varying forms of completion sitting on a shelf in my office, and another cluster of projects scattered throughout journals and drawers, and no contingency plan for their release – my prevailing thought was: I have too much to do to die.
But the doctors’ eyes told a different story. The nurses were doubling up to work on me to expedite the process (it didn’t work, as they still missed the first IV attempt), and get me to the CT scan. All the while, my mom sat patiently and quietly in a chair watching and listening between texts to family and friends. I suspect a prayer chain was enacted on some level. I know she was sending me Reiki continually, and calling in the angels. I could feel them standing by. Watching.
Then my personal doctor came in. He had been the voice that morning that said, “Get to the ER immediately. I’ll fast track you through. I’m here.”
It was his voice and those words that prompted my first thought of not dying. Up until that point, I hadn’t focused on the severity of the situation. In fact, I had simply thought that if I lay down, everything would be alright. I now know why the statistics for women are what they are. I don’t think we’re “dismissive” of symptoms, but rather, we are hopeful that a nice rest will solve any problem. So, we lie down, or have a cup of tea, instead of asking for help.
Thankfully, on that morning, after about 4+ hours of trying to “lie down” and use ice and heat to relieve my head pain, it was my mom who suggested I call my doctor. So I did.
His office paged him, and when he called me back, he asked what was going on.
“I’m sorry to bug you – it’s probably allergies,” I said.
“Well, there was a pollen bloom yesterday, so maybe, but what are the rest of the details?”
“I don’t know. I woke up at about 4am with a really bad headache-“
He interrupted, “Wait, did the headache wake you up?”
“That’s not good. What else?”
“I tried to go back to sleep. I assumed maybe I’m dehydrated or it’s allergies. So, I lay down again, but I couldn’t sleep, so, finally around 5:30, I got up and let the dogs out, drank two glasses of water, and put ice on my head.”
“Did it help?”
“No. Not really. Plus it hurts more if I yawn, move, stretch, or cough. So I went back to bed around 7:30, after telling my mom that I needed to lie down and asking her to feed the dogs. I put a heating pad on my neck and head, and that helped a little. I slept for about half an hour. But then it hurt more, and I had to go to the bathroom, and then it really hurt.”
“The pressure makes it worse?”
“Yes, like a sharp throbbing in my head. All over my head. From one ear to the other, wrapped around my head… like a halo. It feels like a halo. The only part that doesn’t hurt is the very back top.”
“Get to the ER immediately. I’ll fast track you through. I’m here.”
“No, I think If I can just rest, I’m sure-“
“Martina, get in the car now and get here. You might have a brain bleed. I’m calling them now. Ok?”
So, I called my mom repeatedly (she had gone out to get her hair cut), to no avail. I knew I shouldn’t drive, so I started looking if an Uber was in the vicinity. Not likely in suburbia. So, I called my friend, but she didn’t answer. And then I felt a thought plop into my brain from above: Call the salon.
Thankfully, I heard it and listened. It’s not the first time they’ve helped me. And won’t be the last.
I called the salon, and they passed the phone to my mom. I explained what my doctor said, and she dropped everything and rushed home. Within minutes, I was in the car heading to the ER. Sunglasses on my face, eyes closed, and two hands clutching my head. The drive was horrible.
What’s wrong with me? A brain bleed?!? No, just no.
I had no answers. What I did have was mounting fear. My doctor is conservative and rarely prescribes any medication for me, as he knows I’m conservative too. So, if he says “get to the ER,” something’s wrong. Very wrong.
I shuffled out of the car into the ER, and leaned against a wall by check-in. I’m asked if I can move out of the way for a wheelchair to pass, and I reply, “Sure, if I can have another wall to lean on.” With that, the attendant grabs a wheelchair for me. In hindsight, I can see just how ill I was. At the time, I just didn’t want to inconvenience anyone.
The nurse takes my name, and I mention that my doctor called ahead. They move me into triage immediately. All my vitals are taken and the first of a series of doctors comes in and asks me to tell the story.
“I was woken up around 4am with a headache-“
They always stop my right there with: “Wait, the headache woke you up? Out of sleep?”
And with that their face changes and the look of worry/fear/concern grows rapidly.
Apparently, that’s a bad thing, a very bad thing, to be woken up by a headache. But, coupled with the pressure changes from practically any activity, the nausea, and the light sensitivity, suddenly I was the most interesting case in the ER. Or, at least in the top three.
My ex-husband always used to say, “You don’t want to be the most interesting case in the ER. It means something bad is happening.”
I was reminded of that as I was wheeled to a room and a flurry of activity began around me. I couldn’t see straight, and I knew enough to know I was fuzzy, or foggy-brained. I still had my speech (that must be a good sign), but I was slow. Slower than normal. And the pain!!
In all my life I have never experienced pain like this, and it was growing. With each hour that passed, it had gotten worse. It’s the first time in my life when I answered the question: “on a scale of 1 to 10, how bad is it?” with a “10.”
I wanted to take my head off my body and let it drain somewhere. The pressure, the heaviness, the pain were intolerable. And the worst part was that I really wanted to throw up – but I wouldn’t let myself, because I knew that would make the pain worse.
As I lay in the bed having as much conversation as possible with the two nurses working on me, the phrase kept playing over and over again like background music in my mind.
I don’t want to die today.
Always followed by: I have too much I haven’t done yet.
In front of me one nurse was trying to poke my forearm for the IV (“Not there, please, it never works there”), before failing miserably and leaving me with a bruise that resembles Gorbachev’s head. While the other nurse was trying to get a medical history.
“So, you have blood pressure issues.”
“No. I don’t. I never have. My family has a history of them, but I don’t.”
“Ok. So, then you have high blood pressure now.”
“Yes. I do… it seems.” Wouldn’t you, if you thought you might die? Geesh!
And then she comes around to the other arm and finally gets an IV in the top of my hand (the place I told them to go to originally.)
I know my body. I know it very well, and over the years, I have had ample opportunities to know it better. Plus I have a doctor who encourages me to be an advocate for my own health. He has taught me so much since our meeting in 1998. So, I know how to direct people who have never met me. What I haven’t figured out yet is how to get them to listen. Sigh.
During this time, my doctor came in and checked me out. Before saying anything, I reached for his hand. And he simply took mine and held it as he continued in conversation with me and mom. He knew I was scared, and that simple gesture gave me breath.
He reviewed the plan with me, and said we would take it one step at a time. The issue was, of course, fear of a brain bleed. A subarachnoid hemorrhage, to be exact. (Interestingly, Emilia Clarke from Game of Thrones had just talked about her SAH in last week’s People magazine, which I read only recently. I had never heard of it before.)
A brain bleed.
A… Brain… Bleed.
That’s another term for a stroke. And in my family, we’re all too familiar with strokes. But how? A stroke? At 47? I mean, I know I’m 47 in calendar years, but I definitely still feel likeI’m in my 30s. A brain bleed.
A BRAIN BLEED!
“I don’t want to die,” I told him.
“Well, that’s why you’re here. So that doesn’t happen.” He has always been very matter-of-fact.
With the IV finally in place, I am rushed to the CT scan through all the very well-lit hallways of the hospital. Thankfully, I kept my sunglasses on. The light sensitivity had worsened along with the pain, and by this point, I started to think that death would be a relief… if only it could be temporary.
The CT scan was quick, but I was still fidgety and agitated, even though I had saline and medicine flowing through my veins. Lying still is not my forté at the best of times. Lying still in pain was virtually impossible. But I practiced my breath and got through it.
Breathe in… 1… 2… 3… 4…
Breathe out… 1… 2… 3… 4…
In… and out… In… and out… Four counts every time. And it helped. Before I knew it, I was done and wheeled back to the hallway to await transport.
As I lay on my mobile bed in a sterile hallway, another patient was resting a few feet away. She was elderly and had two nurses with her. While their conversation centered on their respective work schedules and vacations, one of them never let go of this woman’s hand.
Her old, wrinkly, spotted hand, worn thin from age, held fast to the plump and soft one connected to her nurse, just like my own had done a few minutes ago with my doctor. In every other respect, she seemed all but dead – except for this single gesture. Her raised hand, clutching tightly to another human being.
I imagined she was scared, even though she couldn’t speak it. I felt that she was lonely, even though she was surrounded by people caring for her. And then I asked the angels to come be with her, to make her less lonely and afraid. And for the briefest of moments, I forgot that I might be dying. I forgot that I was in pain.
When they wheeled her away, I sent my blessings with her. And as I write this, I wonder about her and hope she is well. May she be blessed. As I have been blessed and am always blessed. Even in pain. Even in fear.
While my fear was only about to get worse, for a brief moment I had been gifted a respite. And I was grateful.
And with that I was wheeled through the same bright hallways back to my “room” where my mother was waiting. They gave me more IV medicines, and turned down the lights. When combined with what I had just experienced with the other patient in the hallway, I started to feel a sense of peace, and I closed my eyes and allowed my body to breathe itself.
I might die today, and … ok.
I’m not sure how long I was resting before my ER doctor came in to give me the CT results.
“There’s good news and bad news. The good news is, the CT scan was clear,” he said, as I sighed audibly. “The bad news is…. You were outside the window for the CT scan to be definitive.”
“What?” I caught my breath, “What does that mean?”
“There is a 6-hour window in which we can use the CT scan as a definitive diagnostic tool. You were just outside that window at about 7.5 hours.”
“It means…. We need to do a lumbar puncture to be sure.”
Great! So, not only might I die today, I could end up paralyzed too. Or instead. Or wait… What?!
My head was swirling in a a thousand directions. All the meds they had given me suddenly stopped working, and I was alert and in pain and unable to take in what he had just said. I had been resting, hopeful, quiet, and now the noise and cacophony of the ER were like uninvited visitors at my bedside.
“A lumbar puncture?,” I stared him in the eye. “I don’t want to.”
“Yes, a spinal tap – to rule out any blood in the brain. With your family history-“
I cut him off. “I know. I know the history…. But, a spinal tap? Here? When? How? Why?” I had so many questions, none of which would have the answer that I wanted.
“Because we have to be able to rule this out.” His look betrayed his calm voice. The fear that I was still bleeding somewhere in my brain was clearly a possibility.
I’m a trained therapist, I know about ruling things out. I know how this works, and I know they were doing their best for me. I also knew they were scared. For all their training, the doctors’ eyes betrayed them. Every time I looked them in the eye, the worry and fear was palpable. They were scared, and they needed answers themselves to know what to do next. And the clock was literally ticking on the wall.
“I guess, if I have to – but I have questions. I’m not one of those patients that doesn’t want to know. I want to know. Everything. A to Z, every step, every reason, what to expect. I do better that way.”
He proceeded to explain it all to me, step by step, as I had requested, and at the end, I had two final questions. “You’re going to do this highly sensitive procedure here, in this room, with all this noise and commotion all around us in the ER?”
“I’m trained to tune that all out. It will be fine.”
“Ok, but what about me tuning it out? I could barely lay still for the CT scan, and that was only a few minutes, this is longer and I have to be more still, especially with more severe consequences…”
“I will give you something for that. You will be relaxed, and we will guide you through everything. There will be a few of us in the room helping you.”
I took a deep breath, and asked one more thing, “And you’re sure you have to do this?”
“We have to rule out a brain bleed, and this is the only way,” he paused. (For effect? I don’t know, but it worked.) “Martina, this is serious.”
As if I didn’t already know that.
“Ok.” He got up and quickly left the room to prepare for the next step. He was a man on a mission. Thankfully, he was true to his word and he filled my IV with a very relaxing cocktail. It was the best I had felt in eight hours. At least for a little while. Once I had to start participating in the procedure, I was anything but comfortable.
As I sat there hunched over a table, trying to extend my back into a deep curve, I prayed. Again, there were no pleading prayers, begging for mercy. Instead, there were commanding words, as if I were directing a roster of volunteers… or, perhaps, commanding an army.
“I call on the angels of wisdom, of healing, of stability, of medicine, of guidance, and of peace to be here now. I call on God to be here now. I call on Jesus and Mary Magdalene to be here now. Let your hands guide the doctor’s hands. Be his eyes and his guidance. Make the path clear and easy. Make this process effortless and clean. Make it peaceful and quick. Be here now.”
I repeated words like that over and over in my head for 20 minutes, as they prepped everything. And then the time came, and I was asked to remain still and simply breathe. With my back as curved as I could get it, I called on the angels of stillness and invited them into the room. Then I closed my eyes and breathed.
Breathe in… 1… 2… 3… 4…
Breathe out… 1… 2… 3… 4…
I did nothing but breathe as the doctor behind me explained every step, while the doctor in front of me encouraged and supported me through the process. As a team, they were exactly what I needed. And they got the tap they needed.
With the “priceless sample” sitting on a table in my room, I was told to lie on my back for the next hour, as you’re supposed to do after a spinal tap. With all the meds coursing through my veins, and the after-effects of the intensity of the moment, it was the best rest I had had the entire time. Everything combined had given my body some space to simply relax. The headache wasn’t as bad, though it was still above a 5 on the scale, and somehow I had decided I wasn’t going to die. Even if the spinal tap came back with blood – I decided I wasn’t going to die. And that was that.
In the end, it was a successful tap. In fact, I found out a day later that it was considered a “champagne tap” – which means it was as clean as it could possibly be, without even hitting a blood vessel on the way in. My doctor said it was as if everything was moved out of the way. Thank you, God, angels, Jesus and MM. I love you.
So, the tap was clean, which meant everyone could breathe a sigh of relief. Sort of. They knew I wasn’t having a bleed, but they didn’t know why I was having the pain and symptoms.
To make matters worse, there is something called a rebound headache from the spinal tap, which started to kick in about an hour and a half after. So, my level 5 headache began climbing again. I was not out of the woods, I was simply no longer stuck in quicksand surrounded by man-eating beasts. This all meant I wasn’t going to die. At least not from a stroke or brain bleed. Not that day. But I still needed help.
With the head pain now reclassified, I was given new prescriptions to fill, and eventually discharged from the ER. I went home to lie down, have something to eat (which I hadn’t done since the evening before), and rest. Ice was my new best friend, along with a trio of medicines.
I saw my doctor the next day, and we reviewed everything. It turns out the CT scan showed a problem. There was gray matter around my highest cervical vertebrae that possibly represented a muscle spasm or other issue in my neck. So, the decision was made to treat me based on that data.
It’s been two weeks, and I still have a headache every day. The lowest it gets is a 1-2 on the scale, but it still spikes to a 6 or 7. Over the weekend it climbed back to an 8, and was the worst it’s been since the initial event. Consistently, it’s probably a 3 or 4. Given what I went through, a 3 is tolerable. While I’m foggy-brained and slower than I’d like, it will be a while before I reclaim “normal.” Movement is difficult at times, and I still have anxiety about a recurrence, but all in all – I’m ok. And I will be ok. And that’s ok.
Because this event has given me the greatest gift possible: perspective. I am seeing things differently now. I am making different decisions. My priorities have shifted. Almost dying (or thinking you’re going to die) has a tendency to do that to a person, I think.
While I can’t say that I was a workaholic, or had misaligned priorities, I can say that I hadn’t been tending to my life the best that I can. I haven’t been as deliberate as I would like to be, or can be. And that is changing now.
While I was familiar with thinking about dying in the past, I had never actually faced the possibility of death, and subsequently thought about not dying. Shifting perspective in this way has created an opportunity inside of me to create differently, and I’m not going to squander it. I’m not willing to squander it.
There is nothing more important to me than living this life that I’ve been given, in the best way I know how, living out my dharma – or purpose – with integrity of intent, authenticity, joy, and hope. I think many people who have witnessed my journey would say that’s what I’ve been doing, and they wouldn’t be wrong.
But from where I sit now, I can see that it feels more like I’ve been dabbling in it, not actually embracing, doing, and running with it. Almost dying, or thinking I might die, has been an unexpected treasure on the journey.
The next step – other than healing – is to resolve to find the courage to live that purpose out loud, as I’m meant to. I have a feeling I will. I just need a little time to bring all the pieces of me along. A little time to heal and restore. And that’s exactly what I’m doing.