I have thought about writing this blog- about telling my story- for months. This was me, 365 days ago.
This gift was granted to me by a ruptured appendix. And while I have started and stopped the process of writing this dozens of times over the last 6 months, it is the fears and uncertainty of the current COVID-19 pandemic that have finally called me to share what I learned from this time of struggle.
My family and I were traveling for Spring Break- a much anticipated trip to Fort Myers, Florida. Like many Midwesterners who flock to that area of the country, we were anxious to soak up the sun, fresh air, and family time. After one glorious day on the beach, and one in our room with what I thought was food poisoning, our world began to tilt on its axis.
We went to the Emergency Department (ED) by ambulance. That part was my fault. We could have chosen a much less expensive Uber ride earlier in the day, but I thought I could tough it out until the sickness subsided. I didn’t want to ruin our long-awaited trip, and honestly, I was scared. After almost 24 hours of being sick in our room, it was time to seek help. When we finally had to call 911, my father-in-law was with us and snuck into our room to stay with our sleeping children, 5 and 8.
When the EMTs arrived, they were wonderful. After the normal questions about symptoms, and confirmation that this was not like many other calls they received that day about beach-goers that made poor choices at St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, we made our way to the hospital. They answered my husband’s questions to the best of their ability, and agreed to his request to be taken to the teaching hospital in the area. He had done his research and thought this would be the location with the best available care.
As we rolled into the line to access the ED, the first responder in the vehicle with me made small talk and let me know we may have to wait. He informed me that the hospitals struggle to keep up with the demand during the winter season. “Snowbirds” coming to the area, mixed with spring break travelers and the normal population, creates the perfect storm. During this time of year, where they still deal with things like influenza and other illnesses, just like every other city, an increase in the population makes the staffing needs hard to predict and manage, and space is limited. I was too sick to understand what he was trying to tell me, but we would soon experience exactly what he described.
There was a nurse sitting on a computer in the entrance of the ED. Between chatter with the EMTs and questions about the patients, she yelled orders as to where the patients were supposed to go. Eric, my husband, was yelling to me that he couldn’t go in with me and would be waiting in the lobby until he was allowed to come back. This is one of many selfless acts of love he would do for me in the days ahead- to helplessly wait until it was time come to my side.
I was one of five or six in the holding area. When it was finally my turn, the nurse was not particularly kind or empathetic. In her defense, I realize that her job was not one I would ever be able to do. She was the “screener”. She was deciding who would get a bed and immediate medical attention, and who would have to wait. I was assessed through simple questions, and because of my age(37), health history (no major preexisting conditions) and the fact that I was only quietly crying and otherwise trying to conceal my pain and fear, I was rolled through the ED to the waiting room. Yes. They thought my appendix was going to rupture, and I went to the waiting room.
Eric was waiting for me and shocked to see them wheel me to him, help me off the bed and put me on a chair in a crowded lobby. He held me while we waited. I will never forget an older couple that sat across from us who, after we had all waited for FOUR hours, offered their spot to us when they were finally called. He was waiting to be seen after fainting at home and was bleeding from the head. He selflessly offered me his spot- the first of many bursts of light we were drawn to in the darkness. This couple would also look for me many hours later, in the hallway, and pray over me. I will never forget that act of love from complete strangers.
When I was finally called back, I was given a bed in the hallway. If you look at the picture, above, you will notice that behind me there was a doctor working with another patient. This was not a new protocol. Every room in the large ED was full, and every available spot in the hallway was filled with a bed and a sick body. Each spot was labeled with a letter and number- a practice they set-up for the season.
I was grateful to get a bed and medical attention, after four hours in a plastic chair in the lobby. There weren’t any pillows available, but at that point I didn’t care. I got a bed, a blanket and restored hope that relief and answers were coming. About an hour later, and after being comforted by a kind and severely over-worked nurse, I finally was able to see a physician and get an x-Ray.
At this point, we were almost seven hours into the ED trip, and finally found out that I had appendicitis. From the image, they weren’t able to tell if it ruptured or not, so they schedule me for surgery and added me to the list of patients.
The events of the next hours are a bit blurry, as unbeknownst to me, my appendix had already ruptured and my body and brain were hard at work trying to save me. However, there are several points I will never forget.
1) The ED was not equipped to handle the influx of people that needed help. I literally had to walk myself- in a position barely past a waddle in the fetal position, to the bathroom down the hall. I whimpered the whole way and used my IV pole as a walker. Why didn’t anyone help me, you ask? There simply weren’t enough people to help everyone that needed it.
2) On a normal day in a less crowded area, an appendix would most likely take precedence over other cases, due to the risk of what having toxic material released from your appendix can do to you. On this day, in this crowded ED, during spring break, the flu season and a seasonal influx in the population, that was not the case. The surgeon I needed had a full day planned. After the kindness of a nurse who finally made a call and advocated for me to be moved up on the priority list, I went into surgery at 1pm. I sat with a ruptured appendix in the ED for 15 hours before I went in for surgery. This 15 hours would absolutely change the course of our life and the lives of those we love. This 15 hours led to gross abdominal infection, abscesses, a fistula, post-surgical bowel obstruction, abdominal drains and the first of two surgeries and 32 days away from everyone I loved.
3) The scenes of the ED were those that I thought only existed on network television. Other than the couple I mentioned, we were surrounded by people that needed help. Behind us, a man was trying to keep his severed finger attached, after a cooking accident. Another family with a young girl screaming and bleeding from the face sat a few rows behind them. A man that thought he was having a heart attack sat stoically with his wife wondering if he really needed to be there. And there were dozens of people curled up in blankets with what I imagine was influenza. The waiting room was full. No room for social distancing. No beds for patients that needed them. No medical professionals to spare. No extra patients due to a pandemic. Just March, in Florida.
4) Although I had a skilled surgeon who worked on me for 4 hours, there is only so much that can be done when your body goes to work to save itself. The amazing machine I live in had already started to do what it had to, in order to protect itself, which would lead to other interesting complications and a greater appreciation for the miracle the human body is. More on this in part 2.
I do not want to even begin to consider what my life would have been like- our lives would have been like- if my appendix would have ruptured, in Florida, on March 18, 2020 and not March 18, 2019. But as I already expressed, its COVID-19 that has granted me the opportunity for a continued shift in perspective and more reasons to be grateful, so I want to share how I imagine my experience would have been impacted.
– The ambulance ride, ED waiting room, and 15 hours of waiting for help would have been done ALONE. Due to the protocol to help minimize the risk of exposure to people, my husband would not have been allowed to be with me. I would have waited alone, and been left to advocate for myself, in a condition where I wasn’t fully able to do that.
– Surgery, and the 9 days that I spent in the hospital, in Florida, would have been done alone. My mother was another light that shown in the darkness, after she got on a plane and raced to help us in Florida. She sat diligently in a chair by my bed, took me in a wheelchair outside for fresh air, distracted me, comforted me, watched March Madness with me and helped take care of my family. While she would have been able to help take care of my family, she would not have been able to do most of the other tasks. The nurses on my floor were grateful she was with me, as she could help me bathe, go to the bathroom, help me empty my abdominal drain- all things I would have had to otherwise wait hours for. Again, I want to emphasize that this was not because the nurses and doctors didn’t want to help- but because they were already tirelessly trying to help other people that didn’t have someone there to help them.
-In March of 2020, COVID-19 precautions prevent all visitors from entering the hospital setting. This would have left me alone without my mother or husband and without any other advocate or companion. And as far as my own children are concerned, the little time I was able to see them, due to fears of influenza and the gravity of my infection, would have been reduced to nothing. I cannot allow my mind to wander in this direction. These little people were full of hope and motivation. God bless the parents and children of all ages that are helplessly waiting to be reunited, in a variety of circumstances more grave than my own. If you really want to educate yourself, look at the outcomes for successful surgery and recovery for people that have a support system present, versus people that have to do it alone. The ripple effect of this is bigger than just COVID-19 patients. This has grave consequences for anyone needing medical attention.
If you are still on the fence about social distancing or if you believe the information being shared by medical leaders in our community is only hype, consider this: social distancing is not just about COVID-19.
Social distancing is a way to give medical professionals, the only people that will be able to save us from things, like appendix ruptures, heart attacks, severed fingers, influenza, cancer, broken arms and a list of a million other ailments they treat everyday- it gives them time. These people are asking us, for the first time in our lives- to help them. Because while we live in a country so privileged that we are able to ignore most of the risk that we walk around with every day as humans, because we are confident doctors could successfully treat us if we needed it- that safety and privilege will vanish when there are too many highly contagious and gravely ill patients to treat, in addition to what they treat on a daily basis.
While I could not have prevented my appendix from rupturing, I can help prevent the spread of COVID-19. I have literally been in the middle of an example of the state that every hospital in this nation could be in. One where there are too many sick people and not enough doctors or equipment to help them. This existed before a pandemic was alive and well.
15 hours of waiting in March of 2019 nearly killed me. I can only imagine how many more hours I would have had to wait, alone, in March of 2020.
Please do your part. Please be the light in the darkness. You never know if your life is the one that will be saved because of it.
Part 1 of 3.
Mother, Wife, Teacher and Believer.