On the morning of June 14th, I went for what was to be a vigorous walk with a friend. About 30 minutes into our walk, we took a set of stairs up and out of Riverside Park. Stairs I’ve walked and run up for almost 30 years, with ease. I was so winded that I needed to take stop to catch my breath. Then I got dizzy and my friend suggested we sit down on a park bench. I started crying. This is what I was talking about, I said. I’d been telling her about my increasing tiredness these last months. The trouble I was having mustering for a workout. Not mentally. Psychologically, I still wanted to move. Very much. And physically, my body was fritzing out on me. That morning I’d felt my physical exhaustion as I lay in bed. My heartbeat was erratic. The way it gets when I’ve had far too little sleep for several days running. I’d already made a doctor’s appointment to check my blood work for a clue about what was up. But it’s New York City. The appointment wasn’t for another month. I’d started taking more iron and a B-complex.
We’re walking over to urgent care, my friend said. I agreed. Reluctantly. At urgent care the doctor took my pulse and blood pressure and pointed his finger out the door. You need to go to the hospital emergency right now. Whatever is going on with you, it’s beyond what we have the capacity to address here. I don’t remember his name. As I write this, I’m thinking that I want to go back to that office and thank him.
I walked up the 10 blocks to the emergency department of the nearest hospital. With my note from the urgent care doctor, they whisked me to the head of the line of walk-ins and zipped me through intake. I waited a short time, that felt like forever, for them to take my blood. I sat on the last free chair, that had been wiped free of its streak of … was that shit or blood? I felt tired and frustrated and disconcerted among all the ailing people. Notice that I didn’t say “other ailing people,” because I wasn’t one of them. In my mind. I was just anemic, or just … something else. A woman next to me on a gurney was sitting up and moaning. Pulling on her clothes and skin and hair. Begging for more painkillers. All the patients, regardless of race, looked like they’d been washed with a patina of grey.
Then a nurse (was it a nurse?) came and crouched down beside me with a look of urgency. She explained things to that I didn’t hear. About potassium. About my heart stopping. About follow her, please. Now. She led me into the belly of the emergency department and after a search, found a bed to put me on. I was walking. How bad could it be? She was followed closely by a nurse (I know he was a nurse, because I saw him multiple times) who was carrying an armload of syringes and an array of coloured electrical wiring. Things went sideways from there. I was pumped full of many things, which I understood were at minimum saving my heart from severe damage and more likely saving my life. At one point I said to the nurse, trying for lightness, I guess I’m not wasting your time being here. He looked at me and shook his head. You are lucky you’re here.
I feel lucky now. I felt less lucky in the thick of those next days.
36 hours in the Emergency Department, which is its own kind of special hell. Bright interrogation room lighting. The sounds of people in distress. Incessantly beeping machines. The clank and clatter of other metal and plastic rolling around. Voices talking about dire situations, like the multi-car accident that landed a slew of people into the ED who needed to take priority over everyone else. From my bed, I could see the resuscitation room entrance where ambulances unloaded. At my angle, I could only see the heads and shoulders of the emergency response teams wheeling people in through the plastic antechamber. Then I’d hear the announcements asking for Ron and Sergey to the resuss room. I imagined those less lucky than me. I want to say it made me feel fortunate, but I was so exhausted and strung out, it was hard to tap into my inner resources.
Friends brought me necessities: toothbrush and toothpaste, a phone charger, a pillow, noise canceling headphones, slip on sandals; also, pizza and chocolate toward the end of my second day there. Eventually I was moved to a regular floor of the hospital, where I shared a room with one other person and the relative silence was a deafening relief. Every few hours someone came and took my blood and gave me medications. They dripped sodium through an IV, then magnesium. They stripped potassium from my body. There was an urgent request that I drink successive cups of orange juice to stabilize my blood sugar, only to realize later that oranges are a high potassium food.
I began to feel better.
They did other tests, too—ultrasound for my kidneys, echocardiogram for my heart. Nothing yielded answers about why my body had tipped into such an extreme imbalance.
I begged to be allowed to leave. Later, I saw in the doctors’ notes, Patient is anxious to leave. I was terrified by the lack of answers. And I was terrified to be in the hospital.
It’s been a month and a half since that experience. I’ve been washed through by tsunamis of anxiety. I’ve gotten partial, interim answers. Mostly on things that have been ruled out. I’ve seen a kidney doctor who gave me stopgap medication to stabilize my system and who has promised to be available to me until I get to the kind of doctor I need to see, apparently an adrenal specialist. I’ve had a CT scan with IV contrast, which was a trip to another level of hell. I’ve consulted an Integrative Medicine team, who have given me an alternative protocol to heal underlying causes, if I can trust them and have faith in my body.
I feel shaken to the core. I cry a lot. I sleep, sometimes deeply, and then wake seized by terror.
And, in the midst of the unknown, my body has found a fragile interim stability. My energy has started to return. I’ve been able to run and go to yoga and Pilates. I don’t feel 100%, but I feel so much better than in the 2 months leading up to my hospital stay. Friends tell me I should take it easy. I rebel. I asked the one specialist I’ve actually gotten to see (a nephrologist, aka kidney doctor) whether I could be physically active. To which he said, Do whatever feels possible.
I don’t want to take it easy. I’ve been drained for months. If I have a drop of renewed energy, I want to indulge in it. Revel in it. Be gluttonous. Feast on the energy and come back for a second helping. Moving is my happy place. And my happy place has been relatively inaccessible to me these last months. I’m scared my happy place will move beyond my reach again. I want to fill up on it while I can.
I am more acutely aware than I have ever been that the future will do what it wants. The best I can do is live fully. Laugh when possible. Find joy where I can. And offer thanks to my body every day it can move me to a sweat.