Tuesday 23rd July, 2013
“Do you think we should go to the hospital?” My husband’s gentle words broke through the haze that clouded my mind.
I dragged my head up and sighed. For hours I’d been lying on the bedroom floor, mostly face down, trying to find a position where my body didn’t hurt so much. It had taken all my strength to pull myself up and vomit into a bowl. The noise had woken Mark and he’d climbed out of bed to come to my side.
I had hoped this sickness – whatever it was – would have settled through the night. Surely after almost two days I should have been improving? Instead the mild nausea of Sunday afternoon had developed into violent retching, diarrhoea, shaking fevers and overwhelming weakness. Tightness under my ribcage on one side made breathing difficult and my head spun.
Mark had already suggested I go to hospital – several times. Each time I’d refused. The thought of spending hours in that condition in a waiting room full of people was unthinkable. This time, though, he was determined. “I think we should pray about it.”
“What time is it?” I breathed.
“Okay. I’ll try.”
We spent a few moments waiting quietly. Meanwhile, unknown to us, my mum was suddenly awakened in Sydney with a strong urge to pray for me – she already knew I was very unwell.
“So, what did you think?”
With eyes closed, I mumbled, “I just keep getting the word ‘appendix’.” Low in my abdomen a sharp pain throbbed on the right. “Maybe we should just go and get it checked.”
“Okay.”He stood up, slipped his hands under my arms and helped me to my feet. Every movement was agony. Once I was dressed he informed our oldest son what was happening and we shuffled together out to the car. Our breath formed puffs of steam in the icy night air.
When we reached the emergency department, I slumped over the sick bowl, my head resting on my arms. The waiting room was strangely quiet, almost empty. A thought ambled through my mind, Am I just being a drama queen?
The calm, professional tone of a nurse’s voice broke me out of my musing. I lifted my head a little.
“Your husband explained what’s been happening. Can you sit up so I can take a few vitals?”
I pushed myself up off the bowl and tried to bring my rolling eyes to meet those of the nurse. My hair fell back from my face and she gasped. “Oh, I think we might just take you straight in.” She scurried away and dashed back with a wheelchair.
As she returned I breathed, “Sorry. I can’t remember your name.” The woman was a regular at our MOPs group – a support programme our church ran for mums of pre-schoolers.
“Oh, don’t you worry about that,” she answered briskly. “Let’s just see if we can get you better.”
She wheeled me into a curtained cubicle then returned to her station at the counter. Two other nurses changed me into a thin hospital gown, hooked me up to a heart monitor and supplied medication to stop the vomiting. Soon after, my bed was wheeled to a large room at the far end of the emergency department. Another four nurses gathered around me, making a team of six, while a doctor drifted in and out. IV trolleys were set up and bags of fluid stacked nearby. The nurses took blood, gave me morphine, inserted a catheter and introduced a drip to each forearm. The doctor threaded a picc line – a long, narrow, five-stranded tube – through one of my major neck veins almost all the way to my heart. I was given an oxygen mask. Large, soft blankets – so many blankets – were brought from the warming cupboard and draped one atop another over my shivering body.
The strange sensation of pain and pressure in my abdomen began to spread up into my lung area. I told the nurses. A couple of them exchanged concerned glances.
A doctor came to my side. “Now Susan, you seem to have some kind of infection but your pathology results won’t come back for a while. We’re going to start you on five different antibiotics to make sure we hit whatever bacteria is at work. Then once we get the test results back we’ll narrow them down to the right one. We’ll also be giving you IV fluids to try to get your blood pressure up.”
“Okay.” I nodded.
“Do you have to use so many antibiotics?” my husband asked. I’d just finished taking a course of tablets for another condition and was run-down because of them.
A nurse’s voice snapped from the other side of the room, “Your wife is in a state of septic shock. If we don’t give her antibiotics she’ll die.”
I heard her words but could barely make sense of them. Die? Really? But I was in hospital – surely that meant I was safe? Lord, I’m in your hands, I prayed.
Hours ticked by while antibiotics and fluids flowed steadily into my bloodstream. The staff hovered, watching closely for any improvement in my vital signs. The bag attached to my catheter remained empty, revealing that my kidneys had failed. Many times I was asked, “What’s your full name? When were you born? Where do you live?”
Mark’s presence beside me was calm and constant. He sent out a prayer request in the morning which quickly reached hundreds of people across the nation and beyond. Several friends have since said that the moment they got the message, they understood the intensity of the battle I was in and got straight to warring in prayer.
Six hours passed with no significant change. Various doctors wandered in and out of the room, along with teams of interns, to discuss my case. One supervising doctor told my husband, “It’s good you came in when you did. If you’d left it even one hour longer, it may have been too late.”
Finally, the medical staff resorted to using a very high dose of noradrenalin to bring my blood pressure back to a safe level. A CT scan and laparoscopy followed. My appendix and lower bowel were inflamed but neither had to be removed. A drain was put into my abdomen to remove the large volume of fluid which had built up there and remained in place for the next few days.
Later we were told that I had sepsis, a severe response to an infection which causes inflammation throughout the whole body and attacks the tissues and organs. In about one third of cases, the cause of the infection is unknown. I was one of those cases. Septic shock is the most extreme stage of sepsis and leads to death in fifty percent of cases.
I spent the following week in Intensive Care. Collapsed lungs and pneumonia slowed my recovery. After two days of forced bed-rest and constant oxygen I was allowed to attempt walking with a frame. It took a few more days before I could move around without support. My whole lower body swelled so much my skin hurt. I wore long pressure stockings and shuffled slowly around the ward, trying to improve circulation. All the toxins which had flooded my system caused ongoing muscle pain and weakness; even the simplest of tasks caused major fatigue.
Once I returned home, we were flooded with offers of support. My mum flew down from Sydney followed by one of my sisters to help keep our household running. Dozens of friends provided meals for our family. It felt strange to be so frail. Every little milestone was cause for celebration – sleeping on my side, walking to the mailbox, squatting to get something out of the cupboard and managing to pull myself up again. After three months, I could last a whole day without sleeping in the afternoon. It took nine months before I could manage without a lie down.
Several doctors had tried to tell me how severely ill I’d been but I found it hard to fathom. It was my surgeon who finally opened my eyes at a follow-up appointment a month after the illness. For a fleeting moment he stopped his medical reflections, dropped his professional tone and told me, “I went home that night and said to my wife, ‘We had a mother of four in today and she nearly died.’” My eyes brimmed with tears. I knew I could have died but didn’t realise I’d come so very close.
Today I celebrate five years of ‘bonus life’. There are so many ‘ifs’ in my experience which could have led to a very different result:
If we hadn’t opted to go to hospital. . .
If I hadn’t known the admissions nurse . . .
If emergency had been very busy and there were less people available to help. . .
If the staff had taken longer to form a diagnosis (many people have died from such a delay) . . .
If people hadn’t bothered to pray when they heard I was sick . . .
Yet the God Who reigns over the ‘ifs’ put everything in place to make sure my life was spared. He knew the days on earth He had planned for me and made sure they were not cut short.
The words in Psalm 31:14-15, “My times are in Your hands,” are a tangible reality to me now, a source of clarity and focus. Every day is a gift to be received with thanks and lived to the full. God had a specific purpose in mind when He created me. My greatest desire and joy is to fulfil it.
“Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Psalm 90:12