THE MEDIUM WRITERS CHALLENGE
My Eyes Were Opened
A true account of a woman’s second chance at life.
My eyes were open, but I couldn’t see anything. I couldn’t hear my loved ones trying to rouse me during their daily visits. My body was in the room, but I’m not sure where the rest of me went? I was there and nowhere, simultaneously. It didn’t matter because I wasn’t aware of that fact or any other. I was dead to the world.
Most of what I know came secondhand. I lived it, but some things I don’t have an accurate first account to report. If I did, it would have been even more traumatizing than what I recall I’ve endured. I simply have to take the word of the many who witnessed my miracle of a second chance at life. Much of my story was told to me so I can now share it with you.
Six months after my 40th birthday, I felt like I was coming down with a cold. I hadn’t had a cold or been sick in quite a while. It worsened and left me dragging through my days, but if I didn’t work, I didn’t get paid. Besides, I loved my job as a medical courier and wouldn’t let the sniffles keep me home in bed.
A couple of weeks passed and it was obvious I had walking pneumonia or something. Instead of taking selfies in the bathroom, I was snapping pics of what I was coughing up in the sink. My doctor told me to have a chest x-ray to determine what was going on inside of my chest. I got the x-ray but was insistent on living my life as I always did, which included making my way to Atlantic City to enjoy a concert and casino nightlife.
When I returned from the struggle of enduring my weekend getaway, pneumonia was confirmed. I was treated. Things did not improve. Yet, I went to work.
The thing about servicing medical facilities is that everyone wants to give their medical opinions — expert or not. I was given a lot of advice concerning my sluggish pace, raspy voice, and wet cough. So, back to the doctor, I went. This time it was by way of the emergency room.
They kept me. They treated me and sent me on my way after a few days with instructions for self-care. As you probably guessed by now, I resumed normal activities. What can you expect? I was a self-employed, divorced mom caring for a full house with five kids. A woman like me didn’t have time or the patience to be a patient.
A couple of weeks later, I had my follow-up with a pulmonologist. During my exam, it was discovered that I needed to immediately return to the hospital. Apparently, I shouldn’t have been functioning upright with the significantly low oxygen level I was surviving on. So, I was back in the hospital. Now, things were getting dicey.
They informed me I now had double pneumonia and they couldn’t figure out why? I was a healthy, non-smoker, social drinker who suddenly became critically ill in about a month. They had no answers and I was not getting better. I may be stubborn at times and I have zero tolerance for nonsense, but I knew I needed help. It was time to call in reinforcements.
My best friend is in the social work field and has a decade of experience advocating for disadvantaged people’s medical rights. As I grew increasingly weaker, I handed the reigns over to her to speak on my behalf and to guarantee everything that could be done would be done for me. Afterall, I had to get better to get back to my family — to get back to my life.
The doctors weren’t doing anything to improve my situation so I demanded a transfer to Temple Lung Center. One of the clients along my medical courier route mentioned Temple to me when I was still working, and I’m grateful that she did. It was one of those non-expert medical opinions that saved my life. My bestie, now serving as my medical power of attorney, insisted on pushing the transfer through.
It is no coincidence that she works in that industry or that her mother works as the Secretary to the President of Temple University Hospital. They were essential to my health improvement, although it would take nearly a year before I was on the mend. Still, I will forever be thankful.
I wasn’t settled in my new swanky room for 24 hours before being transferred to ICU. My oldest daughter stepped out for a drink, while I made a solo trip to the bathroom a few feet away from my bed. My oxygen level dropped so low I created a dangerous situation for myself. Things worsened quickly and I was inconsolable. I required more than a little oxygen; I needed a ventilator.
Rushed to another section of the hospital, I began weeping between gasps for air. I whispered for someone to “help me”. My baby girl had to hear that as I whizzed by. Always the fighter, unfortunately, I was working against the machines. It wasn’t intentional, just my nature.
Put into a medically induced coma to prevent my resistance, there was nothingness. I don’t remember hearing the voices of my children or any other loved ones, even though they were encouraged to speak to me and play my favorite songs. I was unaware of time passing as I lay swollen, bloody, constipated, and cock-eyed in a hospital bed. I awoke nearly three months later.
Comatose, I bled from incision sites I would later awaken to as newly healed scars. I also had frequent nose and mouth bleeds. Although my brain wasn’t detecting sight, my eyes would sometimes be slightly open. They peered just wide enough for my loved ones to witness the loss of muscle control of my eyeballs. I was hoisted up and rotated like an extremely slow-cooked rotisserie chicken. In prone position for 16 hours a day, I was face down to alleviate pressure on my heart and lungs.
At one point, they called my best friend asking her to agree to pull me off the machines because my condition was necrotizing, which means the cells in my organs were dying. Remember, she and I had an agreement that everything that could be done would be done. Plus, they were wrong. When the medical professionals thought I was going to die, a greater power had plans to keep me above ground.
I awoke to a tube hanging out of my throat and full-body muscle weakness, which was masked by temporary paralysis. I couldn’t eat, speak or move. I was temporarily speechless and paralyzed, but my eyes were open and I could actually see this time. I had to start over in every way. It was time to begin again.
I accepted the reality that I was not an active participant in the world, as everyone I know lived their lives without me. I adapted. I could either bend or break. Breaking is not my style. I’d have to learn to live life as a modified version of myself.
The side of my left thigh was marked with a two-inch-long, indented scar where muscle was gouged to check for a rare autoimmune disease. My right leg had six, half-inch scars trailing down from my crotch to my inner mid-thigh. There was a hole in my throat, scars along my neck, and I’d later notice the scars along the back of my head behind my ears.
There were two large crimson tubes coming from my body attached to a large square machine. Once removed, those tubes would reveal gaping holes that once healed would resemble bullet wounds. To say I was confused was an understatement. I mean, all this resulted from some kind of super cold?
I tested positive for polymyositis, a rare autoimmune disease that attacks the muscles. In my case, primarily my lungs. The multiple scars were evidence of the numerous failed attempts at connecting me to the ECMO machine that was serving as one of my lifelines. During one of the attempts to connect the tubes through my neck, my heart stopped.
They restarted it, but that’s stating the obvious. The ECMO pumped blood throughout my body taking over the work of my heart and lungs. My blood flowed through clear plastic tubes as it circulated through me.
Seven months passed without a donor match. My lungs were smaller than the average woman my age. At this point, I’d had a birthday party in the ICU. The staff made an exception, likely because it was thought to be my last. It wasn’t, it was just my 41st.
To complicate things further, I required the lungs of a young adult. In order to survive, I would have to rely on the lungs of someone else’s child around the age of one of my own. She was 24. But before she died so I might live, they didn’t think I’d last much longer.
My palliative medication had been increased. I was fading in and out. People were talking around me and praying over me. My loved ones were contacted to prepare them for the end. They were told to bring my children to say goodbye to me the next day. My oldest sister told the doctor he need only have the faith of a mustard seed, though she had enough to fill the entire hospital.
The day before what they believed to be my end, another life ended and her lungs became available. One day I was dying and the next day I was beginning a new life. On November 15, 2019, I received healthy new lungs.
A month later, I rang the end of treatment bell as I left the ICU. A symbol of achievement, I wasn’t going home but was getting closer. They call me a medical miracle. I was moved to where patients were closer to living than dying.
Two months after that, I was exiting the rehab hospital and reemerging into the world I once knew. It hadn’t changed though I had tremendously. Although I had to get used to wearing masks around crowds and safe-guard myself from catching a bug from people nearby, I reentered with a newfound love for the life that I almost lost.
One month later, COVID-19 caused the world to live like me and likely to value life just as much.