After battling through the last few weeks, I’m finally home in Mississippi. I’d originally planned to spend the last couple of weeks of the semester finishing all of my classes and finals, celebrating the end of the year with my classmates, and spending the free days between my last final on the 9th and my flight on the 13th to take advantage of the (finally) warm(er) weather to check some things off of my Must-Do in New York List (the top of which was to visit the Bronx zoo and ride the camels). But alas, things don’t always go quite as we plan.
It all started three weeks ago when I had the always pleasant experience of waking up unable to breath through my nose. For the past 3 ½ months, ever since I returned to New York after winter break in January, I’ve had mysterious and ongoing sinus problems that no doctor has yet been able to explain (my current best guess is that I’m allergic to something in my apartment… but that’s a tale for another day), but I could tell this was different than the usual sinus issues. What I believed to be a cold progressed from my nose to my ears, then throat, then a cough, and then a few days later, I woke up in the middle of the night shaking with chills so strong that even a 2:00 AM scalding shower didn’t stop them. I had suspected my recently purchased thermometer was unreliable for several weeks since it kept telling me my temperature was in the low 97s, and my suspicions were confirmed earlier that week when I took my temperature three times in a row and got three different temperatures. I gave it a try regardless – 98.6 – the highest the thermometer had ever measured, leaving me to believe that I probably didn’t want to know how high my fever actually was. With the help of some Advil, the fever finally broke, but I had shaken so hard for so long that my entire torso felt like a truck had hit me squarely in the left side, and trying to take deep breaths felt a little like torture. I visited Columbia’s health services the next morning, and the nurse told me he thought I had a viral respiratory infection, which meant no medicine for me. Then followed several days of a lovely combination of fever, body aches, headaches, a strange sharp pain bellow my left collar bone, and stomach virus-type symptoms that resulted in me subsisting mainly off of frozen apple juice, blue Gatorade, Van’s crackers, and cinnamon raisin toast.
By the end of the week, things were finally looking up. I went a day or two without fever, the soreness in my back, ribs, and under my collarbone was feeling better, and I started craving the brown rice bowls from Community Food and Juice. I even managed to go to one of my final classes on Thursday. And then, that night, everything took a dramatic plummet.
I went to bed on Thursday night and woke up just before 6:00 on Friday morning with a pain low on my left side and back worse than any pain I can ever remember experiencing in my life. I sat up and immediately felt like I was being repeatedly stabbed. Inhaling made it even more unbearable. So, of course, I called my mother.
“Something really bad’s happening! It can’t be a muscle; it’s gotta be an organ or something,” I gasped at her, probably sending her blood pressure to dangerous levels. “Which side is the appendix on!? Where’s the spleen!?” (We will look back on this conversation and laugh, though this will probably happen much sooner for me than for my mother.) I then forced her to let me hang up so I could call the 24-hour clinician on duty at Columbia and ask what I should do.
You might expect one of the best research universities in the world with one of the top medical programs in the country to have top-notch health services for its students. You would be sadly mistaken. After waiting on hold for twenty minutes, I finally spoke to a clinician who gave me the enlightening revelation that I was “experiencing severe symptoms” and should go to the emergency room.
“Might you give me a hint as to what you think could be happening?” I asked him.
“I could only speculate,” he replied gravely.
I called my mom and woke up one of my roommates to let them know I was going, then I set off for the ER, where the doctor told me she suspected it was a kidney stone. By that point, the pain was nearly gone, and a kidney stone sounded like an obvious explanation that I should have thought of in the first place. But after looking at the results of the urinalysis, she changed her mind, told me that there was no sign of a kidney stone, that it may have just been a strong muscle spasm, and instead focused on the fact that I was extremely dehydrated. Both of my roommates, who had loyally arrived at the hospital shortly after I did, waited with me for the next three hours, during which the doctor gave me a mini-cup of apple juice and a graham cracker for the dehydration (the source of my craving for graham crackers which continued for the rest of the week), a “prescription” for ibuprofen, and discharged me with the diagnosis “lower back pain.” By the time I’d walked the half block back to my apartment, the pain was already returning, this time in both my side and the spot bellow my collar bone, and my mom, who’d secretly been on her way to the airport since I told her I was going to the hospital, said, “Alright, I’m coming up there.”
My attempt to take a nap made it immediately apparent that lying down was impossible, so I made another visit to health services hoping to get something more useful than Advil. The nurse practitioner I saw listened to the whole story, told me that she wouldn’t rule out a kidney stone even without anything showing up in the lab work, but that her first guess was something called costochondritis, which can happen after a viral infection and attacks the muscles and cartilage between the ribs. (Further research still doesn’t have me quite convinced, but it was certainly a better explanation than a “muscle spasm.”) She gave me a muscle relaxer that did basically nothing for the pain, but made me so tired that my eyes would cross when I tried to read, which tripled my misery. My mom arrived only a few hours later, and I spent the rest of the day in a drugged stupor, eating graham crackers and frozen apple juice with a spoon, and unable to lie down or lean back without feeling like someone was ripping bones from my body. I slept with about 6 pillows propping me completely upright.
Gradually, things got better. I had another fever spike the next day and the pain traveled farther up my rib cage and back, but that night, I was able to (mostly) lie down for the first time (though in only one very strategic position on my right side), and my appetite came back. Then I started coughing again, which felt like ribs were being wrenched from my body, so I went back to health services for round three, and was told that in addition to the virus and costochondritis, I might have a “touch of” pneumonia or a sinus infection and given antibiotics.
My mom valiantly spent the whole week with me, making me soup, helping me buy groceries, opening all the heavy doors, doing laundry, helping me pack up my room for the summer, and pretty much every task that required lifting things that weighed more than a pound and/or excessive movement. Once I’d recovered enough to travel, she bought a return flight for the weekend and we changed my ticket to the same day so she could help me carry all of my luggage.
After the weather delayed our flight so that we missed our connection and had to stay at a hotel in Houston, we finally made it home on Sunday morning. Just a couple of nights ago, I was finally able to lie on my left side for the first time (though not comfortably and not for long), and coughing finally doesn’t feel like I’m horribly injuring myself. I’ve become much more appreciative of lying down and deep breaths. I’m thankful to my lovely roommates, who made me jello, bought me flowers, and made sure I had a constant supply of apple juice and Gatorade. And I will be forever grateful to my mother for coming to the rescue.
And so, I’ve completed half of grad school, though perhaps in a more dramatic and less celebratory fashion than I’d hoped. Now I can at least look forward to riding the camels in August.