February 2018 was the month I spent 13 days in the hospital.
It all started on January 31st, a Wednesday. I barely took note of a sore throat. On Thursday, February 1st, I felt a little more of a sore throat but figured it would be the kind of thing to pass quickly. Friday, I felt fatigued and resigned myself to taking a weekend of rest, hydration and fighting off a cold or flu. Saturday and Sunday I pretty much slept all day, but by Sunday mid-day I had pain in my left chest. I didn’t even feel well enough to drag myself out of bed to watch the Super Bowl. On Monday I called off sick from work. On Tuesday the 6th, I summoned strength to drive myself to a walk-in urgent care center. About to open the door, I read a sign “X Ray Machine Out of Service.” Dammit, I thought. At this point I feared my side pain might be lung pain indicating pneumonia and knew the lack of an X Ray machine was not ideal. The nurse practitioner examined me, gave me a nebulizer treatment, sent me off with the advice to go to the emergency room if I didn’t feel well the next day.
The next day came and I felt miserable. Kyle, my dear husband, came home and drove me to UPMC Passavant emergency room. There I was given fluids, an x-ray, diagnosed with pneumonia, had blood tests and was told I’d be staying the night. At this point I assumed I’d be out the next day – probably just needing to re-hydrate and get on the right antibiotics.
That assumption was wrong. I met lots of doctors, nurses, x-ray techs, cleaning staff, nutritionists, physical therapists, residents and administrators over the next few days. In the initial days, the game plan was to drain the empyema infected fluids from my chest cavity with chest tubes. After many x-rays, two CT scans and the placement of lots of chest tubes…if I remember correctly I had four or five in total but never more than three sticking out of me at any one time. The morning I was introduced to the Infectious Disease team was unreal. I burst out laughing darkly and asked if I was in the movie “Outbreak.” They told me my infection was of the Strep variety, not the kind of Strep associated with Strep throat but Strep B which is quite bad. I’d be on high doses of antibiotics until it was managed.
I spent time trying to stay positive and not worry too much about the disgusting and large amount of fluids and sushi-like salmon chunks draining from my chest cavity into the clear briefcase style receptacles at my bedside. I prayed I’d be dodging surgery and that the current care plan would be enough. I was cooperative with every 4 a.m. X-ray, midnight vitals test, and other variable thrown at me.
A woman came in to perform an ECG on me in the wee hours of the morning. I asked her why she was doing it and she said “usually they’re ordered when someone’s gonna have surgery.” Therefore, I found out before dawn on the 12th from a tech that I’d be having surgery. The chest tubes and medicines hadn’t done enough. I was very frustrated with my care team because one of the numerous doctors I had should have delivered the news. I’d never had surgery before and cried later when consulting with the doctors. The lead surgical doctor scared me into getting on-board with the surgery when he listed the alternatives such as having lung disease for the rest of my life. A healthy life with my family is what I’d fight for.
Later, I was able to express my frustration with the surgeons in a more calm manner. I hope that they will take into account their patients’ feelings more thoughtfully in the future. On the bright side, I felt badass telling the surgeons how irritating it was to find out about my surgery secondhand. When the surgical team walked away the ICU nurses were like: “We love you! More people need to give them honest feedback. The surgeons act like they’re gods and forget they’re taking care of people and the patients are too intimidated or scared to say what they’re thinking.” Perks of being a vocal straight shooter.
Back to the surgery…
On the 13th, in the evening, I had cardio-thorasic surgery. On the way into the surgery it was almost comical how much bad news they threw at me. They sharpied my left shoulder area with a blue marker branding me with the surgeon’s initials. Why? To make sure they’d operate on the correct side. The surgeon told me I’d want to understand the risks: statistically a 1/100 chance of dying in this surgery, the possibility they’d have to crack a rib to get to the specific spot in my chest cavity they needed to drain fluids from, the possibility that I’d have an IV in my carotid artery when I regained consciousness – if the other viable ones weren’t good anymore. Considering how many days worth of poking and prodding I’d been through and the damage to many wrist and hand veins – this was a real concern. Oh yeah, and they told me I’d be naked in surgery. So, nothing like receiving all those pieces of information before being wheeled into a cold room full of strangers!
I woke up from the surgery on Valentine’s Day morning around 6:30 a.m. It was traumatic to wake up with a breathing tube down my throat.
I looked around and it shifted backwards and I thought I’d choke to death.
I tried to wave and ask for help.
Like a criminal or person in an insane asylum, I had huge, heavily weighted mitten-wrap things on so that I could not lift my hands and arms one bit. It was terrible.
A woman on the staff would come talk to me loudly and cheerfully and tell me they’d be taking it out soon then walk away. I hated her as she’d walk away – completely unaware of my private nightmare. All I could do was try to use my eyes to communicate how desperate I felt and to please hurry up during the quick times she’d come yell-talk to me.
It took a full hour before the tube was removed. Oh, and, before removing the tube, the lead ICU doctor come over, stuck a vacuum mechanism down my breathing tube, into my lung and vacuumed it out. During which I thrashed around feeling airless, tortured and like I’d surely die without oxygen. It was all so intense and yet under this veil of orderly, hospital, sterile control.
The blessing that day was that my husband, kids and mom visited me around 9:00 a.m. Kyle showered me with sweet gifts, a card and a Snoopy pop-up Valentine’s Day card from the kids. My mom gave me a card and helped busy the kids so Kyle and I could chat and connect for a few minutes. She left and the boys ate kinder-eggs and hung out for a while longer. A lovely nurse joined us and aided in the chocolate eating, toy playing and little kid fun.
A quick note on “nutrition” in the hospital system. They should be ashamed of themselves for the food they serve. You had to STRUGGLE to find a whole grain, high protein, reasonably healthy option on the menu…except maybe some eggs at breakfast. A very kind nutritionist actually hooked me up with a delicious high protein yogurt that my family members took to bringing me for future breakfasts. The hospital had a huge corn-syrup laden dessert menu, plenty of juices to choose from, all the white bread and fried foods a girl could dream of and vegetables steamed or boiled so much they were close to disintegration. A team member confided in me that their “nutritional” choices were all simply cost driven, and while it’s not surprising, it’s shameful. Especially for a “non profit.” Someone in the administration should stand up for what is right. Hospitals are there to make people healthier and food can be a huge contributor to health and well-being when it is balanced and nutrient-rich.
Apart from some complaints listed above, the staff at the hospital and the policies were generally good. I was always in a private room and the team members were great people. I bonded with a kind custodian, a bunch of nurses and some doctors. I was moved out of the ICU and to a recovery room around the 15th. I had three drainage chest tubes coming out of my body and two large stapled-closed incisions on my left side so showering and shaving in the stand-up stall in my attached bathroom while keeping the IV pole and tubes out of the way of soap and water was a real act of athletic and logistical genius. I was told to take walks a few times per say and do breathing exercises to expedite the time I’d need to stay there after the surgery. Walks were a real production with a walker to hang my drainage boxes from and the IV pole wheeling nearby pushed by a staff member accompanying me. I found many-a-fan of my leopard print furry slides so if you’re wondering what footwear to spend your hard earned money on, here is a link. I think they really popped when worn with hospital socks. Feel free to copy the lewk.
In recovery, I watched a lot of “Fixer Upper” and a “Madea” movie. This was all good fun because we haven’t had cable since around 2009 (?). I did some light reading and took a nap every day. I was a bit surprised by how tired I was, but in hindsight I can see why I was exhausted. My body and mind had been through so much and I was still not released or told I was doing well and had two fluid-free functioning lungs again.
Friends visits, calls, cards and texts were such a buoy. A lot of people asked if I was bored or stir crazy being in the hospital for so long, but I never was. Every day was filled with lots of testing and tasks to complete. Maybe it was forcing myself to eat bland hospital food or pushing myself to go for one more walk before bedtime. Another reason I didn’t feel cooped up is that I knew without modern medicine I would have had a bleak outcome. Perhaps lung disease for the rest of my life, at best.
On February 20th I was discharged. Kyle picked me up and was overjoyed to walk out (ever so slowly and carrying no weight) into the fresh air. I felt anxious to deal with potholes and the jolt they’d give my body. I felt unsure what the coming days would hold. We drove south and picked the boys up from daycare (our Au Pair was in Hawaii for the whole ordeal :-|) then went home. Over the next day or two I was emotional. I was so glad to be home but in pain, restricted from picking up my dear boys, in charge of sanitizing my wounds, re-wrapping them every day, keeping on top of all my outpatient medications and appointments. It was how folks must feel if they get out of jail or some other bad situation. You’re so glad to be out but you’re overwhelmed by life on the outside.
Because the flu season had been so bad, instead of getting outpatient care starting day one, I had to track down the nursing team and got them around day 3 of discharge. Thankfully I’d managed to keep my wounds clean and well cared for so the nurse was able to basically provide advice and reassurance as well as document all my vitals, meds and do whatever else UPMC required them to jot down in their laptops.
I kept in communication with my employer about my illness, care plan, recovery time required, and return-to-work timing. Things started looking questionable when the owner of the company which has “unlimited vacation days” put me on an unpaid leave of absence. How that all played out is a story for another day.
For now, the story of the hospitalization and beginning of recovery from pneumonia and empyema has come to an end. If you are sick or have a loved one who is sick, my heart goes out to you. Health is wealth and may we be healthy and happy, dear ones!