in our quest to become responsible senior citizens, holly and i went to bed on friday at like 9pm. there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to tell you that, as it will ruin my “street cred,” but honestly? i don’t know if i actually have any “street cred” other than wearing black all the time and let’s face it: you can wear black even on a good night’s sleep so i guess i actually don’t even care.
so we get into bed, take out our dentures (psych!), turn on the tube and…my left leg gets all tingly. like pins & needles, but ever so slightly, from my toes up to my knee. soon, my left arm–from my elbow to my fingers–gets tingly, too. this sort of thing happened to me once years ago, and i’ve since heard it can be a painless migraine-type thing. since i’m a migraine sufferer, i didn’t think too much of it. but then my left cheek started feeling weird.
i told holly, who immediately asked me if i wanted to go to the ER.
“ew, no,” i said, grossed out.
a baltimore city ER on a friday night? i pictured people with knives sticking out of their foreheads. no thanks, i thought.
i figured i was just being neurotic and was imagining the feeling in my cheek anyway. i told holly i was going to sleep, would probably be better in the morning and that she was giving me anxiety by bringing up the ER and it was only making me tingle worse. we put on “something borrowed” for the gazillionth time (OMG GREAT MOVIE) and i fell into a deep sleep, despite the helicopters overhead and tumbleweave rustling by.
we woke up and i was better. in fact, i forgot i even felt weird the night before. but by around 9:45am, the feeling was back–and stronger. and it really was in my cheek–and behind my eye and the left half of my tongue, too. despite my apprehensiveness googling medical stuff (i only trust NIH, the mayo clinic and webmd), i googled something like “painless migraine numbness on one side of body” and found this.
while reading the symptoms i was experiencing aloud to holly, it was like there was a delay between my brain and my mouth. like i had just taken half a low-dose xanax (on my way, for example, to san francisco, where i would wear a sparkly chico’s holiday sweater to nicole’s pre-wedding party in…october). all joking aside, that’s when i really started to worry. i told holly i wanted to go to the ER after all.
baltimore may be dirty and dangerous, but it’s chock full of great hospitals. we decided on hopkins because, well, it’s hopkins. if there was something wrong, they’d find it.
as soon as i told the registration lady my symptoms, things started happening–quickly. before i knew it, i was in a wheelchair with a blood pressure cuff on my arm. then i was being pushed through back hallways and finally through a stainless steel swinging door into a bright room that looked…gosh it looked a lot like an operating room, i thought. this…suddenly felt a lot like the movies. and not in a good way. in a really really scary way.
a team of doctors and nurses were waiting for me, and i was told to get on a gurney. suddenly lights were being shined in my eyes, and i was being asked question after question. a gruff woman strapped my right arm with one of those rubber blood test bands that freak me out so badly.
“wait! wait!” i told her. “I’M NOT READY FOR A BLOOD TEST WAIT JUST GIVE ME A MINUTE.”
“ma’am! MA’AM, you need to stop moving. YOU NEED TO PUT YOUR ARM DOWN NOW MA’AM. PUT. YOUR. ARM. DOWN.”
holly was on my left side. panic-striken, i looked in her big brown eyes for support. she usually smiles at me while i’m getting my blood drawn (*thump* sorry i just fainted as i wrote that) and distracts me with something funny and touches my hair and says you’re doing great, babe, nothing to worry about. but this time all i saw in her eyes was…worry. panic, even. and she started to cry.
“babe! babe you’ve got to tell me something funny. keep it together, honey! I NEED YOU. TO TELL ME. SOMETHING. FUNNY. TO KEEP. ME. FROM. FAINTING.”
“babe, i’ve…got nothing funny to say. there’s nothing funny!”
i’m getting really really scared at this point because, i know you won’t believe this, but out of the two of us, holly’s the one that keeps it together.
while i’m begging her to make me laugh, the doctors and nurses are all asking us questions: when did the symptoms start? what exactly do they feel like? has this happened before? and on and on and on. and Nurse Gruffy McGruff is still taking blood. then she ties another damn rubber band on me and sticks me with an IV. then she instructs me to take off my shirt and my bra (the nerve!) and i’m handed a gown.
it dawns on me: holy shit. this is the stroke unit. they think i’m having a stroke.
after a lot more questions and some neurological tests, they decided that i wasn’t having a stroke–or at least not the kind that necessitates immediate treatment. so they took me down, on the gurney, to the main ER area. and this is where the baltimore city fun started.
no rooms were available so they put us in the hallway. this nice nurse brings holly a chair. and we sit. and sit. and sit. we sat in the johns hopkins ER hallway for a total of almost 12 hours. and at some point–i can’t even tell you how long we’d been there–we hear an ambulance call in over some sort of speaker system saying some guy had just overdosed, they’d probably need to call security and etc.
holly and i looked at each other.
“can’t they put us somewhere else?” i asked. “i don’t want to be here for this.”
“i don’t think there’s anywhere else they can put us, honey. otherwise we wouldn’t be in the hallway.”
“don’t get snarky,” i told her.
“i’m not getting snarky.”
“by the way, why couldn’t you just have said one funny thing while that beast was drawing my blood?? just one thing! i was this close to fainting! you couldn’t have told me a joke??”
“babe. i was scared. how could i have told you anything funny? what kind of joke could i have possibly told you?”
“oh i don’t know! how about: what’s invisible and smells like worms?! BIRD FARTS. bird farts, babe! that would have been a great one! remember we heard it the other day?!”
“yes i remember! but there’s no way i could have remembered it at that moment.”
“i know,” i said quietly, trying to avoid thinking about the prickly needle in my arm and wondering when i might eat the peanut butter sandwich i packed before we left home. yes, i really did pack a peanut butter sandwich before we left the house. who knows when we’d even eat next?? i mean, they don’t feed you in the ER, do they? i had no idea and hell if i was going to be left stranded without food.
thankfully, i ate half my sandwich and had some time to digest before they brought in Over McDosey. we knew he was on his way in because we heard him screaming.
“oh jesus,” holly said, watching. “he’s coming this way. right behind you. don’t turn around.”
“HELP ME HELP ME HELP MEEEEEEEEEE!” he shouted as they pushed him down the hall.
i watched holly’s face, her eyes bulging, as his voice grew louder and louder.
“drugs are bad, babe!” i whispered, probably too loudly. “DRUGS ARE BAD.”
our luck being, well, our luck, they put Overdose–no, actually, let’s call him Speedball, because according to the paramedic that brought him in, that’s what he took, some kind of combo of methadone, cocaine and prescription pills–in the room right next to my head.
a line of nurses filed into his room carrying a tremendous amount of bedpans. more bedpans than i had ever seen in my life at one time.
“he said his stomach really hurts,” the paramedic told the nurse next to us.
“IT’ COMIN OUTTA ME!” he shouted. “OH IT’S COMIN OUTTA ME!!!!! UHHHGGGGGGG!!!! HELP HELP HELP ME IT’S ALL COMIN OUT!!!!”
“holy shit, babe,” i said. “what the in HELL. we can’t stay here! i don’t want to be near this!”
holly, at this point, was nearly gagging. with her t-shirt over her nose and mouth, she helped me up from the gurney and we walked to the other side of the ER’s nursing station, as far away from Speedball as possible.
and that’s when we saw him: someone we recognized.
now, around our neighborhood here in southeast baltimore, we have an array of characters, some more unsavory than others, and we have private nicknames for them.
Jerry the Drunk
Janet the Drunk
Raspy-Voiced Unemployed Dry Waller Drunk Guy That Lives at Jerry’s
Guy That Drinks From Jerry’s Hose
Hooker We Thought Was Pregnant But Just Turned Out to be Bloated
Steelers Fan That Beat Her Teenager With a Cane in Front of our House
Hoops The Hooker
Big Bubba the Drugdealer
and then there’s the best one of all: Feral Cat Guy, named such because he actually looks like a feral cat. he has chunks of hair missing and is just…dirty. it’s like he’s the druggie, adult version of pigpen. we once heard jerry, janet, all the hookers and the raspy-voiced unemployed dry waller drunk guy shouting at him:
“get lost! you smell! YOU STINK!”
“honey,” holly whispered to me as we cowered in the corner, holding our breath trying to ignore Speedball’s screams. “is that…it couldn’t be…”
“FERAL CAT GUY,” we said simultaneously.
“Feral Cat Guy is here at the ER? with us?” i said. “oh you have got to be kidding me.”
he was skulking around the doorway of his room trying to get the nurses’ attention, any nurse at all. asking for some sort of medication. it looked like he had been, well, it looked like he had been in a cat fight, actually. i kind of couldn’t believe it. here we were, on a saturday afternoon, with Feral Cat Guy, for hours and hours. and i’m not even wearing a bra. wonderful.
the nice nurses set up a little station for us in our new corner of the ER, with a gurney and blanket for me and a chair for holly. and that’s where we sat. and sat. and sat.
eventually Speedball was wheeled out by security to go night-night, one guy holding his arms and another holding his legs. we tried avoiding Feral Cat Guy’s stare, lest he recognize us from the neighborhood, which we didn’t think he did.
eventually it was unavoidable: holly had to walk past him to get her phone, which was charging near the nursing station.
“Feral Cat Guy just talked to me,” she said when she got back.
“yeah. he said, ‘hey homie, you got the time?'”
“he called you HOMIE?! what is this, 1996?”
“yeah. i know. seriously.”
more hours went by. then transport came to take me for an MRI. i hate MRIs. i’ve gotten a bunch of them, but it’d been a while and i was out of practice. holly came along, and as we walked (well technically i was being wheeled) i prayed i wouldn’t have a panic attack while i was in “the tube,” as i call it.
we arrive and the techs tell me i can listen to music. in fact, i can choose whatever i’d like, as they have pandora. i tell them frank sinatra.
“old blue eyes it is,” the male tech said.
the techs, a man and a woman, take me in and i say i’m scared. the lady tells me it’ll be fine and instructs me on how to use this little squeeze device to notify them if i’m having a problem.
i close my eyes and they cover them with a cloth. then they put this weird grate thingy over my face. i feel the MRI table move backwards and even though my eyes are closed and covered, i feel the space close in. it takes me about two minutes to let go of the lady’s hand. i’m suddenly paralyzed with fear–40+ minutes in this MRI tube and what will they find in my brain??
i tell the techs i’m ready, and they leave. my heart is racing. i try to remind myself that they’re just outside. in a few moments, the music starts. the sound of sinatra’s voice is comforting. then a home depot commercial comes on and i feel irritated. home depot ruins everything. then more music. i’m shaking like a leaf. the machine is pounding and i imagine magnetic waves slicing through my brain.
i take a deep belly breath and imagine dancing with holly in our living room, as we often do, with comcast’s “singers & swing” cable radio station on. i imagine the soft feel of her cheek next to mine, the warmth of her arms around my body.
“i love you, honey,” she says.
“i love you, too,” i say, swaying to the music.
suddenly i imagine us folding sheets together, matching up the corners, holly teasing me, telling me, “stop walking towards me, babe! walk back, go back.”
“i can’t help it!” i tell her. “i just want to be near you.” and then we laugh.
i imagine us chopping vegetables at the island in our kitchen. well, i kind of suck at chopping vegetables, so i decide i’m peeling potatoes, that i can do.
“this is called a mirepoix,” holly says, pushing the onions, carrots and celery into a hot sauté pan. the mixture begins to sizzle and our first floor starts to smell like the start of something delicious.
i snap out of my revelry and realize i’m still in the MRI tube. i start to panic. i take another deep breath and instead imagine us on our bed. we’re lying on our cool, white bedspread. our windows are open and the ceiling fan is on.
i think of my dear, late grandmother. i’m in middle school running up her apartment building’s stairwell with my bookbag on. i’m climbing up the stairs two by two, i’m so excited to see her. i open the stairway door and i’m in her dimly lit hallway. she’s cooked for me, i can smell it. it’s chicken soup or stew, i’m not sure, but it smells warm and delicious and i’m hungry. i’m at her door, i ring the bell. she opens the door and i wrap my arms around her. oh jessie, i’m so happy to see you! she says. you’re the apple of my eye, you’ve always been the apple of my eye. she steps back and sings me this little old-timey song she used to sing to me all the time and we dance together.
i can’t give you any-thing but loooove, baby. that’s the only thing i’m thinkin of, baby…
my eyes well up with tears. grandma, i think, whispering to her in my mind. please don’t let anything be wrong with me.
the machine shakes my entire body and i force myself to imagine holly and i in our living room again. we switch between dancing and folding sheets and cooking dinner until the lady tech announces over my earphones, “you’re all done, jessica. you did great. we’ll be right in.”
transport comes back to take holly and i back down to the ER. we’re there, back in our corner, i don’t know how much longer, hours and hours, and finally a neurologist comes to speak to us. she says my MRIs and CT scan looked great, and that i didn’t have a stroke. holly and i breathe out. everything will be fine, i think.
she does a full neurological exam on me and says she’d like to admit me–something about my reflexes being jumpy and she’s concerned that my left cheek was somewhat numb to her touch. my stomach sinks. i’ve never stayed overnight at a hospital.
we ask her why and she says she wants to do more MRIs, this time of my spine, to rule other things out. i ask her what other things? she says let’s not get ahead of ourselves, and just see what the MRIs say. i look at holly and suddenly i’m scared again.
finally, around 11:30pm–nearly 12 hours since we arrived at the ER–we’re taken to a room on the ninth floor in the neurological unit. everyone is so nice it blows me away. they bring holly a cot and pajamas and we both fall asleep watching, yup, you guessed it, “something borrowed,” until the nurse comes in at 4:15am to take me down for more MRIs.
trasport is waiting for me with a wheelchair. i start shaking again and this time i can’t stop.
“i love you, honey,” holly says as they wheel me out. “you’ll be fine.” but i know she’s freaking out inside. she’s been crying on and off all day.
i get down to the MRI area. the lights are low and it’s silent except for the hum of the equipment. the same male tech is there, but the lady’s gone. the buzzer rings and a new patient comes in. it’s a woman–she looks like she’s been in an accident or beat up or had a stroke or something equally terrible. she asks for water and throws up off and on while i wait in my wheelchair in front of the MRI room. i know it sounds terrible, but i’m relieved my back is to her. i read the warnings on the door over and over again to pass the time while i try to keep myself in check.
another patient comes in. he’s on a bed and i find out he’s just had a stroke. i remind myself just how lucky i am. things could be a whole lot worse, i tell myself. but i continue to shake.
i go through the same routine again. my earphones are on and sinatra’s being piped in. i imagine all those comforting everyday things that kept me calm the last time: dancing…folding laundry…cooking dinner…a cool breeze as holly and i lie on our bed.
the tech comes back in and puts dye–“contrast” it’s called–in my IV. six more minutes, he tells me. i’m covered with sweat. i can do this. i can do this. and then i’m done. it’s over. soon i’m back in my room next to holly. we squeeze each other’s hands and the sun rises over the city. we sit up and try to see our house in the distance. i want to be there more than anything. i never knew i could ache for our neighborhood like this. i just want to be home, healthy. folding sheets. dancing with holly. in our bed together, not in this hospital.
a nurse comes in to draw more blood, and this time holly’s able to distract me and make me laugh. she leaves at 7am to get a shower at home and change her clothes.
“i don’t want to leave you,” she says.
“it’s ok,” i tell her. “i’m not going anywhere. i’ll see you soon.”
i lay alone, trying to fall back asleep but i can’t. i flip the channels on tv over and over again. breakfast comes in and it’s pretty gross: eggs (powdered?) and cream of wheat (??) and…overly sweet blueberry coffee cake. and coffee. i gulp the coffee and before i know, holly’s back, looking adorable in her UB sweatshirt and her comfy, loose-fitting yoga pants i always steal. i feel so happy i could cry.
“honey! you’re back! you look so cute.” i can’t stop smiling. just looking at her makes me feel like i’ve slipped into a hot bath.
she walks over, crawls on my bed, puts her head on my chest, curls up and starts to cry.
“honey…what’s…what’s wrong? honeybear, don’t cry. i’m ok. i’m ok.”
she lifts her head and looks in my eyes.
“i hated being at home without you,” she says. “i couldn’t stand it. i’m gonna be a better spouse. i’m gonna…i’m gonna do more dishes. i’m gonna clean up more. i’m gonna be better.”
she starts to cry again and i shoosh her and tell her she’s a wonderful spouse, to not be ridiculous. but i know what she’s really saying: i am so worried about you and i don’t want to say it out loud. i don’t want to say what i’m worried about. i’ve never had to imagine you not in my life before. we’ve never had a scare like this. i want you to be around forever. and i’m so sorry if i haven’t been everything you’ve needed because you’re everything to me.
i hold her and she calms down. soon we’ve found a movie to watch: tyler perry’s “i can do bad all by myself.” little-known fact: holly loves emotional african-american comedy-dramas (dramadies?) and now i love them, too.
by the end, they’re singing in the church and i’m bawling, covered in goosebumps.
“oh these tyler perry movies get me every time,” i whimper, wiping my eyes. “i’m starting to think i’m part african-american.”
we laugh and soon there’s a knock at the door. the head neurologist and two residents file in. they introduce themselves, and the doctor says he has good news: everything checked out just fine. i didn’t have lesions on my spine and i don’t have MS or any number of things they thought i might. i breathe out deeply. i had no idea i was even a candidate for something like that. no wonder the neurologist in the ER didn’t want to answer all my questions.
he does a neurological exam on me. i groan inside when he asks me to take my legs out from under the blanket.
“just a disclaimer,” i say. “it’s not like i knew i’d be here so my legs aren’t…well, being that i’m of eastern european descent, i pretty much have to shave them every four days, so, uh, yeah.”
they all laugh. not a problem, he says. after the exam, he says the neuroradiologist just needs to confirm that everything is ok. and then i’ll be released. i feel like jumping out of my bed and clicking my heels together.
after everyone leaves, holly and i look at each other. i put my hand in hers and she wraps her fingers around mine. there’s so much to say but we don’t need to say much. she climbs up in my bed and wraps her arms around me.
i tell her about all the things i imagined while i was in the MRI tube.
“it’s funny, i thought about all the most mundane things,” i say. “even folding sheets with you. after a while i was like, how many sheets can we fold? i just want to get out of this damn tube!”
we laugh more and watch tv, talking about this and that until lunch comes. holly’s finally able to eat a little (she was so nervous she was barely able to drink water). a couple hours later, the neurologist and the residents are back with the official word–the neuroradiologist examined my MRIs and agreed: i was in good shape. what i experienced was what was called a “migraine variant.” i’d be going home soon.
the relief we felt was…indescribable. unfortunately, there’s nothing like a health scare to make you realize how lucky you are. lucky to be healthy. lucky to have your spouse. lucky to see the sun shine another day. or feel the rain on your face. i don’t care how cheesy that sounds, it’s true.
when we got back to our house sunday night, i was so thankful. thankful to see everything. all the rowhomes, their formstone saturated by rain. the wet sidewalks. even the mini liquor bottles in our tree pit and the doggone puffs of tumbleweave. i’d probably even be happy to see Feral Cat Guy skulking around somewhere.
i was home. i was healthy. we were together. it was an ordinary day in every sense of the word, but to me it was extraordinary. even though it was only 8pm, we were exhausted. we took showers, got into our pajamas and climbed into bed. we turned on the tube. i cracked my window and the fresh air blew in. just what i imagined during my MRI. only this wasn’t something i needed to conjure up in my imagination, i thought. this was real. we were here. i cuddled up to holly and fell into a deep sleep, feeling lucky, so completely and totally lucky, and awoke, still grateful.
i want to send a special thank you to ms. jennifer weiner–my literary idol and #1 new york times bestselling author–for reading, loving and retweeting my last post to her 43,000+ twitter followers. you are fabulous.
to all my new readers (and there’s lots of you now!), welcome! things are not usually this emotional around here, but it’s good to get a good cry in once in a while. and listening to cyndi lauper’s “true colors” on repeat doesn’t always work. nor does watching the last five minutes of “pretty woman” because you get to a certain age when you realize hookers are never that pretty and she really did deserve more than $3,000 for that week.