When you get a cut or a scrape, your blood does something very useful: it clots. It thickens and binds together to plug up whatever hole has been torn open, and consequently keeps you from bleeding to death. Handy, right? Right.
Sometimes it binds together even when you aren’t wounded. Instead of keeping blood from flowing out of your body, it keeps it from flowing through your body. It cuts off the supply lines for things like oxygen, essentially suffocating whatever lies just out of reach. In a limb, you might end up with pain and swelling. In the brain, you have a stroke. In the heart, a heart attack. If it ends up in a lung…
You wake up just after midnight with the feeling of something sharp in your chest, like shrapnel under your skin. Every time you try to breath, it digs in deeper. You’re understandably worried, and that anxiety makes you breathe faster. With each quickened breath comes another jab, as if the shrapnel is trying to punch its way out from inside. It hurts and you’re scared and you start to cry, but that only makes things worse. You realize the slightly painful pressure you felt earlier that day may not have been a food baby from your brother’s birthday brunch.
Trying to roll over in bed makes the pain worse. Trying to sit up makes it worse, too, but you’re thinking you should call an ambulance, and no amount of pain will make you comfortable with strangers — paramedics or not — seeing you in your knickers if they don’t have to. Sitting on the side of your bed, you do your best to take slow, small breaths (or stop breathing entirely) while you debate calling that ambulance. You remember your mother has an appointment at the hospital in less than nine hours, and you were planning on going with her anyway. Her arthritis is bad and you had planned to bring her a wheelchair and help her get around. She’s waited months for that appointment, and she might have to wait a lot longer if she has to reschedule. There’s an emergency room at the hospital. You tell yourself to lie down. You will take your mother to her appointment, and once she’s back in her car, you’ll go to the ER. “You’re a good daughter,” you tell yourself as you slowly lay back down on the bed, wincing with every change in angle.
Several hours later, you fall asleep. The pain doesn’t stop.
In the morning, you tell your mother that you’ll be going to the ER after her appointment. You try to say it in an off-hand sort of way so she won’t get too worried. You probably should have known that wouldn’t work. Still, she agrees to your plan, and the two of you head to the hospital. The nurse asks your mother some questions, and then turns and asks if you’re feeling okay. She says you’re pale. You say you’re always pale. Your mother later confirms that your usual Envy Of Goths complexion had progressed into Envy Of Corpses territory.
After your mother speaks with her doctor, you tell her you will help her back to the car. Fat chance of that; she’s staying with you. You’re admitted to the ER quickly because chest pain is a big red flag down there. You sit down with a nurse who takes your blood pressure. You talk to a doctor who takes it again, along with some blood for testing. You get an injection of pain killers and some pills for good measure, because in addition to the pain in your chest, your left collar bone feels like it’s been punched by a wrecking ball. You have an ECG done. The porter doesn’t hide his worried expression as you wince and curse your way onto the bed and then back off it. You wait for results. Your blood pressure is checked again and you’re sent off for an X-ray, then placed in a bay to wait for results. You ask a nurse if your mom can come see you. She says sure, but you have to explain that she’s in a wheelchair; someone will have to go get her. You give a brief description, and five minutes later a porter wheels your mom in. She’s glad you asked for her; it’s been a couple hours since you were first admitted.
You wait. Your vitals are checked again and some more blood is taken. You go for a CT scan. The nurse warns you that they’ve put something in your IV that will make you feel like you’ve wet yourself. The thought amuses you, but doesn’t really prepare you for the subtle warmth that spreads around your crotch a few minutes later. You’ve got huge metal donut wrapped around you and they’re telling you to lift your arms and hold your breath, as if those aren’t two of the most painful things you could possibly be doing. An ultrasound later and you’re back in the bay with your mom. You haven’t eaten in eight or nine hours. A nurse brings you a sandwich. It tastes like fake lunchmeat and disappointment, but you’re too hungry and tired to care.
Waiting. Vitals. They run a few more tests on the blood they’ve already taken, and eventually a doctor comes in and explains that there’s a blood clot in your lung. It’s a pretty big one (not that you have any idea what “pretty big” means in the context of something small enough to fit inside an artery) but because of where it lodged itself, it didn’t kill you. “Oh,” You think. “That was nice of it.” It’s another day or two before it really hits you that you very nearly died. A small shift in almost any direction and your parents would have said goodnight to their daughter and good morning to her corpse.
You get a shot of blood thinners to the arm and a referral to a hematologist. You end up with a bruise the size of a baseball that takes close to three weeks to fade. Between your mom’s appointment and the ER, you’ve been at the hospital for something like ten hours. Your butt is numb from the bed, and even without the pain in your chest it’s almost impossible to get comfortable. When you finally get home, you’re grateful for the softness of your parents’ sofa.
The next day you go to see the hematologist. As you’re leaving the house you don’t back the car up properly and a plastic fender is cracked off by the concrete doorstep. It can be easily screwed back into place, but the stress and exhaustion and pain are overwhelming and you burst into tears. The pain you feel with every breath is explosive when you cry, and soon you’re only crying because it hurts to cry. You start to panic, worried that you won’t be able to stop, and begin to hyperventilate. The pain shoots up even further. It takes a degree of self-control you didn’t know you had to calm yourself down.
A nurse takes your vitals. You’ve always hated scales, and now you’re developing a strong distaste for blood pressure cuffs. You find out you’re going to be on twice daily injections for two weeks, and oral meds for at least three to six months which will require frequent blood work to monitor. They offer to run tests that have a 50% chance of revealing the cause of the clot. You agree. The phlebotomist pulls out almost a dozen blood vials. They barely get through half before you start to get light headed. You’re put on a stretcher, but the nurse is adjusting the angle of the back while you’re using every muscle you have to stabilize your torso so it won’t hurt as much. You start crying, begging her to just leave it where it is, but in those five quick seconds of adjustment, you throw your back out. It takes six weeks to find out that the blood tests were inconclusive anyway.
That night you do something stupid. You Google “blood clot lung” and see the words Pulmonary Embolism come up on the screen. You read recovery stories and horror stories about lifelong residual pain. You probably read more of the former than the latter, but your brain dismisses the happy endings and holds onto only the worse possible outcomes.
You put a post up on Facebook to let your friends know you’ll be out of commission for a while. You get replies, comments, messages, texts, and emails asking if you’re okay. You get flowers, cards, sweets, and lasagna. You realize your self-esteem must still be a bit low, because you’re genuinely surprised by the amount of concern people show for you.
You’re assigned a nurse to monitor your recovery. You shoot yourself full of blood thinners twice a day, at nine in the morning and nine at night. You can’t take a deep breath. You can’t yawn. You can’t burp. You can’t laugh. You can’t cry. You can only sleep on your back. It takes a long time to sit up. It takes a long time to lay down. You can’t bend over. You can’t even drown your feelings in pizza because you know a full stomach next to your tender lung will be just as painful as the feelings you’re trying to avoid.
The pain recedes a little every day, but the movement is so slow you aren’t even sure it’s happening. Your collar bone still hurts even though there’s nothing wrong with it. The nurse says it’s just radiating the pain from your lung. That sounds like a pretty stupid thing for it to do, but there’s nothing actually wrong with it, so you accept his theory. Still, your left arm is rendered functionally useless. The closest it comes to being useful is when you press it across your chest before you sit or stand up, like a brace to keep your ribcage as steady as possible.
An ultrasound shows no Deep Vein Thrombosis. They tell you that’s a good thing, but it also means they don’t know where the clot came from. The lower part of your stomach is one massive green bruise from all the injections. You need to take several breaks when you walk up even a single flight of stairs. You go grocery shopping with your father because you can’t push the cart by yourself. You give up one volunteer role at your church and postpone another. When you eventually return, you can only do half of a job that was never all that physically demanding. Everyone tells you they’re just glad to see you’re getting better, but you still feel like garbage.
Every morning you wake up in pain. Your back is a tight knot that won’t release until you take a deep enough breath to cause your entire torso to spasm. It hurts like hell, but you do it anyway. You’re growing accustomed to things that hurt like hell.
Three weeks later you sneeze. Your whole body jerks forward and you cry out in pain, nearly falling off the sofa in the process. You realize your mother barely notices when you swear anymore.
Your first real victory is being able to roll onto your side for a few minutes before the pain pushes you onto your back. After a few more weeks you can stay there. After about two months you can sneeze without swearing. Your regular blood tests have gone from every other day to every other week. You borrow your mother’s spare cane because you get winded if you walk more than a dozen metres, and it helps to have a third leg to lean on.
You’re on a first name basis with several phlebotomists. The bruises from each round of blood tests barely have time to fade before you get fresh ones. You have track marks.
Two months later you go out of town to visit a friend. You walk a few blocks to get coffee and the cold, rainy weather pushes you into a bus shelter while your chest decides whether to kill you or not. Back at her apartment, you take another break in your friend’s foyer, leaning against the wall. Her boyfriend asks if you’re okay, and she reminds him about that embolism thing.
You have tickets to see your favourite band that weekend. Twice. You had told your nurse about how excited you were, but he warned you: no getting kicked in the head by stage divers or crowd surfers. No concussions while you’re on blood thinners. You survive both shows, but spend the last hour of the second one leaning heavily on the stage for support. You avoid airborne feet, but you head bang harder than you probably should.
It’s six months later, and you’re almost human most of the time. You still feel soreness at the bottom of your ribcage if you walk too far or do too much. You take your pills and go for blood tests once a month. You thank God that you’re Canadian, because all of your tests were covered. The nurse was covered. The province even gave you a month of prescription coverage, which is good, because the injections alone would have come to almost $2500. You thank God that you have a good relationship with your parents, because for a long time you didn’t, and you wouldn’t have been able to take care of yourself on your own.
You also wonder sometimes about God’s sense of humour. You’d been in a rut for a long time, and had prayed to God to help you out of it. You were hoping He’d send you a job opportunity or some new, interesting social experience. Instead, He sent you an embolism. He knew that what you really needed was a bit of perspective on how short life can be; a reminder that you won’t always be able to do things later. And He knew that you needed to learn that trials and blessings could be the exact same same thing, because you have a lot of trials in your life, and a lot of resentment to go along with them. Perhaps most importantly, He knew you could be a little thick sometimes, and might not notice a Sign if it were any more subtle than a whack upside the head with His Holy Two-By-Four.by