Early morning, blue skies and Garth Brooks was cranked in the van. After all, I’m a country music fan and was on my way to Kentucky for a heavy dose of fun and some rock climbing. My first trip solo in what seemed like forever and the stoke was high to be on the road to visit my old rock climbing stomping grounds and see some very dear, old friends. My doctor had given me the go ahead to travel after my follow-up multiple MRI’s said my chest was still clear of cancer and my liver friend remained benign. This trip was a celebration of freedom.
A quick stop in Windsor for gas and then it was cruising over the Ambassador bridge into Detroit, Michigan. A slight breeze filled the open windows with a smell of spring and well a little pollution. My smile went from ear to ear. Half way across the bridge and my world changed in seconds. With a surprise attack, nausea consumed me…making my chemo days feel like a mild case of indigestion. Almost simultaneously, an alien was in my chest cavity trying to push my heart out of sternum while playing a drum solo. Feeling incredibly light-headed and instantly concerned I looked in my rear view mirror and a rash had formed down the middle of my face. I kept telling myself to drive straight and keep my shit together to the other side.
A few cars were ahead of me waiting for the border screening. I had an overwhelming urge to jump out of the car and lie on the ground. After all, if I were to die at that moment…I would be out in public. Repeatedly telling myself to not panic, it was probably just the flu setting in or some other bug didn’t ease any of my sensations. The cars finally cleared and it was my turn at the border…creeping ahead my eyes filled up with tears. It was evident something bad was happening and in the few words I spoke to the border guard…he understood.
A minute later, the border security was clearing the emergency barrier and I was driving back over the bridge to the Canadian side. No matter how much travel insurance one buys for going abroad, it was a relief to not have to try it out. A minute later and the Ambassador bridge was crossed again and I was safely on the Canadian side. The border guard called their internal paramedics which called the Windsor medics knowing my situation was worsening.
My month-long trip lasted three hours and instead of me driving my van, I was in an ambulance heading to the Windsor hospital. Bouts of vomiting, feeling like I was about to die of a heart attack, light-headed to the point of passing out and unable to walk consumed every second. The paramedics called my husband and after their questioning, he assured them that I wasn’t having an anxiety attack and he was on his way.
After hours of being alone while they took CT scans and MRI’s on my brain checking for a stroke or aneurysm, my heart was being monitored in case of heart failure, endless blood work, doses of ineffective Gravol with symptoms continuing to worsen. I was eventually so scared I texted our friend Marty with only the vision of one eye. Marty lives in Windsor and it wasn’t long before he was sitting by my side, bringing a climbing magazine and his wonderful, warm smile and offer to help.
Steven, after a long and stressful drive, got to the hospital. Hours later I was discharged with the, “we don’t know what you have…it could be vertigo or a virus…follow-up with your family doctor!” Late into the night, Steven found a hotel and we stayed until morning to do the drive home. The issue was…I couldn’t drive so he drove the van home and left his car for pick up in the future.
For the week that followed, my symptoms remained. The first trip to an on-call doctor since our family doctor was on vacation resulted in a determination of vertigo. All I thought was, “holy f*ck, if this is vertigo…I won’t survive.” She was certain it was vertigo since she has it but somehow ignored many of my other symptoms. So off to get a vestibular test (an inner ear test that determines if you are suffering from vertigo or some other major inner ear infection that could affect balance and cause nausea). The issue was that I didn’t really have a balance problem originally, I was really light-headed and wanted to puke everywhere while the alien tried to crack open my chest.
The vestibular test was passed with flying colours. There was no inner ear infection and it was definitely not vertigo. With symptoms not abating by the end of the week, I sought out another doctor. By this time, eating was barely possible and Medusa looked better on her worst day. A dose of antibiotics for a possible ‘whatever’ and an order for a heart holter and back home I went.
It was now a week since my attack in Windsor. The morning started out fairly positive since I was walking around and joking with my husband. It didn’t take long for things to change. Within seconds, a jack-hammer was at full speed in my head. The nausea was overwhelming and I huddled around an aluminum salad bowl since getting to the washroom wasn’t possible. My chest was being crushed by a vice and intense pain in the area grew. The feeling in my arms and legs disappeared and everywhere else was a heavy dose of pins and needles. Steven tried to get me to sit up and I passed out momentarily.
It wasn’t long before it was another trip by ambulance to a hospital in Hamilton. Fortunately, the Juravinski hospital is five minutes from our home. With symptoms worsening, it wasn’t long before an I.V. was inserted, the heart monitor was attached and doctor after doctor came to try and assess my situation. I held a vomit bag to my face while the plethora of questions was answered. My symptoms continued to worsen and at one point I told Steven I wasn’t ready to die.
Twenty-four hours in Emergency, questions, illness and the constant noise of others terrible situations take a toll on its own. With the doses of anti-nausea meds not being effective, the vomit bag was essentially strapped to my face although there was no longer anything left in my system to donate.
Steven held my hand, comforted me in any way he could and never left my side. For three days he held his spot unless the doctors needed him to leave. Waves of symptoms came and went like a chorus. My kidneys were showing they were being challenged, my body was burning so hot I was certain spontaneous combustion came next even though it was clear there was no fever. There was no feeling in my arms and legs even though I could move them. My chest was pounding so severely my chest muscles hurt. Every dose of Gravol and the nausea was at a level beyond all comprehension. Refusing to sleep out of fear of not waking up made for three days of purgatory.
Every moment available, my eyes focused on Steven. Tears running down the side of my face, barely audible mumblings of love for him and that I wasn’t ready to die spilled from my cracked lips. Caressing my head he would tell me everything was going to be okay and his eyes showed he was scared too!
It had been days since a mere morsel had been consumed and any motion to move me for testing caused me to pass out. The nausea was so intense that just the sight of a food wrapper made me want to hurl. Another straight dose of Gravol by I.V. and I felt my life was truly about to end.
On a stretcher awaiting a ECG of my heart, my arms and legs no longer existed. I would move my fingers over my thumb like a gesture for wanting money but there was no feeling. Suddenly the burning in my skin hurt so bad I was certain someone had lit me on fire but the flames weren’t visible. My chest pounded so severely that a sledge-hammer would have been softer. Dry heaves hurt my throat and if anything came out it surely would have been dust! It was at that moment it seemed that death was coming!
There was a sense of urgency to tell Steven how much I loved him and how I wanted him to fall in love again since he had so much love to give. I asked him to say goodbye to our cats and to tell our friends how much I loved them. I told him I wished I had travelled more. I told him I wasn’t ready to die!
As the hours passed and my strength to fight was dwindling, my eyes were closed and my brain was attempting to process random things. One of those things was the increase of issues shortly after being given Gravol. When it was time for my next dose…I asked for something else. I was certain something about Gravol didn’t agree with me.
The next dose of anti-nausea med made me drowsy, slightly reduce the nausea and sleep was inevitable.
The next day brought some relief from many of my symptoms. The new med reduced my nausea, I finally got some real sleep and I still didn’t have an appetite for hospital food but the local cafeteria yogurt was the best thing ever! Barely walking to the washroom twenty feet away but it was a solid shuffle. Throughout the day brought episodes of my inexplicable symptoms but they were shorter in duration and my popularity was growing for the resident doctors to come and question about my odd illness.
The world was becoming a brighter place…if only for a day. As the morning passed to afternoon and my spirit became stronger, I never suspected what would come next. A sudden onset of a slight headache turned into a mind-exploding migraine in minutes. I suffer from migraines and this one was a years’ worth in a day. My body was burning through to my organs, my chest hurt so much…the alien was clearly cracking through the ribs although I couldn’t see it. My right hand-held the vomit bag so close to my face…one would have thought I was hyperventilating. The feeling in my arms and legs disappeared yet I was flipping from side to side uncontrollably.
The nurse provided ice packs and some hydro-morphine to help with the pain. There was no comfort and I had reached my lowest point in all my years by saying I wanted to die! I never thought at any point those words would pass my lips but at that point…I did!
Another round of meds and it took everything in me to stay calm. My inner dialogue went to the concept of dying and that it was time to be accepting of that reality. I couldn’t see the Grim Reaper’s face but our conversation…she has the same voice as mine…was unforgettable.
Our conversation began with her question…”Do you want to die with good thoughts or bad thoughts?”
With tears flowing down my face I replied, “Good!”
She told me that I had to come to terms with dying. She forcefully said if I wasn’t okay with anything I needed to sort it out now. She suggested thinking about what I liked about my life and what, if anything, I failed to recognize. She suggested looking at my life in reverse…a reverse bucket list, if you will.
Even in my worst of times…my response to her was, “holy f*ck…could you be any more demanding!”
Conceding to her suggestions, my thoughts went into a fast-rewind of all the good times experienced. There were so many!!! There were so many goals achieved, so many amazing people, so many laughs, so many unexpected triumphs, so much love and so much life currency acquired.
As my experiences flashed rapidly in my mind, there was a deep realization that especially since my cancer diagnosis, my mission was to have as many experiences as possible…it was my currency of life. I was rich in Jany currency without a doubt! The problem was…this currency was as valuable as Monopoly money in the real world. I was driven to have experiences for me….things that meant something to me in life but would mean nothing when I was gone because the value wasn’t useable by anyone else.
Ms. Grim Reaper was patient as I sorted through my memories and realizations. I’m certain I could feel the caress of her hand on my forehead. It felt cold and chaffing…kinda like my hands feel all the time.
The film of my life and what meant the most to me was in HD with enhanced colour. I thought about what brought the most meaning into my life and what I missed. I knew that Steven was the best thing that ever happened to me and his family was key to teaching me what family meant. What I didn’t realize is how much I would reflect on my life rock climbing and how it and the friends acquired had played such an instrumental role in who I had become for the better. Don’t get me wrong, I love cycling too but climbing has been carved into the deepest part of me in ways that I didn’t recognize until now. As the album of my history flipped through the pages…it was a good life…a good time and since I wouldn’t get a chance to change the value of my currency to be richer in the lives of others…I had to be okay with that.
I opened my eyes and saw Steven staring at me from his chair that had a hole worn in the seat where he had sat for the last five days. I tried to mumble that I loved him but I think I just spit out dust. I burned his face as the last image in my mind.
Closing my eyes, I spoke to Ms. Reaper and told her I was ready to go. She lifted her head and removed her cloak hat…it was my face with a smile looking back at me as I said goodbye, surrendered and went to sleep.
Waking up the next morning was a surprise. It was the best cloudy day I had ever seen. Still sick and drained but able to consume a couple of spoons of yogurt and a mouthful of banana and I was on the “holy f*ck this is incredible train!” I had another day and even if it got bad again…I had another day!
After a week in the hospital…I was discharged. The final diagnosis…more than likely an epic virus but ultimately unknown. Barely able to walk but the symptoms were slowly subsiding, it was also determined that I am allergic to Gravol. I had all the opposite reactions to Gravol which made matters worse.
I got to use a walker loaned by our neighbour to get around the house for a few days and my road to recovery was as fast as a snail on gravel. Multiple tests including a heart monitor, blood work, a tilt table test (they try to make you pass out) showed that I was improving.
On March 12th, my life changed. Now, in late May, my cardio is finally improving and all the others symptoms have finally disappeared.
Ms. Grim Reaper left a deep scar…deeper than cancer. I dig scars though and I have some other ones on my chest that are visible daily that show the warrior I have been. What she gave me was a silver dollar in real currency that I can build a rich life that wasn’t just meant to enrich me with positive, personal memories but to enrich all those that want to play with me in the game of life.