part one is here.
so, my two day Ph.D orientation was September 1st and 2nd. yesterday. the day before.
i was not there.
i’d been joking for awhile about the campus tour part of the orientation, since the campus is about as big as a minute and i’ve worked there for five years, in four different buildings. but i was still looking forward to it. it’s the first Ph.D program this faculty has ever run: there are only four of us entering, and we’d spend the two days with pretty much the full faculty contingent and get a lot of the research and funding questions i’ve had since the spring finally answered. this was the fullest, most concerted access we’d have to each other just as people, stating interests, exploring options, before the race of the year got underway.
but last Friday i had a headache. Saturday, i woke up with a sore, sore throat and an overall sense of ick. Sunday, i could barely even GET up. it was like a flu on a scale i’d never had: full body aches and chills and sweats like a roller coaster. i felt 107,and a weak 107 at that . Monday, vomiting started, and i could barely swallow. Dave took me to the ER. doc said strep: i got an IV and a couple litres of fluid and a prescription for Amoxil. went home, looking forward to getting better right quick, like a bunny. because i had orientation.
instead, Tuesday morning my throat was more raw than ever and i cried each time my body spasmed into swallowing. every drop i choked down i brought back up. but i got the Amoxil down with Gravol and they stayed and i crawled into bed and waited for relief.
instead, something crawled behind my eyes.
if you have ever taken hallucinogens in your misspent youth, you will notice, i’ve heard (ahem), that there is a point at which you think these goddam things aren’t going to work. and just as you are about to give up on the excitement you’ve, say, paid good money for or crawled at dawn all over a good golf course to pick, there comes a slight crawling, trailing motion behind your eyes and you realize the Tilt-A-Whirl has just started up and you’re locked in and there is – quite literally – nothing to do but go along for the ride for the next, oh, six or eight hours.
this felt like that. which when you have a 103 fever and can’t swallow and have long left silly college experimentations behind and have An Orientation Tomorrow to get better for, is not exactly the feeling you are looking for, whatever thrills it may have conjured in the past.
i lay in the bed wondering if i was just being silly. i opened my eyes, looked around my room, nodded, and closed them again. the exact imprint of my cat, who stood staring down at me from the side of bed, popped out in white against the dark curtain of my eyelids. then the sounds started, my ears like bizarre amplification instruments out of Dr. Suess’ own torture chamber. i could hear in 3D. i could hear conversations across town. i could hear my throat, my ragged breathing.
i carefully got up, dressed my shaking body, put the pills in my purse, and called Dave. by the time he got home i was hiding under a pillow on the couch. by the time we got to the packed ER, for the second time in less than fifteen hours, i was near feral. we didn’t wait five hours that time. i was in a lovely private ER room in minutes, courtesy of myapparently perfect mimicry of a total nutcase.
they thought i had meningitis, swelling of the brain. nobody seemed interested in my theory that i was being poisoned. possibly because i was also adamant that if they made me take my sweater off – it was a swelterish 30 degrees out – i’d drown.
i came back to myself almost exactly four hours in, about 1 pm. i remembered the events of the previous few hours, but as if through a prism. i felt wrung like a wet rag. they took more blood than i thought i possessed. a poor student nurse was the first to try, shades of the night before school twenty-four years ago, but she might as well have stabbed me with a fork and i screamed and they sent in the elder LPN instead, the one who could thread needles like butter. i babbled incoherently at her, not because i was still delusional, but because i was so damn grateful the student had stopped.
twelve holes in my arms to add to the two from the night before. i have tracks like Keith Richards in 1968.
then, after the IV took hold and the fever broke and i lay spent in the pool of my own sweat, a spinal tap. or actually four, because the very nice doctor kept saying, in a curious flat tone, i can’t seem to find any cerebrospinal fluid.
it is a strange thing, to be bent in half, mostly naked and sick, over a hospital bedside tray with the most vulnerable corners of your spine stretched like a cat to a man you’ve never met before and have him say such a thing about your white little back. it felt oddly my fault, as if i’d thrown a party and failed to ensure my guests had drinks. fluids are the hostess’ responsibility. and that silly feminine guilt was easier than acknowledging the fear that raced through the pathways of my brain, recently fried like eggs. i had a spinal tap once before, twenty years ago. i’ve had three epidurals. but in none of them has anyone ever said, i can’t seem to get this right.
he did, on the fourth try, leaving me mercifully unparalyzed though with the killer cerebrospinal headache that still haunts me to this moment. while he waited for the fluid to drain a nurse strolled in and announced Bed Twenty-two? She has a blood alcohol level of ninety three.
there was clucking, impressed though not unkind, from the faceless sea of medical professionals circled around my C-curved body. out of nowhere, afraid i would laugh and paralyze myself if i did not get the thought out, i muttered, I’ve had drinks that had alcohol levels lower than that. they skipped a beat, because they had all, i think, forgotten me as more than a back, an exposed lumbar. then they laughed, again kindly, and the doctor spoke wearily to the nurse and made sure that the woman would get all the treatment they could give, even though she was apparently uninsured for some of the extras. or something. it wasn’t clear, nor was it my business. and yet in that moment, i felt the doctor’s tired, capable, patient hands on my back, and i felt more human than i had in hours, or would again until i got home.
our local ER is new, quite lovely if understaffed, and full of state-of-the-art private rooms. so i was rolled, all taped up to multiple monitors like a neonate, to one of these glamourous holding tanks until late late, just when i’d decided to sleep, a cheery nurse named Kathy came for me and brought me inexplicably to pediatrics. i realized later it was the only private room available in the hospital. they were keeping me in isolation until the meningitis tests came back.
rooms with Disney stickers are lonely when you miss your kids.
i felt better the next morning – my throat less raw after the fourth bag of IV fluids – and my fever came under control and by 4 pm when they came in to say that it was definitively strep and not meningitis, i was feeling pretty good.
then they said, here’s your Amoxil.
i mentioned that the nice ER doctor had said i wouldn’t be having any more of that. the whole “thing” the day before might have been a reaction.
they stared blankly at me, these particular nurses in their teddy bear-print shirts. they had just come on shift: i had never seen them before. do you have a rash? they said. Amoxil reactions are rashes, one clarified, with an abrupt finality. they said the doc on call had ordered it, for strep. she emphasized the last part slowly, an equation, like i might be a little stupid.
they shook it at me. my mother was there, both of us uncertain. i understood there were no chinks for my words to get a toehold on in this particular version of the system. no way out but through.
i took it.
twenty minutes later, i asked my mother to kindly put out the bathroom light behind her, as the sight of it was suddenly searing my eyes. then the crawling started. goody.
this second time i understood what was happening, and was neither feverish nor dehydrated nor in debilitating pain. and so, with my mother patient beside me and then, team switch, with Dave, i rode it out again, watching the big black hospital clock on the wall. with my eyes open it crept around, unruly. with my eyes closed, only the stark white circle of it stood out, imprinted against the back of my lids.
four hours, i told myself. four hours.
lucky me. i have a rare neurological allergy to amoxicillin, my file now states.
the night nurse, in the absence of a rash, still eyed my nightside table suspicously and treated me like a juvenile delinquent all night long. the one who came on the next morning couldn’t have been more different, more warm, more empathetic. people. timing. random luck.
and so i walked out of the hospital yesterday morning, shaky and weak but slowly recovering from the fever and the strep, with a prescription for an unrelated penicillin and a sense of having been to another land, one out of time and body.
which i suppose, in the end, is as good an orientation for going back to college as i could have had. whatever i missed at the actual deal, i think they’ll kindly avail me of anyway. but the strange heart of darkness that can come – even for a 38 year old woman in a pediatric ward, attended by her mother – hell, that kind of exploration i’d forgotten.
i’d forgotten that reality isn’t truly the same for us all. i’d forgotten that being treated as rational, knowledgeable, human, is a privilege, not an everyday occurrence in all circumstances, something that one can be stripped of in a heartbeat. i’d forgotten that institutional systems are not always inherently benevolent, no matter how helpful nor how needed in a given circumstance. i had forgotten, from years of good luck and good health and the taking for granted that comes when one has all the privileges of race and class and education, what it is like to be vulnerable to other people’s misconceptions about your particular circumstances, what it is like to be vulnerable to the human frailty of power, even if that power ostensibly means well and has teddy bears on its shirt.
i could have taken an entire Ph.D and not learned something so valuable, so human.
for all those of you who kindly asked…i’m doing a lot better. throat decent, fever down, food slowly making its way back to my world. as soon as the Old Testament prophet behind my left eye stops smiting it with the lightning bolt that is my cerebro-spinal take-home present from the spinal tap three days ago, i’ll be grand. the headache still gets worse every day. i am hoping today is its pinnacle. tomorrow, we have a hurricane coming.