First came the incredibly loud noise in my head.
It woke me up about ten to six in the morning. I always have a background ringing in my ears, but this was ringing cranked up to eleven, painfully loud. Oh no, I thought. Is this a new normal? Am I going to have to get used to this?
There was no going back to sleep, so I got up to go to the bathroom, and nearly fell down. Whoa. My balance was shot. I staggered to the bathroom, holding myself up on the hallway walls.
I sat down and put my hands on my knees, and that’s when I noticed that my left arm was weak. I tried to stiffen it up, and I couldn’t.
That’s when I finally thought, uh oh.
I know that weakness on one side is the sign of a stroke. I looked in the mirror to see if my face was drooping, and it wasn’t, which was reassuring in a way, but my arm was still weak.
From there on it was a process of deciding what to do, which wasn’t easy. If there is a next time I know now that what to do is CALL 911. Even though I knew that would be the right thing to do, I fought it. I was still in denial at that point.
I called a Nurse Helpline instead. The nurse told me to go to an Emergency Room. I called my friend Becky and asked her for a ride. When she arrived she looked at me and saw that I was gray, not thinking or speaking well, and having a hard time getting into her car. She said, “Let’s go to the fire station.” It took a little convincing, but finally I capitulated, and a good thing, too. She was right.
That’s how I ended up in an ambulance screaming down the main highway with the siren going. I thought of all the times I have seen and heard such ambulances and said prayers for whoever was inside and the EMTs attending them and the doctors and nurses when they got to where they were going. I hoped that people who saw my ambulance were praying for me.
Because there were only two EMTs on duty on the island that morning, I was switched over to a mainland ambulance at Fauntleroy. The driver of the new ambulance asked the Vashon EMTs if he should use the siren and speed, and one of the Vashon EMTs said, oh yeah. Lights, siren, the whole shebang. They were grinning.
I said, “I always suspected that part of the reason you got into these jobs was so you could use the sirens.”
They grinned sheepishly.
I was loaded into the new ambulance, and away we went. That ride, with the siren going, through Seattle and up I-5, was kick ass. I could see the cars that had pulled over to the side behind us and was feeling better enough that I enjoyed the rush of it.
When Rick was transported on a helicopter in the middle of the night a few weeks before he died, he described the ride as “kick ass,” and now I understand. Yeah. Wahoo.
Coming into the ER, a circle of people in scrubs were inside the door as I was wheeled in, and they clustered around my gurney.
“Are you all here for me?” I asked.
“Yes,” someone said.
“Oh dear,” I said.
An IV was started by a beautiful young vampire who was wearing a scent that reminded me of my childhood. The scent named Tabu came to mind, but this was pleasant, not overpowering as most perfumes are.
She had sculpted eyebrows. Most of the female nurses who cared for me the next two days had these perfectly shaped and colored eyebrows. I had never noticed such a detail before.
In fact, I was noticing a lot of details I don’t usually notice. The pattern of the weaving in my old jeans looked like thousands of little pictures and patterns.
It reminded me of when I took LSD fifty years ago. I saw the perfect pattern of everything. No matter how messy or disorganized or random something might look, everything fit together exactly in perfect order when you saw it through the LSD lens.
I was fortunate in that I didn’t find being stoned that much fun, and did not pursue a career in drugs, but that vision of perfection stayed with me. I figured that if LSD was supposed to expand your mind, at 18 I didn’t have that much of a mind to expand. I figured it was more useful to old people who’d lived a little. You know, those old-timers in their forties. Also, the effects lasted for hours and I was done with the drug long before it was done with me. I simply was not cut out for drugs. Lucky me.
Meanwhile, back at the stroke.
Becky and my grandson arrived at the ER soon, about when I was wheeled back in from my cat scan.
I was remembering the joke about the “cat scan” and the “lab test” and was looking around for a black dog, but thought they probably wouldn’t let one into the hospital. Looking back, I realize that my half serious expectation of a dog was another sign that I was not exactly thinking clearly yet. Or perhaps I was simply longing for a dog for comfort in the situation. A dog would have been nice.
Still, I was a lot clearer than I had been, and my arm was no longer weak. I have no idea how my balance was at that point. I’d been on one gurney or another for an hour and a half.
Finally, the ER doctor, a lovely woman whose eyebrows I did not notice, came in and said that it seemed I had probably experienced a TIA, or transient ischemic attack. Also known as a mini-stroke. Something had blocked blood flow to one area of my brain, and whatever it was had passed and my brain was now repairing itself.
I noticed that she skirted around a definite diagnosis – being transient, the stroke was temporary, and there was no sign of it on the CT scan, I’m guessing. So she was going on the information she’d been told, and my testimony of what happened.
The doctor said that even though the event had passed they wanted to keep me in overnight. Aw, I said. I was feeling enough better that I thought maybe I was ready to go home.
She pointed out that even though my vitals and all tests were good and I could leave if I wished, having had one TIA, I was at risk of having another, or possibly a genuine stroke, and they wanted to keep an eye on me.
I was convinced. Okay, I’ll stay.
Becky and my grandson kept me company until I was settled in my room in the neuro-telemetry department upstairs, then they left to go about their business, leaving me to the tender mercies of modern medicine.
So began more than twenty-four hours of being inspected, detected, and injected. Every two hours my vitals were taken and I was given a run through of exercises: touch your nose, now touch my fingers. Close your eyes and hold your arms up straight. Hold your leg up and don’t let me push it down. Follow my finger with your eyes without moving your head. Focus on my nose while I shine this bright light into your eyes.
My son Drew came to visit for a couple of hours, which was great. We moms love it when the kids Show Up.
Later that evening my goddaughter Maggie came in with a contraband dinner that was so delicious, and she stayed for a couple of hours. The kids are all right, although they are adults in their 30s now and I suppose I should not be calling them kids anymore.
A few friends called on the phone, also. Everyone set my mind at ease – my grandson was in a good place for the night, my dog and cat were being cared for. Everyone wished me well.
Some time that afternoon I was wheeled over to the MRI unit in the basement of the hospital, where the tech, Kate, fixed me up with ear plugs, and sponges on either side of my head to keep me immobile and dampen the sound of the machine.
Once you are rolled inside the hole in the middle of the MRI doughnut, you understand the meaning of claustrophobia. Oh man, is that a tight fit. I breathed deeply to calm myself. I thought that the loud bonks, beeps, and buzzes the machine made were inspiration for writing a science fiction novel. They are the sound of something not of this world, but oh yeah, they are of this world.
Afterward my blood pressure was the highest it was all weekend. The nurses said that was okay, because high blood pressure would push along whatever had blocked the blood in my brain.
Interesting side note: MRI machines produce a lot of heat that has to be vented. The vents appear above ground to the side of the front doors of the Swedish Cherry Hill campus. They are giant columns painted light blue with Northwest native fish swimming up the sides. They were designed and done by Israel Shotridge, native artist who lives on Vashon.
Later that afternoon, back in my room, my nurse told me that the MRI did not show anything stroke-like going on, but that there was an appearance “like ground glass” in the area of my right frontal lobe. Oh lord. What fresh hell is this?
The next morning the neurologist’s assistant came in and told me that all tests were good and I could go home, and the anomaly on my first scan was on my skull, not in my brain. She asked if I’d had any head trauma, perhaps in childhood?
I couldn’t remember any one event, but I had whacked my head hard while getting into my car earlier last week, and kinda thought I might have given myself a little concussion.
Just a little one.
She said they could do a second MRI with a dye injected so they could rule out the possibility that the anomaly was cancer.
Sign me up, I said. These medical people do have convincing arguments.
I wrote an email to a few friends on the tablet I’d brought along to the hospital, telling them I had a “funny patch” in my skull. When I reviewed what I’d written, I saw that the tablet’s autocorrect had changed it to a “funnyman in my skull.” When I complained about the autocorrect, it changed that to “autocrat.” Hunh. The funnyman autocrat in my skull. Maybe he was responsible for all this trouble.
Technology giveth, and taketh away, I noted in my journal.
I was puzzled to note that the second MRI was not nearly as stressful as the first. I lay there thinking how strange it was that I could get used to that so quickly, but after forty years I’m still terrified to get on an airplane. When Kate rolled me back out, I remarked that I thought I was getting used to the MRI machine.
“Sadly, that does happen,” she said.
Then I told her about my fear of flying, and she said, “You’re not missing anything. It’s no fun anymore.”
After that all I had to do was wait for the results of that MRI, and then I could go home. The results came back clear, and I called Becky to ask her to pick me up, and she did, and we headed back to the island.
That night when I got into my own bed at home, I felt a little apprehensive about going to sleep. This was where the TIA happened. Who knew what the morning might bring?
As it turned out, I woke up fine the next day.
It has been a few days now, and I am telling people I am as normal as I get, but I am taking nothing for granted. When I woke up and there was no loud noise in my head, I was happy. When I could walk down the hall without running into the walls, I felt good. Both sides of my body seem to be in working order. Yay.
All the little quirks that last week were normal and annoying – forgotten words, memory lapses – I inspect closely for signs of something more dire behind them. So far everything seems about the same, although I have a new layer of fear in my consciousness that I did not have before.
It’s another beautiful spring morning as I write. My Chinese poppies have burst into glorious bloom. The deer have stripped the leaves and buds off the roses in my rose garden, I notice, but the mini-roses in pots on the porch are putting out their cheerful yellow buds, and the deer for some reason did not eat all the columbine flowers this year, so they are in bloom everywhere. These flowers lift my heart and pacify my mind.
When something dreadful happens, it feels miraculous how people rush in to hold you up with their love and care. This is humbling, and reassuring. Dear friends have brought meals to me this week, and I have discovered that corn pudding may be nature’s perfect food. Some mystery person came by while I was out one day and left flowers and washed my dishes! (Karen, I think it was you)
Terry Hershey in a recent Sabbath Moment quoted Fred Rogers as saying, “What if this is heaven right here?”
Yes. What if the love and connection we feel with other people in this life is heaven? I think we all know what it’s like to experience hell.
It has been an interesting few days. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned here how scared I was. I was scared. I’m still not quite over that, though feeling a little bit normally cocky. I don’t think I am as immortal as I thought I was last week. I am grateful that I got off so easy, considering. Also grateful to EMTs, Swedish hospital, and all their nurses, aides, and technicians who took such good care of me. Feeling especially grateful for the love of friends and family.
I do notice that some people are watching me closely now, perhaps looking for symptoms of brain dysfunction, or watching to see if I go off in some way. That’s probably a good thing, and I should get used to it. You never know.
Well. I’m going to go get out a guitar and see how my left hand is working. I’ve been putting that off until I felt confident that it is probably okay.
PS: My left hand works fine. Don’t know when I’ve enjoyed playing the guitar more, or singing.
If you read this before June 3, 2016, and you live on Vashon, my group, Listen in the Kitchen, will be playing at the Vashon Bookshop that night for the First Friday Arts Walk, starting about seven-ish. The five of us will be playing & singing and having a grand time. Come on down. We’d love to see you.