When I was 13 I nearly died. I highly recommend this experience, the nearly part – not the died part. I developed a mysterious infection in my abdomen that led to three surgeries, six weeks in the hospital (two of them in an isolation unit), discussions of colostomies and hysterectomies and the last rites. The doctors didn’t have a clue and were throwing everything at me to see what could get rid of the beast within me. I survived and I thrived. Not in spite of this experience but I think, because of it.
At this early teen age I matured very quickly. I watched the adults around me. I saw bad behavior and I saw deep abiding love and optimism. I experienced great personal care at a community hospital that by today’s standards would be considered third world. The nurses were simply the best. I was the mystery kid in the end room who always said please and thank you and when there was no end in sight tried to keep others’ spirits up. I was my mother’s daughter.
The gift of nearly dying at such a critical age was something I didn’t appreciate at the time. I could have done without drainage tubes coming out of my gut and daily blood draws. To this day I cannot stand the tourniquet on my arm for blood draws. I hate the needles too and that rubber strip strangling my arm still freaks me out.
I will never forget sitting on my bed in the ward (I had been sprung from the isolation room when my fever finally broke) and hearing my team of doctors walk down the hall. “I have no idea what cured her. We gave her enough antibiotics to sterilize a stallion.” I just smiled. I didn’t care. I felt like myself again. It was the day before my 14th birthday and I was going home. I missed eight weeks of eighth grade, probably why I never did well in math – algebra was introduced and I missed the important bits. But I had learned so much more.
- Adults don’t know everything.
- Keep trying new things if things don’t work out
- Be gentle with families of sick people
- Always say please and thank you – even to the guy who draws your blood and uses an arm tourniquet, every day.
- There really is a reason for everything.
I learned these lessons at 13. I have never forgotten them and they have served me well. These lessons helped me deal with the infertility I experienced as a result of this illness. It was a huge disappointment to learn that one of my greatest desires was just not going to happen and that I had to figure out what to do about it. The light bulb went off when my husband and I asked ourselves a key question: What was our goal? To ACHIEVE pregnancy or become parents? We knew the answer right away and started making phone calls and doing research. We jumped off the Infertility Roller Coaster and never got back on. Our family was built through adoption and as the saying goes – my kids didn’t grow under my heart, they grew in it.
When I think back to those dark days in the hospital, I was the lucky one. I was unconscious most of the time. I had no idea how seriously ill I was. My poor mother was beside herself with worry. My parents had emigrated from Ireland just 14 years earlier and she never learned to drive. I had four brothers and my father loved his family but he really loved his beer. Everyday my mother had to find a ride to the hospital to be with me and manage my brothers at home and worry about how my father was handling this crisis. Not well. I was his only daughter and he adored me. His method of coping was to go to the bar after work everyday and then make his way up to visit me. I loved the fact that he loved me and was worried about me, but I dreaded his drunken visits when he would sit on the side of my bed and cause the mattress to sink which pulled my sutures and bandages. He didn’t stay long and I don’t know if anyone else knew he was loaded. But the child of an alcoholic recognizes that glassy eyed look and fierce attempts at sober behavior not to mention the stench of Carling’s and Pall Mall. To this day, excessive alcohol and cigarettes are my least favorite things.
The nursing staff became my second family. In fact, the Head Nurse – Nurse Harvey was my champion and my savior and I called her my other mother. Her care for me in the most frightening and uncertain of times gave me hope and gave me confidence that everything was going to be OK. I was given a roommate who was finally diagnosed with Hepatitis after sharing my room and bathroom for three days. This required me to get the shots to prevent my coming down with her illness on top of my own situation. The nurses drew straws to determine who would have to inflict the thick gamma globulin injections. They agonized over this additional injustice but in the end (my end) they held my hand and administered the painful shots. When I said thank you – they burst into tears and told me what a good job my mother had done raising me.
If I hadn’t had this experience at age 13 – I might not have had the gumption to put myself through college – the first one in my family to do it. I might not have had the courage to attempt the things I had no business doing and then ending up either learning a great lesson or being successful. I learned that crap happens to everybody and it truly is how we respond to the bad things in our life that determines our quality of life. I am always learning new ways to do things differently and to do them better and I love that. I haven’t always followed these lessons every moment. But I come back to them and they are my truths.
My mother taught me by example through her optimism and her faith. She taught me how to live and she even taught me how to die.