Not so long ago I unexpectedly found myself in the emergency room of our local hospital. I guess that’s a silly statement–nearly all visits to the emergency room are unexpected. For several days I hadn’t been feeling well, exhibiting symptoms that I was sure were pneumonia–fatigue, shortness of breath, cough, and sometimes a fever accompanied by night sweats. None of that was so out of the ordinary for a cancer patient and it wasn’t enough to coax this veteran of healthcare into the ER. Oh no, instead I waited until my heart suddenly felt like it was jumping out of my chest, reaching an unsustainable rate of 225 beats per minute. Only then was I ready to admit that I needed medical attention.
Luckily, when my heart began misbehaving I was already in town, having just dropped my daughter off at swim team practice. Riding along in my pickup truck I quietly tried to valsalva my heart back to a normal sinus rhythm. That didn’t work. So then I found a still packaged drinking straw from a long forgotten fast food meal, and tried to breathe through that. But it was to no avail and my heart remained in what I had by then self-diagnosed as atrial fibrillation. Never having experienced such a thing before, I was mildly curious as to why and much more curious as to how long this chest pounding discomfort would continue.
Once in the ER I received a myriad of tests–blood work, ECG, constant vital signs, and a chest x-ray that I assured the ER staff would be ugly, because, after all that is where the cancer now resides. Checking on me frequently, the very kind, competent, and concerned ER physician finally informed me that along with the atrial fibrillation that I had accurately self-diagnosed, I also had some sort of pneumonia, as well as dehydration, and severe anemia. In fact, periodic tests revealed that the anemia continued to worsen, perhaps indicating a grave and often fatal condition. As if that wasn’t enough, he also told me that my potassium level was much too low and that I appeared to be having what could be a thyroid storm. I would need to be admitted to the hospital for IV antibiotics, a hefty blood transfusion, continuous oxygen, re-hydration, more tests, and consults with specialists. And perhaps to me the most disturbing of all, I would need to be transferred by ambulance to a bigger hospital in a bigger city because I was just “too complicated”.
TOO COMPLICATED?!?!?!?! I cracked the physician’s carefully composed demeanor a little when I blurted out that “I never wanted to be one of THOSE patients”.
But I had become one of THOSE patients and I found myself waiting for the ambulance and for my critical care bed to be readied at the big city hospital.
It was only then that I acknowledged that I was facing a crisis and that I would need to draw from my sources of inspiration. With desperation seeping into my mind, I searched for every truth I’ve known, everything I’ve written about, every source of strength I’ve experienced, every point of hope, every lingering connection I have to this earth. I prayed, begging God to wrap his arms around me and to fill my heart with His love and courage. I focused on my three daughters, my desire to continue is to be their mother, and how much I don’t want to let them down. By then my family had begun to gather in the ER and I looked into my own mother’s face as she leaned over my hospital gurney to whisper to me. I found myself hanging on the loving, encouraging words of the woman who brought me into this world, nurtured me, and who I know has prayed to take my place as a cancer patient.
While I waited for the ambulance, I watched the anxious, loving family members who had gathered to rally around me, to protect me, and to comfort one another in the wake of yet another cancer-induced moment of truth. My three beautiful daughters and my charming son-in-law were there. My amazing sister and loyal brother-in-law were there along with my loving mom and step-dad. And my boyfriend, who was doing his best to keep me calm, holding my hand and practically tap dancing in an attempt to ease the tension, was there. And as I watched them–talking to one another, occasionally laughing at a private joke, or covertly watching my heart monitor, I realized that I was looking at my world. All that matters to me. Everything. And that is not complicated at all.
It’s really very simple. With everything stripped away, facing my own mortality and an uncertain immediate future, I realize (and have for quite some time) that these relationships are really all that matters. When all else is gone or taken, we still have love.
Later, during the ambulance ride to Boise, my heart rate spontaneously converted back to a normal sinus rhythm. Perhaps it was the gentle bouncing of the ambulance, perhaps it was the lively conversation that the paramedic and I had about our presidential candidates, or perhaps it was thoughts of the unfinished quilt that awaited on my sewing machine, expecting me home to align the seams and add the remaining few blocks. Whatever the case, it felt really good and I was able to relax a little.
Although I remained in the hospital for a few days, I quickly improved. The pneumonia and anemia were treated, blood tests leveled out, and my heart continued to behave itself. The possibly fatal condition detected in the ER did not progress. And most importantly, I learned that what really matters is not complicated at all.