Tuesday, February 19, 2008

In Sickness and in Health

This has been the extent of my official medical history as an adult.

1995 - Checkup. Mom forced me to do it.
2003 - Checkup. Just got insurance through new job - thought, "why not?"

This means that, in addition to having freakishly good luck with my health, I don't like doctors or hospitals and have preferred to pretend they don't exist. I get the flu about once a year and my choice has been to sweat it out and let my body do its thing. I don't even like using over-the-counter pain relievers if I don't have to. I have an irrational fear of getting addicted to them.

It's worth mentioning that for probably at least half of the last 14 years, I've been uninsured. So that was me just asking for trouble, and somehow not finding it. The result is that I don't remember the last time I had an antibiotic or a prescription drug, let alone a procedure. I'm not bragging. It just kind of happened. I blinked and 15 nearly doctor-free years had gone by.

All that changed this week. This is the breakdown of how it happened.

Part I

For me to tell this story right, take a short trip back in time with me:

Jan. 17 - Make the comment to Kirst in conversation, "Wow, I just realized it's been over a year and I haven't gotten sick. Maybe I've gone post-sick!" Gods of disease everywhere feel taunted.

Jan. 20 - Wake up with what I've come to refer to as SARS Plus, a brutal demon flu that feels like it's whittling my spine and using the shavings for firewood. What gives SARS Plus its "plus" designation is that it can change its shape, so that:

Jan. 22 - Bug is still going strong, achy fevery stuff morphs into stomach holocaust, which morphs into:

Jan. 23 - Wake up in the middle of the night feeling like my throat is being slit by an assassin. Silly me, that was just the SARS Plus shredding my larynx. And is that?... yeah, that's an infection by my wisdom tooth. Of course. "Welcome to the party, wisdom tooth infection. Can I offer you something to drink?"

Jan. 24 - Wisdom tooth infection is swollen so bad I can't bite down without touching the inflammation. Switch to liquid meals mostly, but it doesn't really matter. I haven't been able to taste anything for days.

Jan. 25 - Wow, this thing is still going strong. I didn't know that American bugs lasted that long. I thought you had to nick the insides of your cheek with razors and take an open-mouthed swim in the Congo for these kind of party favors.

Jan. 27 - DAY 7. Seriously? I ask myself. This is still happening? Depression sets in. The thing is, even my brain is sick. I don't even realize I'm depressed. I'll be talking to friends, thinking I'm keeping up a good front, and they're like, "Uh, are you ok?" And I'm like, "Yeah! I'm fine. Just a little under the weather's all!" Meanwhile I'm looking out the window of my house, watching squirrels frolic in my yard, and thinking about how much I hate them.

Jan. 29 - DAY 9. Still sick with no end in sight. I stop returning calls and emails.

Jan. 31 - DAY 11. I don't remember much of what was happening during this time. The sickness made it all go black. I have a memory of applying Claire's watercolors to my face like war paint and standing nude at the front window for hours at a time, staring at the neighbors as they walk by. But that could be a false memory.

Feb. 1 - DAY 13. Relief! It's a good day. I'm still too physically weak to do anything but lay on the couch, but at least no part of me is in screaming pain. And I have seen the light at the end of this dim, dim tunnel.

Feb. 3 - DAY 15. First day of healthful feelings. After just losing two weeks of my life, it's a near-high to just feel semi-normal again. The rest of the city is bitchy about getting snow dumped on us, and all I see are the beautiful flakes, no two alike!

Part II

Feb. 9 - Nearly a week has passed without illness. After assigning myself a clean bill of health, I take it upon myself to do a little free weights routine. I haven't done so much as a sit-up in weeks and I feel really flabby. So I really push myself. Little voice in the back of my mind says, "how come that swelling by your wisdom tooth hasn't gone completely away?" "What does it matter?" I reply, "The virus is either dead or dying. And I feel great."

Feb. 11 - Wtf! Wake up with searing muscle pain throughout my upper back and neck, and nerve sensitivity through the rest of my body. My head, for instance: the very jostling of the brain in its fluids can be felt, and it hurts. It's like I have whiplash mixed with the cold sweats. I get to work and the heat in the building isn't working. I spend the morning shivering and aching. I use my precious lunch break to go home and put long underwear on. By the evening I'm completely sick again.

Feb. 15 - Flash forward four days. Thanks to my new girlfriend Advil, I made it through the work week, having survived another stretch of body pain by light and jungle sweats by dark. It's almost become a way of life for me, this sweating through my sheets every night: the waking up to towel off, the extra loads of laundry every day. It's been going on for so long now, it seems I've never know any other way.

9 p.m. - I think the fever is breaking. I have big plans tomorrow to meet Kirst halfway between Chicago and here in a hotel room with a jacuzzi. It's going to be our belated Valentine's day and we haven't seen each other in weeks. So I decide to make myself a bowl of breakup soup (crushed blue corn tortilla chips and salsa, mixed together), kick it on the couch watching movies on my laptop, and turn in early. I go to bed feeling optimistic, like I've turned a corner again toward wellness, and proud of myself for getting to bed at a decent hour.

Feb. 16

7 a.m. - Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! AHHHHHHHHHH! I am woken by the heart attack I'm having. Or at least the suffocating pain in my chest and back. Pain that is all consuming. Is this the end? Does SARS Plus take me out like a little bitch, after I fought it so hard for so long?

I'm imagining the worst. My friends had gotten me all psyched out last week about my mouth infection, how it can spread to your brain. When they said it, I wrote it off as an urban legend, but now I was beginning to wonder? Had the infection taken a canoe trip down my bloodstream, straight into my happy heart? Do I die here this morning, moaning into my mattress (I sleep on a mattress on the floor. I don't even get to die in a real bed!), clutching my chest in confusion, with chips and salsa breath?

I start surfing the net, in blinking pain. I find a site for home remedies, then a page for heartburn. I've never had heartburn, but there's a first time for everything and even though I'm pretty sure I'm dying, I still have enough logic left to doubt that my heart is really failing. I see "apples" and "vinegar" listed repeatedly on the forums. I find both in the kitchen, gobble them up, and wait, pacing the floor. After about 45 minutes, the pain has subsided enough that I consider lying back down to get some rest for the big day. On the way back to my room I glance at a mirror. Is that... pink eye? Oh, and hey Mr. Cold Sore, haven't seen you in a while. Nice day for you to drop by.

Let's take a minute to talk about Mr. Cold Sore. Mr. Cold Sore is herpes. Not the kind you get from questionable one night stands, the other kind. They say that 95% of people have it lying dormant at the base of their brain. Stress and illness make it erupt and I guess that for normal people this means cute little cold sores that are closer to large pimples. But for me, an outbreak that is untreated results in a disfiguring, elephant-man-like swelling of the upper lip and under-nose. Mr. Cold Sore rips open the flesh of my face and grows pizza out of it. It is so extreme that no amount of exaggeration here can make you believe its hideousness. Its like a thick, throbbing crustacean clinging to the space where a mustache would go, complete with barnacles and its own heartbeat. It rarely gets to this point, mostly because I found one - and ONLY one - thing that'll kill it, this cream called Zovirax. But one time I had an outbreak while the band was touring and didn't have my precious Zovirax on me. The guys still don't like to talk about what they saw.

So anyway, it's Saturday morning and I see Mr. Cold Sore make an appearance. No big deal. I've got you covered, I think, taking out my Zovirax. "I will enjoy killing your ass," I say as I lather the fucker up in cold sore kryptonite. As for the pink eye, I decide to figure that little bit of good fortune out later, after some zzz's.

12:00 p.m. - My hearburn has mostly subsided, the cold sore is being nuked and my eye's a little red. I'm supposed to have brunch with an editor at the the Metro Times to meet and talk about feature writing. We've already rescheduled twice this week because of some car trouble, so I don't even think about canceling. Besides, I don't have his phone number.

12:50 p.m. - The editor is kind of looking at me in disbelief as I try to casually list the soap opera of pain that has become my body recently. "Hearburn? At 31? That's like old man shit," he says. Later, he lights up a smoke, after asking if I mind. I don't. But he starts to notice my eye blinking a mile a minute. "Are you sure you're ok with the smoke?" he asks, "Your eye looks really red." I feel like I should be quarantined. Later, when we are saying our goodbyes, I notice he doesn't shake my hand. Smart guy. He knows a leper when he sees one.

1:00 p.m. - I need some eyedrops for this pink eye. But I don't have any health insurance. So I'm racing around town making calls to people I know with kids. What really stings - besides my eye - is that a) I am a People With a Kid and b) a few weeks ago, I thought Claire had pink eye, got a prescription from the doctor for the drops, and then held off on filling it to see if it really was pink eye. It wasn't, but why didn't I get the drops anyway? It wasn't like they weren't going to come in handy anyway down the line. Like now! And I threw away the prescription!! This completely boneheaded decision was made while I was in the grip of SARS Plus, by the way, and would prove to be the first of a series of poor, poor choices, the rest of which were about to start flowing fast and furious.

1:15 - Driving to a family friend who has some drops for me, I glance over at the seat and see some Moist Wipes that I use to clean Claire's face and hands before dropping her off at day care. "Anti-bacterial" the packaging says. Hmmm, I think. Isn't pink eye a bacterial infection? Why don't I use those Moist Wipes to clean the gunk off my eyelashes and, hey, if a little gets in my eye, it's anti-bacterial. Bonus!

4:15 - Leaving to meet Kirst. I'm now barely able to open my left eye, but am resting in the confidence that action has been taken, drops have been applied, and all that remains is for the miracle of modern medicine to take its course. Plus, I'm secretly congratulating myself on my resourcefulness. I managed to meet my own medical needs without paying a cent. I coast onto the freeway in good spirits, with one working eye and a dab of cream under my nose that looks like a wad of pearly white snot. I head west on I-696. Never mind that Kirsten is waiting for me in a hotel off I-94. Never mind that we've been to this hotel together several times before, and that I know where fucking Kalamazoo is. SARS Plus is in control, and so I take I-696 toward Lansing.

6:00 - After realizing the exit number I was looking for didn't exist, I call Kirst and that's when we both come to the sad, inescapable conclusion that, though I should by now have been minutes from the hotel room, I am actually an hour and a half north of where she's waiting. This hurts possibly worse than anything SARS Plus has done to me so far.

7:30 - I arrive finally. She is, literally, a sight for sore eyes. I've never seen anything prettier. Whereas I must look amazing - in a bad way - with my bloody eye and nose cream. But Kirst never lets on. It is the greatest Valentine's day (even though belated) of my life. She has brought me gifts, including three bags of blue corn tortilla chips and a large vat of salsa. I tell her I'll pass on the chips and salsa.

Feb. 17 - Driving home the next morning, my eye has swollen shut. Guess those eye drops are still doing their thing. I take the Moist Wipes and clean off the outside of my eyelashes. Despite all that's happened, I'm still feeling unexplainably, irrationally positive. I've got a fresh cup of crack drink, just spent an amazing night with my lady, and am going home to pick up the Bear. Everything is going to be ok. Still, maybe it wouldn't hurt to stop at one of those walk-in clinics. See where they weigh in on all this mess.

4:00 p.m. At the Royal Oak Medical Clinic. My eye is now dripping quite a bit. And hurting. And a lot more swollen. Something, I think, is not as it should be. I see a doctor, and he knows I have no insurance (i.e. no tests are done), listens to my story, takes my word for it that I have pink eye, and tells me not to use the drops I've been using. They could have been contaminated. For the SARS Plus, he gives me a script for a free antibiotic that you can get at Meijer, and a sample of another antibiotic, in eye-drop form, for the pink eye. This doctor is all poker face, all the time. I see a sign on the wall for pectoral implants and ask if if he has time to pencil me in for one today. Without cracking a smile, but acknowledging the joke with his eyes, he says, "No, not today."

This all gives me a new level of confidence. An actual doctor has been seen. Consultations have occurred. I haven't quite been diagnosed, but he didn't panic when he saw my eye. Plus, I now have an honest-to-goodness antibiotic, my first in over 15 years. Time to kick this SARS Plus's ass, once and for all. On the way home I glance at the back of the Moist Wipes, the part where it says "avoid contact with eyes." Oops.

Feb. 18 - Monday. President's Day. Thank god its a work holiday. There is no way I could have gone in today. You see, I proofread for a living and, though I didn't think this was even possible, my eye is actually WORSE. The lid is more swollen, and parts of the face too. And it stings like the dickens. At the rate I'm at, I'll look like this soon:

And the eyeball itself feels like it's being squeezed in a nutcracker. Also, it feels like my cornea is scratched or something. My eye is weeping fluid non-stop but, oddly, there is no classic pink-eye crust. Meanwhile, I'm doing my best to tend to Claire (nothing a few new dolls won't fix) and washing my hands every two minutes like I'm going for the gold medal in OCD. There's no way Claire's getting pink eye from me, I'm thinking, and if this spreads to the other eye, I'm fucked. Driving, for instance, would be one of the essential activities I could no longer do. Let alone working. And this is a crucial work week. To qualify for HEALTH INSURANCE I need to log at least 20 hours to have accrued my fourth full-time work week. That's how it works at my contract agency. So tomorrow, maybe, I could think about taking off. But if I don't work Wed.-Fri. I'll have to wait another month to be eligible for crucial, life-saving benefits.

I flush my eyes with water and a rinse solution. This brings some temporary relief. But whenever I put the Dr. Poker Face's drops in, my eye explodes. I put off going back in to the clinic however, thinking I need to at least give the medicine over 24 hours to take effect.

Feb. 19 (This morning) - I call in sick at work. The eye isn't better. If anything, it's worse. I put a knit cap on with a brim and pull it low to hide my quasi-moto eye, and then drop Claire off at daycare. When I'm about to walk out the door I'm overcome with affection for my little bear and so I bend down for a kiss, the first bit of actual contact we've had in days, but she chooses to blow me a kiss instead. I guess even 4-year olds know a leper when they see one.

10:00 a.m. - I pass out in the waiting room at the clinic. My head feels submerged in water and I can barely keep my good eye open or think. When they wake me up to be seen by the doctor, they're looking at me funny. I'm not taken to the traditional little checkup rooms they used the other day, I'm taken to a little section behind a screen they pull aside that looks more ready for battle.

I fail the vision test that I passed two days previous. The doctor puts dye in my eye and looks at it under a blacklight. "You've got abrasions on your cornea," he says. "You mean I scratched it?" I ask. "Maybe," he replies. "Or it could be from a virus." Meaning a virus could have opened gashes in my eye, much the way that Mr. Cold Sore opens them on my face. He explains that he doesn't know if it's pink eye after all, and wants me to see an ophthalmologist that he'll refer me to. He wants me to go immediately. The first clinic visit was $100. The second, they only charge me $75, but he tells me the ophthalmologist will be another $75.

I ask him if I'm contagious. He says yes. I tell him that I really need to work the next few days. He says I can be religious about washing my hands, but if I'm going to be in contact with others, it's risky and I should stay home. This is the worst news of all.

2:00 p.m. - The ladies at the optomologist take instant pity on me. First the receptionist, then the one who gets me prepped. The latter is old enough to be my mom, but I flirt with her, because flirting with old ladies is how I do. Plus, even with half an eye and a water brain, I like to keep people guessing. She puts a numbing drop in my left eye and tells me I'm going to love her for it, but then hate her later when I can't get it any more from her. It's all true. I tell her the whole complicated story, doing my best not to leave anything out. But honestly, my brain is mush. It's floating in hot, SARS Plus juice.

Eventually the doctor comes in. He's like a better looking version of Rick Moranis. He brushes up on the notes of my case, then sticks my face in a contraption with a microscope attached to it. It looks like something out of Brazil. He prods my eye in different directions. He finds out some interesting things. Like that it hasn't spread to my right eye, which pink eye definitely would have. He consults the chart. Then uses the microscope thing again. Does a "hmmm" to himself. Does the microscope thing again. He seems stumped, which worries me. Then the microsocpe thing again, and he gets it. I can tell, though he hasn't told me. He goes back to the chart and starts scribbling away. Eventually, he spills the beans. "What you have is herpes in your eye. 95% of people have this virus lying dormant in the base of their brain, and then stress or illness brings it out. It usually shows up in the nose or lip. In rare cases, it can get in the eye. The pink eye drops you've been taking have steroids in them. Some of those medicines are built to beef the bug up before killing it. In your case, it was just beefing it up. So quit taking those drops. I'm going to write you a new prescription for drops for the eye herpes [he doesn't actually call it "eye herpes"] and you have to take them every two hours. But the thing is, this drug can't be used indefinitely because it will eventually do damage. So I have to see you back in here in 2-3 days."

"Am I contagious?" I ask. He says, technically yes, but not in the same way pink eye is. Don't rub faces with anybody at work, if somebody brings in cookies don't take any, and I should be fine. Yes!

On the way out, the lady who prepped me, who has taken a maternal interest in me it seems, is helping me get checked out with the receptionist. "I'm just glad it's not pink eye," I say, for reasons she doesn't understand. She stops and gives me a hard look. "What you have is much, much worse than pink eye. It could actually damage your vision. Be very careful about this." Dear god, I just want to be healthy again.

The drug they tell me to get is $120. And this is where I win one against the system. My brothers and I were all three given the same first name: Robert. All our lives this has plagued us from issues with credit bureaus to having to hear "hey, just like George Foreman!" more times than we can count. But today, TODAY, it finally comes in handy. With James Bond-like cool, I walked into the drugstore where my brother's info is stored, submitted a script written out to Robert Johnson, gave them my brother's date of birth and phone number, my brother who is fully insured, and walked out with my Eye Herpes Killer Drops for the bargain rate of $10.

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