I’ve had a mastectomy, I warned the nurse who was bending over me to open my gown and place sticky electrodes on me for the EKG. “Hmmm?” she asked, pausing a moment in case there was something she didn’t fully understand. Just warning you, I said, since I’ve apparently scared nurses before, and they didn’t react well. “Oh, honey,” she told me, “No problem. I worked in oncology for years before I came down here. I’ve seen it all.” We made chit-chat about the hospital’s oncology ward, one of the better ones, and one where they really take a look at the needs of the whole person. I remembered a good experience I’d had up there, with a Reiki-performing chaplain, and lay calmly while she smiled, finished attaching electrodes and performed the test. “Another nurse will be right in.”
And with that, Nurse #3 swept in, not bothering to take my history (the first two didn’t either) or ask me questions beyond, “Trouble breathing?” before she told me that she would be inserting an IV for the CT scan. I have chemo veins, I told her. I’m a tough stick, because the chemo shriveled my veins. “Oh, that’s no problem. I can stick anyone,” she scoffed, and took a look at my arm. I showed her which vein usually works, and which one they used for my bloodwork on Monday, at the oncologist. She swabbed the inside of my elbow, and stabbed at a vein. She didn’t get it. She stabbed again, slightly farther up on the same vein. This time, she got it, but she couldn’t get a flow started. (Chemo veins.) She wiggled the end in the vein, trying to get blood to flow. (Ouch.) After a few moments that felt like hours, I began to have trouble.
I’m going to pass out, I warned her. I knew I would, because I have before when they’ve had trouble with my veins. (I had also warned her of the possibility before we started, but she blew that off too.) I’m getting closer, I warned her. My husband looked into my eyes and said, “Stay with us, honey. She’s working on it.” The nurse stabbed another vein, the one that had just been used on Monday. It didn’t work. I continued to talk, trying to keep myself upright, and telling them that I was passing out, because I was.
When I came to, my husband was there, looking calmly into my eyes and speaking. The nurse was frantically stabbing my arm, having stopped only because he asked her to, knowing that I would awake with a jolt. The doctor swept in, asking what was going on, as the nurse continued to try to get a vein. I wasn’t okay, I told her. I couldn’t feel my feet or my hands. And it was getting worse. As I began to lose consciousness again, the doctor lowered my head (I was still propped up!) and directed my husband to hold up my feet. He held me up and gently put his hand on my legs, to let me know that he was there, with me, supporting me.
The nurse continued to try to get a vein. I can’t feel my legs from the knees down, I said, and I can’t feel my hands. I can’t feel my elbows. I can’t feel my legs at all now. What’s happening? I’m scared. I’m going to pass out again. I’m scared. I kept talking as if somehow that would help. As if by communicating what was happening inside my body they could stop it from the outside. I could see the nurse bending over my poor arm, having no luck with the IV stick at all, although she insisted she just needed another minute. I could hear the doctor, standing at my head, saying, “I’m going to stick it in her neck.” I could hear myself saying, no, not my neck. That was so bad before. Don’t let them put it in my neck. The nurse tried one more time, getting a vein, but the IV bag wouldn’t flow quickly enough, and then I began to lose consciousness again.
“Her blood pressure is dropping!” said someone, one of the many nurses who had somehow appeared, crowding the room, “Heart rate 28,” said another. “Get the crash cart!” yelled the doctor. “Where should I put the contrast drinks?” asked a nurse hovering on the edges. “Not now,” said the doctor, and repeated, “Where is the crash cart? Go. Get. The. Crash. Cart.” As they worked on me, all I could see were worried faces and bent heads, and I continued losing feeling in my legs and arms. “I’m going to stick this in your neck, now,” said the doctor, “I have no choice.” As it went in, I hardly felt it, although I sure remembered the fear from the time before. “I’ve almost got it!” said the nurse, but thankfully the doctor didn’t listen, and started IV fluids through my neck, in addition to the two flowing into my arm. “Wide open,” she directed, squeezing the topmost IV fluid bag tight, and then “Her pressure is 40 over 20. WHERE IS THAT CRASH CART?” It must have come in then, because they slapped the paddles on me (Did you know they’re like stickers now? Although they do cover most of your chest.) as the doctor directed, for the third or fourth time, “She needs a room. She needs a room NOW.”
I would find out later that I needed a room because they didn’t have the appropriate monitoring equipment in the first exam area, and they needed to see my blood pressure and heart rate return to normal. Which it wasn’t.
I’m a little fuzzy on what happened next, but I was soon being wheeled down the hall into an ER room, with new nurses, and the return of the CT nurse, telling me to drink the contrast, when I couldn’t even sit up … or feel my arms or legs, from my belly button on down. I was in no shape to go take a test, and my husband stood between the nurse and me and said,
“Get the doctor. I want the doctor to clear her for this test before you take her away. She just had a problem, and I want to be sure that everyone knows her status before she drinks anything.” The CT nurse skittered away, with a mumbled comment, but the doctor soon returned. I’m so cold, I said, and they layered blanket after blanket from the warmer on me, and my husband (I wish I could use his name here, but you all know I don’t) held my hand and stayed with me, telling me that I would be okay.
I asked about the kids. I asked for stories of the kids. I wanted to hear that they were okay with the friend we’d left them with (I knew they were), that they were happy, and I wanted to focus on them and how much I loved them and how much I wanted to pull through this and be with them once more. He told me story after story, distracting me, helping me focus on them while I warmed up, while my blood pressure rose, while things returned, at last, to normal. Nurses came in and out, but I didn’t see them. I didn’t hear them. All I could hear was my husband, the love of my life, telling me about our children, the loves of our lives, and how we would be home soon.
And in that way, my temperature slowly rose. My blood pressure returned to a low normal. The boules of saline rushed into my veins unnoticed and my body returned to the body I’d known before.
The imperfect, scarred, swollen, uncomfortable body I’d known before, and I settled back into it, grateful that I could feel it again, hopeful that I would be okay, and would be back in time for the children’s bedtime, and I could snuggle them to sleep once again.
We spent another six hours in the ER after that, having tests and waiting for results, but finally I was cleared to go home. The tests were negative. No pulmonary embolism. No metastasis. But still, it would take days to fully recover from my bad day at the ER.