I thought I was just tired. Raising three kids and managing a nursing unit can make anybody tired. But, then it became fatigue, lethargy. A fog settled around me. A fog of pain. It persisted; I would find myself at a stoplight and wonder how I got there. I told my teenager, I cannot drive your friends anymore. I was afraid, afraid of an accident. It became harder to function, I felt I was swimming, my fog had become a swamp.
I was seeing a doctor, a rheumatologist. Or so he called himself. He never deigned to touch me, I realized. How to examine my joints if he never touched me? I was sicker every time I saw him, yet he didn’t see it. “I am not a pill pusher,” he said to me in the open office area. I had no idea why he’d said that, I had not said anything and we had not talked about pills. I find that amazing. I am a registered nurse, yet in the initial darkness of my illness, I didn’t question.
One day my left hand was so swollen, I could not touch my thumb to any of my fingers. I could not close my hand. He took one look and ordered a cortisone shot be given to me. I could not unbutton the cuff of my sleeve. I could not grasp the button. The nurse did it for me and injected my arm. The next morning I bounded out of bed like it was twenty years in the past. It was a heady feeling, mobility. I could move! I could get out of bed without first planning how to minimize the pain of moving. It was wonderful! I became drunk on painless motion.
Of course, that only lasted a few days, the euphoria of pain-free motion slowly wore off as the pain and swelling returned. I went back to the doctor. He had x-rays taken of my hands and feet. “You have a pretty good case of arthritis in your hands,” he said. I thought about my sewing and quilting, my work as a nurse.
“I need my hands,” I said.
“Everybody does,” was his impatient response.
He recommended an over the counter anti-inflammatory and hand soaks. He said, “You have osteoarthritis and you might have Rheumatoid Arthritis, a double whammy.” Yet, he basically did nothing.
I went to see my primary physician. I requested a referral to a different rheumatologist. “He’s going to kill me,” I told him.
I had to wait two months to see the new rheumatologist. My condition deteriorated slowly. Two weeks before my appointment, I woke up feeling sick to my stomach. I had no energy, sitting up in bed was an effort. Something felt very wrong. I rested in the morning; I had to work that evening. Finally after lunchtime, I got up to shower, thinking that might make me feel better. I ran out of breath in the shower. The room spun around me. I gasped for air.
I managed to call my unit, I managed to form the words.”I can’t come in, I’m sick.” My chest felt in a vise; there was no room for oxygen, the harder I tried to breathe, the less air I got. At the ER, they whisked me into the back. Within seconds there was an army of people around me, sticking needles into me, sticking Nitroglycerin under my tongue, sticking EKG leads onto my body, sticking a nasal cannula in my nose.
I watched it all as if it was happening to someone else. How was it possible that it was me on that gurney? I was used to being the one rendering care, not the one receiving it. There was silence amidst the cacophony. I had crossed to the other side.