Each day, I awake and feel immense gratitude that another day unfolds before me. Each day that I awake is like a gift from Heaven.
Many of us feel this way as we age. Most of us think of death as something that will come to us with a long enough warning to allow us to put affairs in order (if we have procrastinated), and will give us plenty of opportunities to say our good-byes and bring closure to our relationships with those closest to us. Many of us barely think that a freak of events can cause us to die completely unexpectedly–a traffic accident, a weak tree branch suddenly falling on us and cracking our skull, a random drive-by shooting in a safe neighborhood, a heart-attack when no one is around to revive us or call 911. So many ways in which our lives can end instantaneously by simple acts of Fate.
Me–well, I have recently had a series of medical issues, but the worst of them is a case of diverticulosis–“sacs” in the colon–that we almost all get as we age; but mine is particularly “delicate” because the sacs are fist-sized, and there are at least four of them on the left side of my colon. Each collects bodily waste that can cause infection or become toxic and, if suddenly “twisted”, colon death. If any of the sacs suddenly bursts, due to their size and the probability of setting off a chain reaction, I will bleed out in five minutes or less–all without any warning, and too quickly for even the fastest emergency medical response team or ambulance crew to do anything about.
But you can have surgery, you’re thinking. Well, I’m planning on it. However, there are other complications. Two months earlier, I suffered a completely unanticipated two bouts with three bleeding ulcers that sent me to the local hospital for transfusion–four units the first time, two more units less than a week after the first. When I was released from the hospital, the only advice I was given was to rest and eat a bland diet for at least 6 months. It seems that no one thought about iron supplements, but that’s a whole different story, and I blame myself for not seeing my internist soon enough to discuss dietetic and supplemental options.
About six weeks after this series of ulcer-related problems, I noticed that I was getting weaker instead of stronger. I was trying to strengthen up with exercises in the community pool, but found that I could do less with each session. Then one morning, I sat in my car for about a minute before putting my car into reverse and realized I wasn’t sure which pedal was the break and which the gas. Once I got that straight through trial and error while in neutral, I drove to the neighboring city where I ended up shopping for groceries instead of meeting up with a friend (her mix-up this time, not mine). In the store, I began to experience incidents of dizziness that were apparently noticeable enough that my favorite “bag boy” interrupted his packing for another customer and hurried down the aisle I was shopping in to ask if I was OK. I told him I was a little dizzy, and that maybe I was done with shopping for the day. I drove home very slowly, noticing that I was driving like I was inebriated–taking curves wide on our narrow roads, stopping a little to close to the car ahead of me, driving toward the middle of the road instead of in my lane (as I said, very narrow roads here on the island), moving too far from parked vehicles, etc. Clearly, it was time to visit my doctor, which I did the next day. The office sent me for blood tests–but that took several more days to do mostly because of the crazy laboratory hours related to certain tests. By the time I had blood drawn, we were preparing for a trip to a neighboring island for a conference related to my husband’s work. I was feeling poorly enough at that point where I just wanted to cancel my flight reservations and stay home. He became very insistent that I accompany him, and I didn’t have the strength to argue too long–although I was very unhappy with the fact that he would not accept my desire to stay home.
So we traveled to St. Kitt’s (St. Christopher Island), picked up the rental car, and I had an accident less than a block from the rental agency–nothing serious, just ripped off mirrors and a few scratches. Now, part of the problem–most of it, possibly–was because St. Kitt’s driving is of the British persuasion–one drives on the left. It’s not that I don’t know how to drive “British”–have done so in the middle of England’s small twisty roads in the dark, fog, and rain, driving a car with a manual transmission (thank goodness the gears were in the same place, just accessible by the wrong hand); and maneuvered triple round-abouts that left me white-knuckled and mummy-stiff. What I believe happened is that my perception was totally off–effects of the anemia I didn’t know about yet. Well, three hours and one new rental later, we were on our way to our resort hotel, where the car stayed parked until we returned to the airport.
Each day, I was feeling more and more ill, managing to contract some form of bronchitis while there, as well. The next day (Monday), I drove to the internist’s office for the lab results. She took one look at the red blood cell count (64) from the week before and would not even let me drive the half kilometer home to pick up some night clothes and toiletries. My husband, who does not drive, called a co-worker to take me to the hospital from the doctor’s office, and there was an amusing series of events as Joe’s two colleagues planned how to get my car home and me to the hospital as quickly as possible.
The moment I got to the emergency room (the doctor had called ahead), I was checked into the hospital and immediately transfused with a unit of blood. The assumption was that my ulcers had started acting up again, but the next day’s endoscopy showed they were healing quite well and not actively giving me trouble. Two days later, after a double cleansing of my lower GI tract, and after finding no evidence of residual blood in the “output,” I finally received a colonoscopy. That’s when the fist-sized sacs (they looked a lot like volcanic craters in one rendering) were discovered. But my blood count was still down, with both red and white blood cells “disappearing” in balanced proportions; and the doctors were left completely baffled. Before releasing me on Friday, I was transfused overnight with two more units of blood given at a snail’s pace drip (6 hours per unit to enter my system).
In the meantime, I was being given massive doses of antibiotics–first as injections, then switched to fast IV drips–three to four times a day, treating an eye/sinus infection, and used prophylactically to prevent my own bronchitis from turning into pneumonia.
But the worst part for me was this: because of my low blood count, surgery is out of the question until the count enters the normal range. Also, because of the size and nature of the sacs, any one of them can burst just for the heck of it, and that would cause me to bleed out too quickly to save my life. If my blood count were normal, surgery would have been scheduled immediately, and I would have been flown to the US for the surgery. Although I was finally prescribed massive doses of iron in tablet form, the doctors still don’t know where my blood cells are going. I suspect I have a tiny black hole somewhere in my body that eats only blood cells and sends them to some alternate universe–probably to some lab that is studying human anatomy or something. As a friend suggested, maybe my body has simply decided to stop producing blood cells, which raises a bunch of other serious questions.
So, for now, I live each day one day at a time, not knowing if I will survive the day or receive the gift of awaking the next morning. There’s a much greater limit now to how much I can accomplish in a given day. Despite being cautioned not to drive, we live in an area too remote to keep me out of my car. I do as much as possible during the morning, when my strength seems to be greatest and my ability to maneuver the car is at its best. Because most volunteer work is in the afternoon, I have done very little during the past several weeks. Although I try very hard to remain positive during the day, I tend to get cranky and speak too bluntly, especially when I have no strength to either play silly social interaction “games” or am simply too tired to hold back comments or use my energy to say things nicely (especially since no one seems to understand my meaning when I obfuscate just enough to keep things pleasant). Being “nice” simply takes too much effort sometimes; and frankly, I have found that bluntness is much more effective in getting meaning across, even if it causes people to get angry. Yes, I try to be blunt nicely, but there are far too many people who don’t really listen to what any one of us says, even if we are answering a question they asked and (logically) should want to hear the answer. They don’t. But that’s another topic.
One day at a time, and immense gratitude for each new day. That’s the way I function now. I do what I can, rest when I need, eat when my phone alarm reminds me it’s meal time, make certain my meals are fiber-rich, drink plenty of herbal teas, consume my ginger drink, etc. I take my medications at the right time, although I often forget about my Restasis® and Patenol® eye drops, and try to do all the normal little things of life. In general, I follow the same pattern my father followed when he knew his aneurysm would kill him when he least expected it. And it did–while he was in the middle of the mundane task of preparing his cup of coffee and breakfast.
To dwell on death is absurd–Death comes for each of us when s/he feels our time is over. There’s no escaping that. There is only time to set our affairs in order (hopefully), and to live each day as though it were our last. For me, until and if my blood count allows for the surgery, that living is especially important. I still haven’t visited all the beaches on this beautiful island…