…is when you get really, really sick.
(Warning: long post)
About three weeks ago, I developed mild cramps in my lower abdomen (at the wrong time of the month). I ignored it for a day, until it got so bad the next evening I couldn’t keep a straight face at work. Panadol and warm drinks didn’t work. My boss let me off early to look for a doctor. T met me at the train station and walked with me.
Lots of prodding and poking later, I tested negative for tumors, cysts, colds, food poisoning and movement-related muscle injury. I was sent home with anti-inflammatory painkillers, despite which the pain only grew worse and I could barely eat or sleep for 2 days. Luckily this was a Thursday, so I only had to take Friday off work while the pain subsided slowly over the weekend. A pee test revealed zero signs of infection, normal glucose and blood cell levels, and in fact, normal everything.
With the pain subsiding and all tests (including a follow-up) revealing no problems, I resumed work with the diagnosis ‘deep tissue strain’. Although I loved my work, ate well, exercised regularly and received sufficient sleep, my doctor suspected something was stressing me out to cause enough tension to spark off a severe strain.
I was back at work on Monday and soon no longer required painkillers, thinking that was that. By Saturday I felt well enough to attend my friend’s birthday party and even get a little dancing on.
A week later the pain flared up in my upper abdomen. I had been working out the night before and so dismissed it as normal muscle strains, wincing every now and then but still productive at work. Regular exercisers understand this: muscle strains are the kind of pain you grit your teeth and savour; a satisfying mark of sorts that you’ve had a great workout.
Over the weekend I developed a high fever. On Saturday my flatmate K brought food and water from the nearby grocery store while I lay in bed all day, taking Panadol, but on Sunday I felt slightly better and went grocery shopping on my own. Walking was torturous, but everything is within a short distance in my neighborhood. On Monday I felt great again, and was back at work.
On Wednesday, I woke up with a sharp stabbing pain in my side. It felt as though someone had stuck a dagger in and was slowly twisting the blade. I told my boss I’d be in late, and looked up the earliest-opening clinic in the neighborhood. I had no luck getting a cab, and walking was worse than ever but manageable, as I toddled along at octogenarian pace, trying to stand straight and look normal.
I was at the door 7 minutes before opening time at 8:30. The doctor saw my urgency and wasted no time, but after another round of poking around and lengthy interviews, also couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. He referred me to a surgeon and insisted I take the day off work.
The surgeon was a busy man, as was T, whose new job meant he could no longer visit or take care of me. His earliest appointment was 5pm, so I went home and tried to sleep. The pain prevented sleep and restricted movement.
At 4pm, I hailed a cab to the surgeon’s office although it was just 2 blocks away. An extensive ultrasound showed healthy, perfect organs. It could be nothing, or it could be something only more invasive tests would reveal. He advised admitting me into a hospital for a CT scan, but I decided to wait and see if the pain would subside. The surgeon shared a list of symptoms to look out for.
“If any of these symptoms turn up, you’re going to the hospital.”
30 hours later, the muscles right below my ribcage began to spasm uncontrollably. I could barely breathe or take a step without exclaiming out of pain as my muscles played a decidedly unfriendly game of tackle with my ribcage and the stabbing in my side pulsed along. The ‘emergency symptoms’ included unbearable pain, so I called up my doctor at 1am. To his credit he immediately started dialing numbers, but all his hospitals were full, except one which refused patients at night (what the fish!).
He asked me to take 2 more Panadol and wait till dawn. I was in severe pain, no one knew what was wrong with me, and had no option but to wait. I had avoided telling my mother up until then, not wanting her to worry too much as she was also nursing my grandma back to health after a stroke (grandma pulled through like a totally awesome champ) but at the moment all I wanted to do was talk to her.
Mother tried to calm me down. She trusted the doctor, and the painkillers, and the fighting spirit in my tone. She told me sleep would come soon, and that at dawn my doctor would be able to respond to this. 2 seconds after hanging up my father had been informed, and we had a lengthy conversation to establish all my symptoms. My father was decidedly less calm, and was browsing flight tickets online, insisting on flying over, but I insisted he stay put.
At a little past 7am I had packed up my clothes, books, moisturizer and insurance papers, and woke K up so she could help me across the street and hail me a cab. I checked myself in and asked the hospital to contact my surgeon. I felt thoroughly embarrassed when they put me in a wheelchair, but at that point I simply couldn’t walk normally.
The CT scan and X-ray, both simple, quick procedures, were awful. ‘Staying perfectly still’ is tough for someone in great pain. Throw in spasming muscles, the inability to raise my arms any higher than my waist because it felt like I was ripping my obliques clear in half (for a CT scan, you have to lay your arms flat over your head) and the genuine inability to straighten my back without absolute agony, and these simple painless tests become unbearable.
Oh, and the needles. The needles. I have a pretty bad case of aichmophobia, but almost everything I did required an injection of some sort. The quickest one was drawing my blood sample, which hardly hurt but made me almost pass out. For the CT scan, they had to lodge an IV needle into a vein in my wrist, which is attached to a tube, at the end of which there is a nozzle for inserting more needles. Just to test the IV, they first have to give me an injection of saline. Test injections! The humanity. Halfway through the CT scan, they used this IV valve to inject something called a contrast dye. The sensation of minty liquid gushing into your veins is unnerving enough under normal circumstances, but with the pain, trying to control my spasms without moving, and doing all I can to suppress the thought ‘needle in my wrist needle in my wrist NEEDLE IN MY WRIST’, I practically — muscle restrictions be damned — leaped out of the scanner bed as soon as the nurses walked in to cheerfully announce ‘okay you’re done now’.
The pale green in my face only went away when a nurse removed the IV needle.
Shortly after returning to my ward, I was practically convulsing. The pain and spasms were worse than ever. After contacting my doctor, the nurses came in with the delightful news that I would need yet another IV inserted into my wrist, to deliver intravenous painkillers, along with some Valium to stop my muscles from spasming. Every time a needle is involved, I turn my head away and mutter ‘one-one thousand, two-one thousand’ and so on, which to non-English speakers probably looked like praying.
The nurses were worried sick for me, and very sweetly cheered me up by crafting a makeshift glove out of gauze so that I wouldn’t be able to see the needles, which really did cheer me up immensely. The IV painkillers worked instantly.
My CT scan was clear, and my blood cell count, renal function and glucose levels were fantastically healthy. BP perfect, heart rate a little higher than usual (pain does that) but still normal. Everything was both reassuringly and frustratingly perfect. The surgeon demanded I be prepped for an endoscopy.
Between the tests, I was thankful what a nice hospital this was. Reasonably priced with wonderful, friendly, highly-efficient staff who were all extremely helpful and clearly very concerned with everyone’s comfort and well-being. Spotlessly clean and very modern facilities. High ratio of English-proficient staff. I had a John Grisham novel, the latest issue of TIME, s2k’s iPod to listen to soothing music, and my iPhone to surf the web and keep in touch with my darlings (I don’t like using my iPhone as an iPod — smart phones guzzle up battery life at lightning speeds). The temperature in my ward was perfect, and the curtains separating each patient had a beautiful silk-like pattern. The menu had a pretty great selection, even though I had to fast for at least 6 full hours (not even a drop of water!) prior to each test. I think my favourite thing was the motion-sensor flush in the bathroom. All I do is shove my palm in its general direction, and it immediately obeys with a powerful flush that goes ‘FWOOOMPSH’. It makes me feel like the Professor X of toilet flushes. Not the most glamorous superpower, but still plenty useful, eh? Ehhhhh?
The entire time, Dad, Mom, Jenny, K and my 2 closest dragon boat mates (L, our decided leader who is both super friendly and loads of fun, and A, a German health and fitness nut who was one of our strongest paddlers and someone I just plain found a lot of chemistry with) were in constant contact over the phone. K sweetly checked in every day offering to bring me anything I needed. A is a corporate bigshot and had loads of responsibilities that weekend, but called often, promising to visit as soon as he could. Dad, still anxious as heck, kept reminding me he could easily hop onto a plane, or if I preferred Mommy he could fly her over immediately too. I hate being fussed over, but every SMS and phone call left me smiling, and although the people I loved most in the world couldn’t physically visit, the thought that they wanted to, so badly, was an immense comfort.
Saturday afternoon I had an endoscopic biopsy. This basically means they shove a long tube down your throat to look into your digestive tract, plus nick a tissue sample—in my case, from my stomach lining. I wasn’t looking forward to it, but they assured me I would feel only the slightest discomfort because they would pump me with anesthetics. Unfortunately, the anesthetics didn’t work and I kept convulsing and gagging on the tube. When something’s shoved that far down your throat (mind out of the gutter, guys), you can’t say ‘stop’. I had to be restrained by 4 staff, but the procedure took less than a minute. Once the discomfort was over, I was worried about only one thing: did they get it? Did I ruin everything by struggling too much?
My doctor smiled his calm smile. “We got it.”
The anesthetic took hold a few hours too late, but still managed to do some good as I drifted into a hazy, wonderful, long nap.
I woke up with my appetite returned. Moments later I heard T’s voice calling from the entrance to my ward. He was here with a giant bag of goodies. Fresh perfect mangoes, croissants (my favourite), always-wonderful Macau egg tarts, pizza rolls, and a huge bag of Maltesers (which have become my favourite candy here for nostalgic reasons: it reminds me of a day years and years ago when Jenny and I snuck to a Swenson’s ice-cream parlour to share a giant Malteser shake). He stayed with me for as long as he could, explaining why he was so busy with his new job at a prestigious international school (they have very, very high standards and he was determined to deliver both great study materials for his new classes, as well as manage the many sports teams he’d been put in charge of). He had walked half a dozen blocks in the heat to find me.
While they ran the tests, I slept wonderfully from 10pm through to 6am, woke up starving for the first time in weeks, and devoured the rest of the croissants and pizza rolls T had brought so I could take another round of painkillers. When my surgeon strolled in at 8am, I was sitting up, reading, pain-free.
I had a diagnosis. My endoscopy showed nothing abnormal, but the biopsy tested positive for Helicobacter pylori.
H. pylori is a nasty stomach infection which throws up a very wide range of symptoms, many of which present outside of the stomach, thus making it a little bitch to diagnose. Getting ‘severe abdominal pains and muscle spasms’ was apparently great luck — it’s been known to cause stomach cancer and aggravating internal ulcers. I was cancer and ulcer free, and the cure was a huge cocktail of antibiotics, a photon pump suppressor, and tiny doses of Valium to keep the spasming at bay.
Pills, X-ray and a giant stack of CT scans in hand, I was discharged within the next 2 hours. Dad and RK, both men of science, will have fun poring over the CT scans, as well as the nifty little culture slide they made with my stomach biopsy (rapid urease test). I didn’t need a wheelchair when I walked out of the hospital, and by sheer luck, as soon as I hit the curb to hunt down a cab, one pulled up to drop off some visitors and I slipped right in after them.
A called, having just finished work (on a SUNDAY), anxious to visit, only to find I had been discharged. He dropped by to take me out to lunch. L had told him I was craving ice-cream in the hospital but no one would give me any, so he took me for frozen yogurt too, and we strolled around finishing our dessert before he walked me back to my door.
Me: Thanks for visiting me at the, er, hospital.
A: If you were still in the hospital, I would have showed up with flowers.
Me: Really? Darn! I mean, you didn’t have to :P
I admit, sometimes I feel all alone here in Hong Kong. After years of effort to build up so many meaningful relationships at home, I had left behind many varied but great networks of friends, and a family that had overcome some pretty deep gashes to finally become extremely happy, close and supportive again.
But real love, and real friendships, pull through when it counts. Sometimes your blessings reach you wherever you are. You just have to learn how to appreciate them.