Off to the Hospital

Nineteenth Century Medicine

[This series of posts over the next few weeks tell of why I haven’t posted since August. If it’s too depressing, feel free to skip them over.]

Well, I’m back. Ready to tell the story of the stroke I had on October 19. Weirdly, typing is painful in ways I never would have expected. Sometimes it requires medication, sometimes medication stronger than Tylenol. I try to avoid painkiller.

But let me tell this from the beginning.

On Thursday, October 19, I was struggling to make peace between two good friends. We’d known each other for about forty-five years, and had been through much together. Now they were fighting and I wanted to smooth things over. For about six hours I talked and negotiated, and as one might guess I got nothing but grief for my effort because, as you know, Bob, no good deed goes unpunished. Then, in the midst of this, my daughter came into my office and accused me of setting the thermostat too high. The thermostat was new, a fancy-schmancy smarthouse sort of thing, and we’d spent about a week trying to figure out how to set it so we wouldn’t have to keep fooling with it. So I went to see what I could do.

I don’t do numbers well. I was already stressed out and exhausted from a day of failing to make peace, and now I was supposed to figure out this unfamiliar technology. I’m generally pretty good at assimilating new things, but, you know…numbers. My daughter had her brother on the phone, and they were both trying to tell me what to do while I struggled to think and listen at the same time. Suddenly my upper lip went tingly-numb.

My first thought was “stroke,” but the numbness went away after about sixty seconds. Huh. I was accustomed to neuropathy in my feet, and that’s what this felt like. So I went back to what I was doing, reset the thermostat, and continued my chat with my friends. I did take a BP reading, and it was high enough I should have gone straight to the ER, but the numbness was gone so I decided I didn’t want to go to the ER just to be sent home again. I don’t have money for that sort of thing.

The following morning I woke up with no feeling at all in my lower-right face and my right hand. I knew something was terribly wrong, but I still didn’t think it was a stroke. I thought strokes always involved muscle weakness or cognitive difficulty. To me, this felt exactly like I’d slept weird on one side, or the peripheral neuropathy I’ve had in my feet for nearly a decade. Business as usual. So I waited for it to go away, as it had the night before.

The following day the numbness was still there. It began to scare me. It wasn’t getting worse, but it wasn’t getting better, either. I called my son to take me to the ER, but ended up changing my mind. I still wasn’t convinced it was a stroke, and knew how much it would cost for an MRI or CT scan. I didn’t go to the ER.

The next morning my English handbells group was to play in church. I knew I wouldn’t have any trouble playing; I could still read and move. But when I arrived at the church and I learned one of the bells needed its rubber clapper spring replaced immediately, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to just tough this thing out. I was the only player who was sufficiently skilled at replacing bell springs, and I knew my lack of sensation in my right hand was going to keep me from succeeding at this. I talked another player through it, and decided that I needed to go to the ER as soon as we were done playing that morning.

I ducked out of the service as soon as I could, went home, and asked my daughter to take me to the ER. First I had to contact my insurance provider to find out whether there was an in-network hospital nearby.

The Hendersonville Medical Center (TriStar) ER is where my brother died in 2001, and is also where he was sent home with no diagnosis two months earlier for having no insurance. In short, as I’ve mentioned here before, my brother died for lack of coverage. It was more than creepy going into that place, and I couldn’t help wondering whether the room I was in was the room he’d been in when they’d tried to revive him. And there I waited, accompanied by my daughter.

I went through the usual, vitals, bloodwork, heart monitor, etc. Then I was taken out for a CT scan (my grandson is called CT, and I wish they still called them CAT scans), which was a breeze.  After some more waiting in the room, a neurologist came to tell me he had a pretty good idea I’d had a small thalamic stroke. But he wanted to see an MRI to make certain.

MRIs aren’t so bad. I’d heard they were loud and scary. The operator carefully explained to me what was going to happen, and I was able to ask questions. (Will I be able to rest my arms, or will I have to hold them up?) Then they slid me into the VERY small opening in the machine. My only moment of panic was when my shoulders touched the sides of the tube and I didn’t know how narrow it was going to be. But once I stopped moving and was able to find a spot for my arms, I was able to close my eyes and practice being still. I awaited the noise I’d heard so much about.

Wasn’t so much. Yeah, it was loud, but not startlingly or overwhelmingly so. They’d told me it was going to take awhile, but I was able to drift off in the rhythm of whack-whack-whack, and the scan was punctuated by two or three pauses. More boring than scary.

Back in the room that my brother may have died in, we waited some more. My husband called, and I updated him. Then we had to have the Living Will conversation. I didn’t have one, and since we were probably dealing with a stroke but didn’t know anything else about it, I had to tell him no machines. I wanted to be DNR. It was pretty upsetting for all of us, but it had to be said. And I made a mental note to do some legal paperwork once I had the chance. It came home to me that death wasn’t the worst thing that could happen in a hospital.

The stroke was confirmed, and I was admitted. The cash register in my head went, “Ka-ching.” More frightening than the MRI noise.

Since my arrival at about noon, I’d been asking about getting something to eat, because I hadn’t eaten since early the day before. But when they wheeled me to my room I was told it would be awhile before they would do the eating test that would determine whether I could chew without choking. I waited. It was nearly midnight before I was given the test and awarded a small turkey sandwich. Still polite, I didn’t complain about the tiny piece of bread and single slice of processed turkey. I waited for breakfast the next morning.

Food service was somewhere around 7:30, and I was beginning to feel light headed and cranky. I kept asking when it would arrive, and nobody seemed to know. Finally, about three hours after I woke up, a tray came. I could smell the sausage from the hallway.

My tray, however, contained a bottle of Ensure, some Jell-O, and a bowl of grits.

I lost it. Entirely. I’m a diabetic, and there was nothing on my tray I could consume without having a sugar spike. And…for God’s sake…grits? Furthermore, there wasn’t enough food on the tray to put a dent in my hunger, even if I had been able to eat it. I’m afraid I wasn’t very gentle in my request for a real breakfast.

The kitchen responded with a single scrambled egg and some orange juice.

The egg was fine, though not nearly enough. Orange juice has been off my diet for years, because it’s extremely high in sugar. What part of “I’m a diabetic” did they not get?

By this time I was frantic. I complained to the nurse and wanted to know what in bloody blue blazes was going on. She had no information, which is retrospect was probably a lie. I insisted on actual food. They sent someone (I forget her title) to talk to me.

It turned out that some doctor (probably the hospitalist, who turned out to be a true nitwit when I finally met him) had decided that, because I was a stroke patient, I should be on a liquid diet. Never mind that I’d passed the eating test the night before, this guy who had never laid eyes on me decided to put this diabetic on a liquid diet that was 100% carbohydrate. More on him later.

So when my lunch tray came it was still the liquid diet, but I was told to eat what I could from that tray and a real lunch would follow soon. So I wolfed the turkey soup (yes, you can wolf soup if you’re hungry enough), which was the only thing on the tray I could tolerate. Soon after another tray came with a sandwich, salad, and other goodies. I finally felt human again.

On the subject of that day’s hospitalist, here’s why he’s not getting paid by me. He did finally come by my room that afternoon, and informed me that he didn’t like my cholesterol numbers and he’d prescribed Lipitor for me. I informed him that I won’t take Lipitor because I saw what it had done to my husband. I have a long history of bad side effects and searching down the right medications, and won’t take anything that is likely to make me sick. No Lipitor for me.

He argued with me. I argued back and wondered out loud why Lipitor was the only thing he had. I asked for an alternative, but his response was to tell me he was prescribing it and I didn’t have to take it if I didn’t want to. When I asked him, “Is that all you’ve got?” He reached for his phone, pretended to take a call, wandered away, and I never saw him again.

When I saw his bill, which was an outrageous amount, I threw it in the trash. He’ll not see a dime out of my pocket.

I spent a total of two days in the hospital. I’m not sure what the purpose was of the second day, except maybe they just wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to go home and start bleeding again. My meds and diet haven’t changed, though I’m more mindful of keeping stress levels low. (Yeah, right. See next rock.)

It’s been five months, and I now have sensation in my face and hand. At first it was terrible pain, but the pain has eased off somewhat and it’s now just an uncomfortable sensation. Like burning, whenever I touch something. I’m told it may eventually go away entirely, and at least for now it’s tolerable.