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Sunday, January 20, 2013

She Almost Killed Me

I blogged recently about how much I hate being sick. I think we can all agree that being sick is no fun whatsoever. I happen to be one of those lucky lottery winners when it comes to getting sick. I often manage to get the really bad stuff. Shortly before I was diagnosed with lupus, I had my first experience with pneumonia. As I have said before, I am grateful that in those days I was completely ignorant about health issues. About all I really knew from experience was feeling good and feeling crappy.

When I experienced my first voyage to the land of pneumonia, I had it in both lungs. There was a hand-sized patch at the top of both lungs that was clear when I looked at my chest x-ray; the rest was all white. To a more seasoned veteran of illness, this would have been a frightening sight. But it didn't really sink in for me that both of my lungs were almost completely unable to breathe as they were full of infection. All I knew was that I felt crappy enough to see the doctor, and that I wasn't using any sick time since my illness politely arrived during my vacation days. 

It ended up, without a doubt, being the sickest I had ever been in my life. This was the first time I had ever had taken such strong antibiotics that I could barely make it to the bathroom before losing control of my bowels. I was weak and struggling to breathe, and in pain. My low moment was when I was lying on my Grammy's bed to watch tv with her and could hear the air rattling in my lungs. I had to keep my mouth open to help myself breathe and could feel the rattling in my chest and hear it coming up my throat. For the first time in my life, I was so sick that getting well seemed like too much work. Never before had I felt that perhaps it would just be easier to die than to struggle through the misery of trying to get better. Knowing this scared me, which was what finally broke me down into a crying mess. Not the pain or feeling awful, but the realization that recovering was just too hard.

Over the next few weeks I began to recover, got sick with something else, began to recover from that, and ended up in the hospital for several days. After a few days of poking and prodding and testing and biopsies, I was diagnosed with lupus and sent home. Since that time, I have fought numerous battles with my long-standing enemy, pneumonia, as well as bronchitis. I used to keep track of how many times I had pneumonia, but frankly, I lost count after about a dozen. I never thought of keeping up with the numbers of the bronchitis bouts. One of the many times I went to Doctor Mike for a pneumonia diagnosis, I felt like I just had to ask him why I spent so much time with these lung-busting ailments. Well, okay, I was in a really cranky mood because I was just tired of always having it.

"Mike, why is it that I always have stinking pneumonia or bronchitis? What's the deal?" Mike told me that I probably had some illness in my lungs when I was young and that now it was my weak spot. His own, he said, was his stomach. He had gotten some terrible stomach bug as a kid and now when he gets really sick, it ends up in his stomach. I politely thanked him for his explanation, but secretly thought he was confused. I had never been that sick! Sure, I had the bouts with various bugs that kept me out of school at least once every school year, but nothing dramatic in my lungs. Doctors!

Several months later, I was visiting my sister Margit in Ohio. We hadn't had contact in several years, but one of the unforeseen side-effects of my illness was that it brought my family back together. As we ran around and bonded over shopping and meals, we caught up with each other's lives. Of course she wanted to know everything about my health issues. After I told her some of the health issues I had been through, I mentioned my conversation with Doctor Mike. "I think what he said is screwy, I was never that sick as a child." Margit got quiet for a second and looked sort of embarrassed. "That isn't exactly true," she said. "I guess I should tell you." 

When I was born, Margit was nine years old, John was seven, and Liz was six days shy of her sixth birthday. I was a breastfed baby. In fact, my mother thought that American women who bottle-fed their babies were lazy and dumb. Margit apparently felt sorry for me because Mama never gave me any food to eat, she was just putting me on her breast. One day when Mama wasn't looking, Margit decided to do something nice for me. She gave me some Cheerios. She liked them a lot and thought I would like them too. My tiny body was not ready to deal with solid foods, so the Cheerios were aspirated and went straight into my lungs, resulting in...yes, pneumonia. They had to put me in the hospital to save my life, and I am sure that Margit's life was in peril for causing me harm, and causing Papa such great expense. Luckily both of us managed to survive our particular parts of the ordeal.

It turned out that Mike was right, as usual, and the mystery of my recurring chest ailments was solved. I did decide at that moment to never give a child under the age of two any Cheerios. If you are wondering, no, I never think ill of my big sister when I have yet another wretched cough. She was just a kind and generous child who wanted to share something with me. She was just trying to be nice when she almost killed me.