health scares \\ a life lesson
"I'm right here," he said. "I'm right here, and I won't leave you."
I didn't reply.
We were lying in bed and facing each other in the dark. I had been trying to fall asleep for the past hour, but it simply hurt too much. Whenever I tried to close my eyes, it was as though the pain intensified. For that reason, I preferred to keep my eyes open. I would sacrifice sleep if it meant tolerating the pain.
He gently tucked a stray strand of hair behind my right ear. "Does it hurt a lot?"
Again, I didn't reply. He edged closer and touched my cheek. He knew what it meant when I didn't reply. If the answer had been "no", I would have just said so. Not replying meant I didn't want him to hear the worrying truth.
Not replying meant I didn't to voice the worrying truth.
But whether I voiced it or not, it didn't change the facts. Only a few days ago, I had sensed that something was wrong. I had pushed concern out of my mind, refusing to let anything inconvenient find its way into my already too-busy schedule. And then last night, it hit me. I crashed into bed, exhausted and sore all over. It occurred to me that I may have caught the flu - surely that would explain the malaise and fatigue? When I woke this morning, however, it hadn't felt like the flu. Something was wrong, and I knew it. My heart sunk as I finally held my tongue and let my gut instincts speak: You can no longer evade the truth, Mandy. Something's not right. You are not well.
I was fairly certain that I had developed an infection of some sort. I was feverish, incredibly exhausted, dehydrated and only able to move very slowly. A mild ache somewhere inside the left of my abdomen had started to demand my attention, too - perhaps I had a kidney infection? I considered telling Phuc about it, but decided against alarming him whilst he was at work. It could wait until he picked me up for dinner.
After I had climbed carefully into his passenger's seat and he had started the engine, he reached over with his left hand and squeezed my leg. "How was your day?" he asked. "Anything new?"
He immediately looked over at me. "What's wrong?"
"I think I'm sick, bubba."
Whenever I'm sick, I always find it difficult to tell Phuc - he always gets so worried. But this time was different. This time, it was even more difficult because this time, even I was worried.
I explained my symptoms to him and he immediately suggested we turn the car around and go home. Do I want him to take me to the hospital? He could take me to the hospital. Do I want medicine? He could take me to the pharmacy. What can he do? Tell him what I want him to do.
I reassured him that I would be fine, and that medicine could wait until after we had finished dinner with our friends. He looked unconvinced, and for the remaining 35 minutes of our drive to the restaurant, he repeatedly asked me whether I needed to go to hospital. Aloud, I said no. Inside my head, I really didn't know.
Throughout the course of our dinner, my symptoms worsened dramatically. The pain went from mild to incredibly severe - all in the space of only a couple of hours. I went from having a ravaging appetite, to being unable to eat. It hurt to sit. It hurt to stand. It hurt to walk. I felt as though an organ inside my abdomen had quadrupled in size and weight, crushing its surrounding organs and squeezing my insides.
When we got home, things got worse again. I'd taken painkillers, but they hadn't helped. More worryingly, I couldn't breathe.
Each time I inhaled, my lungs expanded, my diaphragm moved down and - something stopped any further movement. I had no choice but to exhale. I tried again - inhale, lungs expand, diaphragm moves down and - no, something was in the way. I exhaled again. I wasn't getting enough air. Something was restricting my diaphragm movement. I could only shallow-breathe.
Lying down helped me breathe more easily, but the pain was worse. If I lay on my right side, the mass in my left side crushed my other organs. If I lay on my back, the mass pulled downwards, again crushing my other organs. It hurt least if I lay on my left, allowing the mass to hit, well, just me.
I realised, quite numbly, that I had started referring to it as a mass because it felt like one. Something inside me was taking up an abnormally large amount of space. I couldn't breathe and I was in severe pain - the worst pain I had experienced in a very, very long time. I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep. The painkillers brought me no relief. I wondered to myself, Am I dying?
I somehow managed to fall asleep and even better, managed to survive the night. A part of me had really doubted that I'd make it to morning.
Phuc had to go to work, so I made an appointment to see my doctor, and headed there alone. The pain had subsided a little - maybe because the painkillers had finally kicked in - and I almost considered skipping the appointment altogether. I had become increasingly certain that I only had an infection - something that could be treated easily and quickly with a short course of antibiotics - but a voice inside my heart told me to stay.
Thankfully, it was the right decision. The results for my urine test came back clear - I didn't have a urinary tract infection, nor did I have a kidney infection. Something else was going on. Given my mother's history of endometriosis, my GP was worried.
Do you know how scary it is when even your doctor is concerned?
When he told me that I didn't have an infection, I felt confused. But when he told me that he was confused, I felt terrified.
Doctors are supposed to be calm. They're supposed to know everything, and they're not supposed to be worried. Ever.
He immediately referred me to a radiologist for internal and external ultrasounds, and asked his receptionist to make me another appointment later that week. He asked me whether I lived alone, and when I said no, he breathed a sigh of relief. "Good," he said. "If the pain escalates any more, I want you to ask someone to take you straight to hospital. Do not attempt to drive yourself. I'll see you on Friday if everything goes well. If not, well, I guess we may speak sooner."
I sat in my chair and tried to digest what was going on - a difficult task, when it seemed nobody else yet knew what was going on.
As I left the medical centre and walked back to my car, I finally felt the walls I'd so carefully constructed, collapse. Tears welled up in my eyes. Do I have endometriosis too? Am I infertile? Do I have cancer? Am I dying?
Phuc and I had already started talking about when we'd like to start a family, and it pained me to wonder what we would do if I couldn't bear children. And if I had cancer, I'd call off our wedding. It wouldn't be fair on Phuc to marry me if we had so much uncertainty in our lives. I'd start writing every day, just like I'd always wanted to. I'd spend more time with Phuc, and with my best friend, and with my parents, and my twin brother, and my sister-in-law, and my pet dog, and ...
I stopped walking and stared blankly at the floor. Am I really thinking about this right now?
I climbed into the driver's seat, but didn't start the engine. Why, I wondered, would I wait for a terminal diagnosis before I started living my life the way I wanted to?
I think I speak for most of us when I say that, we, as humans, tend to live as though we'll live forever. Or, more accurately, we live as though we'll live for a very long time. We delay gratification and postpone satisfaction. We expect our loved ones to understand that we're currently too busy to spend enough time with them. We reassure ourselves that we'll pursue our dreams when the timing is finally right. We'll start helping others when we're in a position to better do so. But when will that be? Oh, sometime in the future.
What future? The future that may never come?
I'm not saying that we should live as though every day is our last - I believe that looking toward the future plays an important role in fueling ambition and is what gives inspiration purpose - what I'm saying is that we should live as though we may not live for a very long time. By all means, set goals and work toward them, but let's not postpone everything - especially not the things (or people!) most meaningful to us. After all (and I know you've heard this before), the future really isn't promised to anybody.
Not to you. And certainly not to me.
I suppose the purpose of this rather lengthy post is to propose that Health Scares, which is what I hope I was experiencing - just a scare - are a subset of Life Lessons. They serve as warning signs, or reminders, that life - yes, your life - is precious. Every moment of it. So let's not waste it, shall we?
Edit: My experience above was indeed just a scare. I have since returned to full health. Thank you to everybody who contacted me out of concern and care! M x