Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Life Storms and Silver Linings

I'm an optimistic person who believes all of life's storm clouds have silver, writerly linings. Life storms are what we write about. A story with no catastrophic spike on the plot arc isn't compelling and exciting. Who wants to write about a bunch of people who have no problems, no steep challenges to face? So when a life storm erupts over my head, I try to survive it with courage, patience and grace -- all while I'm taking notes for possible story ideas.

A few weeks ago, I found myself in the eye of an F2 life storm. I'd woken in the night with a headache, which I often do. A glance at the clock told me it was only one in the morning, so I knew I needed to pop a few Tylenol or I'd have monster head pain by morning. So I got up and went to the kitchen for some pills.

The events that followed are hazy in my memory. I remember being hit by a sudden and violent wave of nausea, and I knew I was going to be sick right then and there. The next thing I remember, I was sitting up from the kitchen floor in a pool of vomit. I had passed out. 

I was disoriented but not panicked. You see, my whole life I've suffered from the Vasovagal Response, which means my heart slows down when I'm subjected to certain stimuli, such as needles and blood, and my brain doesn't get enough oxygen. When it happens, I pass out. I've lost consciousness many times; passing out is familiar to me. But throwing up? That's extremely rare for me. So in my disoriented state, I was only concerned about the mess I'd made on the kitchen floor. I cleaned it up before going back to bed.

I still felt very nauseous, and I woke my husband up to tell him I was sick. Apparently I didn't tell him I'd passed out. He looked at his clock and saw it was two o'clock in the morning. Between two and five a.m., I vomited four more times. But at five, an alarming new symptom arose. I was losing blood and fluid from my right ear. Time to panic.

My husband recalls I said, "Maybe I hurt my ear when I fell." By telling him I'd passed out he had the missing piece to the puzzle, and five minutes later he was helping me dress.

The ER physician could see I'd ruptured my right ear drum. He ordered a CAT scan to determine whether the trauma had caused internal injuries. That's when I learned I'd fractured my skull.

The big question was why I'd vomited and passed out in the first place. An EKG showed I have an irregular heartbeat, something called Long QT Syndrome. I was admitted into the hospital for observation and spent the following twenty-four hours hooked up to a cardiograph.

After a night with no crazy heart activity, I was discharged. Thank goodness. Anyone who has ever been in the hospital knows it's no place for a person to rest and heal. Under the watchful care of my husband and kids, I'm doing better every day, and right after Christmas I meet with an ENT and a cardiologist to determine what longer-term treatment, if any, I need.

So, what was the silver, writerly lining to this life storm? I now know firsthand what it's like to be treated in an emergency room - the pain of having to move when you're injured and sick, the fear of needles that prod and test, the different bedside manners of doctors and nurses. I had a CAT scan. I now know the cold environment of that ominous, humming machine, and the unease one feels being fed head-first into its tunnel-like mouth. I also had a sonogram of my heart. That was cool! My heart looked so graceful, the valves opening and closing with the rhythmic grace of a jellyfish hover-swimming through the ocean depths.

When I was transported for the sonogram, my wheelchair was pushed through the hospital by a stoic nurse. When we passed through the wide, automatic doors of the cardiac ward, we headed down a door-lined corridor. It was perfectly silent; I couldn't even hear the rubber-soled steps of the woman slowly pushing me. On either side of the corridor, there were patients in wheelchairs just like me. Each had been draped with a white blanket around the shoulders, right under their chins, just like me. They sat motionless, one chair parked behind the next. Waiting. It was a chilling sight, an image Stephen King would have a field day with. Suddenly my chair stopped next to the wall a few feet from a door. I heard the nurse engage the brake. From behind me, she said, "We're here. Hope you get to feelin' better." And then she turned and left me there with the other silent ones. Eerie.

Life is a stormy place. But like the characters we write about, we need to brave those storms in order to learn, grow, and evolve. So when the next storm brews on your horizon, pray for strength to get through it. Open your eyes and heart in readiness for the lessons to come. And, grab your pen.

[This article first appeared today in my edition of the Drama Newsletter.]