1 0 Archive | May, 2011
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back from near death

positives and negatives

I tend to try to keep my blog positive – people generally don’t want to read about peoples’ complaints or personal problems, my own included. But sometimes something happens in your life that is not positive, yet impacts you in such a profound way that it needs to be shared. This month I experienced such an event. And though it was certainly a negative event, that doesn’t mean that it didn’t have some unexpected positive outcomes.

the beginning

during the second week of April, a day or two after I got back from my trip to Malaysia I got a bit of “traveler’s sickness”. I figured this was just one of those things… it’s not unusual to get these sorts of bugs no matter how careful you are with drinking the water during trips overseas, and it’s happened to me before. Regardless, I took a trip to the doctor and got some antibiotics to take care of it.

problem is, they didn’t take care of it… it got worse.

the descent

the building where I stayed at l’hôpital Avicenne

I went back to the doctor a few days later after I’d used up the antibiotics. This time I had fevers, and there was blood involved. I got a stronger antibiotic and he also sent me to the Emergency Ward at a local hospital – l’hôpital Avicenne – where they have a center that specializes in infectious and tropical diseases. Duly I went, where during the evening they did a series of blood tests (including Malaria, which came back negative). Otherwise they didn’t do much, other than send me home very early (2AM) in the morning with some ordinances to take some more tests at a laboratory near my house to investigate for bacteria, viruses, parasites and the like. It would take the lab three days to get the results back. And during those three days I continued to get much worse.

by the time the lab got my test results back I was very sick; feverish all day with highs of over 103 degrees during the evenings, lots of pain, and other stuff I won’t bother to describe here (though I already mentioned the blood). When I went to the doctor this time he called up the hospital and reserved a room at the center for infectious and tropical diseases (rather than just sending me to the Emergency Ward which hadn’t worked out). The center managed to find me a room, so I took a bag full of stuff with me to the hospital and checked in.

my room at the hospital (actually one of three I stayed in; they moved me around a bit)

after a few lab tests the hospital determined that I was very sick. Their best guess is that I had contracted typhoid fever while I was in Malaysia. But the worst part was that I had hepatitis. Mind you, this was not the sort of hepatitis that you contract (I was vaccinated against those – I was also pretty sure I was vaccinated against typhoid by the way). While people commonly associate hepatitis with contracted forms of the diseases, hepatitis in its most basic sense means the inflammation of the liver. On April 22nd the doctors discovered that my liver had inflamed very rapidly over the course of three or four days, to a point where it would likely fail were it to grow any further, which would probably kill me. They stopped all anti-inflammatory drugs (or in fact any treatment that would have to be processed by the liver), started icing down my fevers, and waited to see what would happen.

Though this was the critical moment I should mention that it was not the sort of critical moment that you might see on TV, with lots of beeping machines, doctors hanging around with defibrillator paddles at the ready, and the like… it was all quite peaceful.

On facing death

after the fact, the hospital sent several psychologists and religious figures to my room to talk to me. The senior psychologist spoke with me at length about what I’d gone through, and how I’d felt during the days of April 22nd and afterward. No matter what I told her to the contrary, she would tell me, “it sounds like you were scared of dying.” I think it’s the standard question that psychologists ask when patients are facing death.

the thing is, I wasn’t scared of dying. Perhaps today if you told me I was going to die I’d be scared; I don’t know. Maybe I didn’t feel scared because I was so sick and feverish. Maybe my mind was calm because of the drugs. But at that point, I was okay with dying.

I haven’t lived a perfect life. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and have committed my share of sins. But I’ve spent a lot of my life fighting for what I have wanted. I’ve spent a lot of my life telling my kids how much I love them. I’ve dedicated myself to learning about other people and their languages and cultures, and to accepting who people are for what they are, no matter their races, backgrounds, religious beliefs, genders or sexual orientations. And I’ve endeavored to share my love and understanding for language and culture with my family, my friends, and in fact with the world at large. I’ve stood up for what I believe in.

I was of course disappointed that I might not be able to watch my kids grow up or spend my golden years with Yvonne; that I might die in my 30s with so much of my life left unlived. I felt terrible that they might lose me as a father and a husband, as I felt I still had so much left to give to and share with them. I was sad that I might not get to hang out at our lake house in Ontario with my family, my parents, my sister’s family and my wife’s family. I knew I’d miss the tremendous friends I’ve made from the many different walks of life I’ve lived, and the great times we’ve spent together. I was sad that I’d never finished my book – not because I was disappointed that I never became a well-recognized published author, but simply because I would have liked to have left something behind for my kids to read when they got a bit older; something that was a part of me.

on the other hand, I’ve always wanted to buy a BMW 3 series coupe (and maybe one day I will) – but I wasn’t disappointed that I’d never owned one. I wasn’t disappointed that I’d never made myself millions of dollars with which to buy a huge mansion in the suburbs with expensive furniture and a fancy media room. None of these sorts of things mattered to me while I was lying in the hospital bed. Out of everything in life, I realized, stuff is the least important.

in the middle of the night of the 22nd or 23rd, while I was feverish and up the whole night tossing and turning with waking nightmares from the delirium and stiff-necked from lying on bulky bags of ice, I got out my iPhone and wrote my parents a letter. In it I thanked them for the things they’d done for me while I was growing up – for raising me in a safe and happy environment, for never giving up on me, for the vacations we took, for sending me to some great schools, and for making sure I learned how to swim. For supporting me when I made huge mistakes, and for giving me second chances. For things that, in my head, I was thankful every day – things they did for me that served as turning points in my life and pushed me forward, where without their help I might have fallen behind – but for which I might never have actually taken the time to thank them for. I realized while I was writing it that I shouldn’t have waited until I was facing death to write them this letter. This is something that I should have done a long time ago.

considering the circumstances behind it, my mom told me it was perhaps the most wonderful, most terrible letter she’d ever read.

I called my parents from the hospital every night after that, just before going to sleep. Sometimes I was too weak to talk, so I’d just listen.

the turning point

my liver did not continue to grow. In fact, it gradually started to shrink, and to heal itself. So the threat of death was over. It changed me in a lot of ways, many of which I’m experiencing now. I have a second chance at life, and now I better understand what is most important to me. I know how I want to feel about myself when I face death again.

the doctors believe that the hepatitis was caused as a result of the typhoid (this does happen in some cases of the disease) and was exacerbated by some of the drugs I was taking before arriving at the hospital the second time – Azithromycin and Ibuprofen to be exact, both of which can cause hepatitis. The combination of these factors caused serious liver inflammation in a short period of time. The doctors never said, but Yvonne and I guess that if I hadn’t been admitted into the hospital when I was, and had continued to take the Azithromycin and several Ibuprofen a day (while still remaining under the maximum recommended dosage of the drug), things might have ended up differently for me.


breakfast of champions… café au lait, bread and jam, biscuits, and the morning’s dose of drugs

so my liver was getting better, but this did not mean that things were rosy for the rest of my body. The doctors started treating me with three different types of very strong antibiotics to blast away the typhoid. The problem they faced was that because I’d started taking antibiotics before they did blood tests, the true illness I had was masked. They were never able to figure out 100% if I had typhoid. There were many symptoms that I was lacking, and other symptoms that existed that were not generally a part of typhoid. If it was typhoid, it seemed like an odd variant. To this day they’re still not sure what it was.

the main problem now was that, due to an immune system issue in my body that I didn’t know that I had (and that was probably lying dormant until now), my innards, for lack of a better term, started failing. My entire colon was infected and hemorrhaging, and I was still feverish and sick, even after the very strong antibiotics.

I couldn’t eat, and I lost a lot of weight – 25 to 30 pounds. I was subjected to test after test to figure out what was going on with me – X-rays, scans, ultrasounds, MRIs, a colonoscopy, a fibroscopy and another scopy that I forget exactly what it was. Once again the doctors came up with what they thought I might have and started treating it, but as with the typhoid, even today they’re still not sure what is going on with me. It might affect me for the rest of my life, or it might disappear. Chances point heavily to the former, but even so the odds are good that I’ll be able to live a normal life with whatever it is.

for the next couple of weeks while I underwent all these tests they hooked me up to a long series of colorful IVs to provide me with food, calories, nutrients, vitamins, antibiotics, painkillers and the things I needed to recover. I had blood tests to check my liver and blood levels almost every day. I am guessing that, considering all the injections and blood pullings I’ve had over 50 needles in my arms (and some in my stomach) since the second week of April. I was very weak during this time… I could only walk for short distances, and couldn’t speak in long sentences without taking breaths in between words. But I began to recover.

the ever-present IVs leaking fluids into my veins

maybe not for the squeamish – my left arm after lots of injections…

… and my right arm

gradually the fever started to subside and they began to treat me with cortisone to fortify my insides. By the end of the third week I was feeling much better – not perfect, and still fatigued, but able to eat, to walk around a bit, and to joke around with the nurses. A few days before I’d been in the hospital for four full weeks they released me with a long series of drugs to take every day, and an ordinance to have a nurse visit me at my house every day for the next three weeks to give me daily injections. That was yesterday, and here I am at home today.

life in the hospital

considering I was in the hospital for nearly four weeks, I have a lot of stories to tell. I won’t tell them all of course – this post is long enough already! – but here are some highlights of the lessons I’ve learned, and some pictures from my “vacation”:

do not piss off the nurses, even if you’re pretty sure that you’re right and they’re wrong. They’re the ones who stick needles in you.

no matter how generally unenjoyable hospital life may be, there is something unbeatable about being woken up to breakfast in bed, every single day.

the view from my room. Guess it could have been more pastoral…

if you’re going to spend any time at a hospital, pack a Kindle (with 3G) and a portable DVD player. I read five or six books while in the hospital, and watched several seasons of various TV series boxed sets that I bought at Carrefour. That being said…

if you’re in the hospital and generally feeling like garbage, don’t watch House, a show where, in general terms, someone arrives at the hospital with a nosebleed, and before they can be cured House and his crew subject them to a series of treatments that bring them to the brink of death, with seizures and cardiac arrests, before the mysterious cure can finally be found.

the machine that goes “beep!” for many frequent and inane reasons

when three doctors, including the department head, come into your room at the same time, that’s probably a bad sign.

if you’re in the hospital and your spouse is in the house with no car, you can use a taxi as a parcel service.

the calorie-rich drink they had me drink every night to help put my weight back on. Ironic considering those times in the near past when I’ve endeavored to maintain or lose weight…

if you want to convince a loved one not to smoke, show them a very sick person wailing for a cigarette, thrashing around on their bed trying to pull out their IVs and diodes to escape the Emergency Ward to smoke one. One of the saddest things I’ve seen.

try not to get hospitalized in a country where they don’t speak your native language, even if you think you’re pretty fluent. At times it’s like you’re lying there while a bunch of Charlie Brown’s Teachers decide your fate.

me being excellent in the elevator with some tubes

when they inject something into your vein before a scan and say “this will make your whole body hot”, what they aren’t telling you is that it will also make you throw up and soil your pants. They let you find out that part for yourself.

when you lose 25-30 pounds in a short period of time they will feed you food through an IV. And here all these years I’ve been using my mouth like a dummy.

in conclusion…

a couple of days after my liver had taken a turn for the better I decided to go for a walk. I was very weak and knew I wouldn’t be able to make it that far but I wanted to see the sun, so I dragged myself outside.

my walk took me around the building, where on a grassy area beside a side road an old French man was sitting in a plastic chair, watching the cars go by. In his defense, where the hospital is situated, there’s really not much else to see… mostly lots of concrete and exhaust pipes and old buildings.

when I walked up onto the grass I must have looked quite a sight: pale, exhausted and unshowered, jaundiced, skinnier than I’ve been since my early years of high school, with a scruffy two-week-old beard and both arms blue and yellow from all the injections I’d been subjected to, dragging my IV stand beside me while multiple IV bags swung above my head.

I went and stood beside the old man. He largely ignored me, but that didn’t stop me from speaking to him.

“One day, I’m going to die,” I told him. “But not today.”

I started crying. I think he thought I was nuts.

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