By Judy Garrison
A couple of weeks ago I started to notice an accelerated heartbeat. In the middle of the night I imagined I was hearing drumbeats in the room. I was getting short of breath after the most minimal of exertions. People commented on my pallor. When I finally wrangled a doctor appointment, my symptoms were first thought to be heart-related, but a blood test on the morning of Wednesday, February 1, indicated they were caused by dangerously low hemoglobin. Therefore, not enough delivery of oxygen to the heart. So that afternoon—a day I had started as a quiet, meditative one, it being the 5th anniversary of the passing of my 25-year life partner—was pierced with an urgent call from the Andes Health Center directing me to get myself to an emergency room ASAP for a blood transfusion.
I spent from 4 pm until 4 am— when they decided to admit me as they hadn’t yet obtained a match for my A negative blood—alone in the garishly lighted vault of a room at Fox Hospital. Only very occasionally would I be visited by a staff member to draw blood or check vitals (once for a chest x-ray). Luckily, I had my own water bottle and was able to find my way to a rest room, as for hours no one checked in. Sleep wasn’t possible.
Thursday, February 2, Groundhog Day Aside from the steady parade of nurses, nurse’s aides, hospital docs, housekeepers, menu takers, and of course the perennial vitals cart, there isn’t much happening. So I turn on the TV, channel surf a bit, and alight on that all-time favorite, Groundhog Day with Bill Murray and Andie McDowell, along with Punxsutawney Phil. I’m obliged to interrupt some half-remembered scenes when a caring text or call comes in from my family group, high school chums (yes, from 60+ years ago), Andes friends, and from the pals I was all set to enjoy a Florida vacation with. But before I can rue the discontinuity, the movie ends, and—what’s going on here?—in seconds it starts anew. Later I realize it’s on a continuous loop throughout the day and evening. Of course! Like its plot, about a man trapped in a time loop on the day itself, it’s coming on again and again. Which also feels like my day. “Sorry, no blood found in Utica.” “Sorry, no blood for you in Rochester, but we’ll go ahead and schedule the colonoscopy and endoscopy for tomorrow and start your prep at noon.” Then more blood drawn, more blood pressure checks, more temperatures taken.
The originally jerky TV weatherman, Phil Connors, contemptuous of the town, but forced by a blizzard to stay on there (like I’m stuck in this hospital?) is so inimitably and even charmingly played by Murray that you find the character somehow endearing. He awakens every morning to Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe” on the clock radio. The cynical Phil continually shoves his foot in his mouth. For instance, when the MacDowell character says that her major in college was 19th century French poetry, Murray erupts with mocking disparagement. Naturally he amends that response in a future replay of the scene. When the two are having a cocktail, he utters another derogatory remark as a comeback to her expressed dearest hope, for world peace; his later iterations have him fervently expressing that very same desire. A moment earlier he had surprised and delighted her that his standard drink order is identical to hers! I think what makes this movie such a total winner, is that through its ridiculous exaggeration and laugh-out-loud humor, abetted by Murray’s comic timing, it hammers home a recognizable home truth: Most of us helplessly repeat our ingrained patterns, including some hurtful modes of communication, often to our own detriment and to that of our closest relationships. My god, this flick is actually some kind of a religious allegory!
Friday, February 3-Monday, February 6 At some point during the day the docs decide, with no blood backup available, to cancel the scope procedures, to wait for Monday. Now I am feeling increasingly weak and disheartened. No wonder: my hemoglobin level has dropped to 5. The internet tells me heart failure and stroke await at levels below that. But I am diverted by a visit from my housemate, bearing sashimi, and soon a ray of hope: doctor announced the blood is on the way, to arrive around 5:30, when I’m told it will be brought to my room for immediate infusion. However, it doesn’t arrive then, and by 7 p.m. I ring for my friendly nurse (she’s told me that she and her boyfriend are travelling nurses, only take jobs where they can work the same shifts, and back each other up when needed). She calls to the lab and informs me they are busily making matches. My doc had earlier demonstrated on my white board how my particular blood has many markers, antibody receptors that can bind with the antigens in the donated blood, which can potentially cause my body to reject the blood. Yes, this matching process was done earlier by the Red Cross, but the hospital, in
admirable caution, is re-checking everything. Should be done soon, I think in relief. I lie there reading a mesmerizing memoir, Solito by Javier Zamora, about a nine-year-old boy from El Salvador making his way with “coyote” guides through the deserts of northern Mexico, on the way to his parents in L.A. In terror of encountering La Migra, he—like suffering people enduring serious conditions all over the world—faces far more danger than I, “safe” in a hospital. Still, by 10:30, anxiety starts its eerie crawl through my every pore. If all is going well someone would surely have let me know. Right? They must be unable to make the matches. The blood will be rejected; they’ll have to start a search all over again. Maybe a fruitless search. Meanwhile, my number will plunge below 5. I can feel my body weakening by the minute.
I push the nurse call button, relay my concerns to an aide who arrives. She assures me she’ll find my RN. Still nothing for an hour. Until I hear my nurse in the next room with a needy, loquacious patient who natters on and on to her, asks for endless favors. I drag myself, on the verge of tears, into the neighboring room to waylay her. Turns out she has called the lab. They are almost done. She sincerely apologizes for not getting back to me. Blood arrives at midnight; 2 units are dripped throughout the night. My body does not reject this infusion. By morning I feel like a new person.
Saturday is uneventful medically. Good news! A blood test shows my hemoglobin is up to 10, higher than predicted. I now have enough energy to walk the halls. Lovely visits with my daughter and a close Andes friend, each bearing delicious snacks. Sunday my housemate brings a shawl and stays for a long visit. I am again (echoes of Groundhog Day?) eating a liquid lunch, fasting, prepping for colonoscopy and endoscopy. But this time they will happen! Monday, the procedures go well, evidencing no signs of internal bleeding.
The only problem is that I arose Monday with pain in my hip and leg, and the inability to walk on my own. I attributed it to the awkward position I slept in to avoid disturbing the IV port in my elbow (previous attempts to install a port had blown the preferred veins). An “occlusion downstream” message would beep on the IV screen and awake me when I inadvertently bent the arm. Once awake I’d carry the IV pole on yet another visit to the loo, sometimes reaching low to re-plug the machine when the battery ran out. Over and over.
Home now, my Andes provider, concerned about my pain and ankle swelling, sends me for an ultrasound to rule out a blood clot. No clot. Answer to the riddle of the low hemoglobin, while iron and vitamin B12 are normal, is still pending. Now, like so many of my friends, there will be a slew of doctor visits, tests, referrals, new medications, repeated re-evaluations, in search of the cause of it all. Groundhog Day has entered my life. Big time~