this is a "greatest hit" post from the series I'm running while I'm away. Also, you people have weird tastes in hits.
We went to Paris for a few days for a romantic getaway, which was not at all romantic… at least not in the usual way. I am not saying it is not gorgeous–it really is. And we both love French, which Gary can speak and I can pretend that I speak (Canada is officially bilingual, but in my part of the country, that really means that I know a) nouns from product packaging, and b) the stuff they say in the safety announcements on the airplanes). So I know how to say things like “milk” and “eggs” and “please put on your own mask before assisting others”. Gary speaks medical French, which used to really impress me but doesn’t so much now because I have learned that since all the medical words are Latin based, medical French is essentially medical English, with an accent like that French skunk from that cartoon. “Allergie… Epinephreene… Steroe-eed…” You get where this is going.
Gary is allergic to Paris. Massively anaphylactically allergic.
Note: He actually got much worse than this. This was in the “taking photos to convince him he’s actually ill” stage.
Gary: I think I touched my eye, and now it is swelling shut.
Me: You need to stop touching your eyes. This always happens. (Note: It really does) Hey, they’re both swelling shut… we should go get some Benadryl.
Gary: My mouth feels funny. I don’t know how the ticket system works for the metro. If we leave this area, do we have to pay again to get back in?
Me: I’m not sure that really matters at this point. We are not going to get on a train to Versailles until this is resolved because Versailles is in the countryside where there are no ERs. We are going to a hospital.
Gary has a tendency to be stoic bordering on ridiculous. I have known him for fifteen years and he has never taken a day off work. One time, I found him in the middle of the night on the floor of the bathroom, so ill he couldn’t speak, struggling to say “I can’t… I need you to…” and I thought he was asking for an ambulance but it turned out he was saying “I can’t ride my bike tomorrow. I need you to give me a ride to work.” Don’t even get me started on the time he had an operation on his face and went to work the next day… saying defensively “well, I already took one day off for the operation”. His test for “should I take time off work?” is “am I currently under general anesthetic?”
So it was my job to insist we get medical care, which was not a good thing because as we have established I am incapable of thinking clearly in an emergency. Which is okay, because I know this about myself, so I have a plan for every situation. I actually had thought through what I would do if Gary went into anaphylaxis someday. Step one was convince him he actually needed medical care. My plan for this was simple. Get him to a pharmacist, who would take one look at him and phone an ambulance.
Gary: But if we leave the secured area of the metro…
Me: Shut up.
Now, navigating was a little tricky because my French is not awesome. But I had a prepared plan.
French person: Blah blah (pointing).
Walk in the direction the guy pointed for a minute or two, then grab another French person.
French person: Blah blah
We got there, and I was faint with relief. I walked in and gave my prepared speech that would get us an ambulance.
Me (in French, pointing at Gary’s swollen face): Allergy. Throat closing. Can’t breathe.
And then the lady tried to hand me eye drops and tell me to have a nice day. Turns out, it’s not the same system there as here. So I started to panic a little.
Gary (in a very different voice from his usual voice, like his mouth was filled with cotton): There are taxis at the Eiffel tower.
Me: You need an ambulance.
Gary: Taxi… fastest way… Ambulance travels… both ways… taxi only one…
We got to a taxi, and asked the guy to take us to the closest Emergency Room. I pointed to Gary’s face. After a minute or two of driving, I realized that the guy didn’t get it.
Me (in French): How much minutes before hospital?
Taxi: Not far. Ten or fifteen minutes.
There was a sickening pause, while Gary and I looked at each other. We both knew that was a very good chance that was too many minutes.
And I struggled because my French is limited to nouns and airplane announcements, but it turns out that this was good enough. I know “start the flow of oxygen” and “breathe normally”, and “AAAAHHHHHH!”. Aside from the part about the plastic bag not inflating, I think I made pretty good sense. It turns out that the magical quality is the tone of voice. Particularly Gary’s tone of voice, which was kind of like “grgkhrgkahk”. The guy turned around, nodded, and all the colour drained out of his face.
“I understand” he said, in French, and began driving like a maniac.
At this point, there was nothing more we could do. Gary told me later that he could actually visualize each step of the process. “I know what it looks like to die of anaphylaxis.” he said “I could see my larynx swelling in my mind’s eye”. I asked him if he thought about dying. He said “Yes. And I thought ‘I have lived a good and full life, and I am okay to die. But I’d rather not.’ And then I put all my attention into breathing slowly and carefully.”
For ten minutes, the only noise was the sound of Gary’s breathing filling the car, and the cabbie occasionally updating us on how far we were from the hospital. As we closed in the final stretch, Gary waved to get my attention, struggling to speak, and said “You.. Must.. Tip…” Which was true, because at this point the guy was driving the cab with no thought to traffic rules or personal safety–with speed as his only goal. It was as though the cab were the bat mobile and the driver were Mick from Meadville.
We pulled up to the ER, and walked in, and I pointed at Gary and said “Allergy. Throat closing. Not breathe normally.” but the nurse and Gary had already disappeared behind a sliding door before I could get to putting on your own mask before assisting others.
I learned later that they had to administer adrenaline/epinephrine twice, because it was so bad, and then they had to watch over his heart, while administering massive doses of steroids.
“I will have to get an EpiPen when I get home.” he said, later, and then the doctor and I both said “YOU WILL HAVE TO GET AN EPIPEN TODAY. BEFORE ANYTHING ELSE GOES IN YOUR MOUTH”. In both official languages.
And then they kept us for ten hours for observation, and then said they needed to admit Gary, and then Gary said no thanks and checked out Against Medical Advice which meant that they gave him a long speech about all the ways he might die due to checking out Against Medical Advice which you might think I wouldn’t understand because I don’t speak very good French but unfortunately even though I do not speak French I understand it remarkably well.
And then I had to fly home without him because he needed to finish the conference he was there for, and so I busied myself on the way home by researching complications of anaphylaxis on the internet, which I do not recommend, because by the time he arrived home Sunday morning I was a bit of a wreck.
Which did not get better because he was very sick when he got home. Mick from Meadville, who had been there watching the kids, quietly switched his flights so he could stay another couple of days. I spend Sunday afternoon watching him anxiously and monitoring his fever, which reached 40 degrees. He began acting funny, by which I mean he cancelled four days of work and became very dazed looking. He kept insisting that he was a doctor and he knew that he didn’t need to go to the ER. Finally, Mick took me aside and said in his gentle pastoral care voice “He needs to go to the ER now. He is not a doctor, and neither are you. Stop being batshit crazy.” So I went to Gary and had the following conversation…
Me: We have to go in to the ER.
Gary: I think that is a good idea.
Me: Oh my GOD. You are going to die.
Gary: I am okay.
Me: No you aren’t.
Gary: I am okay, it’s just that I don’t want to go in because I am too sick to get down to the car.
Me: That is not a good argument for why you should not go to the hospital.
Gary: I just have a virus is all. Sometimes you get really sick from a virus.
Me: How about you call one of your colleagues, and if they confirm over the phone that you are okay, I will not take you in. Any colleague you want.
Gary: They would say I should go in.
Me: All of them? Every single colleague would say that? Does that imply anything to you?
Gary: They don’t know the whole story. They would think I needed all these tests.
Me: Why would they think that?
Gary: Because I look like I would need those tests. But then the tests would show that I am fine.
Me: Ah. And the other doctors don’t know what you know, that the tests would show that you are fine.
Gary: And then we would waste all this time.
Me: We will not waste any time, because I will pack your computer so you can work on your laptop in the ER.
Gary: I am to sick to work.
Me: If you are too sick to work, WE ARE GOING TO THE ER RIGHT NOW!!!
Gary: I told you that was a good idea already. Even though I am fine. But just to be on the safe side.
When we got there, the ER nurses recognized him. And he told them that he was fine, and they looked at me and I said “his temperature is 40 on medication and he has been acting very weird” and they said “what do you mean weird?” and I said “well, for one thing, he cancelled four days of work” and they said “forget the ER beds, we will take him straight to the Trauma Ward”. And then they ran a bunch of tests and confirmed what Gary said… which is that he is fine, he’s just suffering a bad foreign virus on top of a massively suppressed immune system. And they also confirmed what Mick and I said, which was that he definitely needed to be checked out. And they rehydrated him, which made him look a lot less like he was about to die.
Funny thing about the “about to die” moment. I remember so clearly the moment in the taxi, looking at him thinking “this might be it”, and it was nothing like the moment in the movies. There’s no dialogue. What do you say? “I love you”? He already knows that. “I need to tell you…”? We have nothing outstanding. It was very… still.
Which is curiously comforting. It wasn’t at the time, of course. But it is now.
Now, it’s still very quiet. Gary’s still a bit of an invalid, but not in a scary way. He’s home from work, which is eerie, and he rests and stares into space a lot which always makes me think he is having a stroke. Mick and I hover around in a kind of symbiotic relationship, because when Mick is nervous he cleans and when I am nervous I make a mess. So that is working well. Later today, Mick will go back home, and I will start cleaning my own house. And answering emails and dealing with postponed tasks.
It is a bit like life is just starting to stretch and cough and move around again. But it’s still quiet, like things are partly asleep–like we’re coming back from the land of “stuff that really matters” and re-entering the world of “stuff that doesn’t really matter but still has to get done”. It’s an awkward bridge to cross.
In deep gratitude,
P.S. As is my custom when I write about someone in depth, I ran the blog post past Gary. Me: Anything I need to change? Gary: The story seems awfully, well, mefocussed. Me: Right. That’s because you were the one dying. If the story were all about me, that would not make me look good at all. I meant is there anything that makes you uncomfortable in the whole story? I mean, it’s kind of private about you dying and your feelings about your life and your last moments and all… Gary: Oh, yes. Can I suggest changes? Me: Of course! Whatever you want. Gary: They gave me ventolin in addition to steroids and adrenaline. You should change that, or people will wonder about the treatment protocol. It really sticks out in the story. Me: Oh, I am so glad to hear you say that.
He’s getting back to normal, folks…