It’s Not Meningitis!

So, I thought that getting through the anniversary of my violent encounter on the streets of DC would be something of a relief, a release of some psychological pressure that’d been building up for some weeks. As I noted, the event itself passed almost unnoticed by me when it actually came, so there was some feeling that the “curse” of the date in question was without any potency. And of course I don’t believe in that stuff anyway.
And then last Sunday night, going into Monday morning, I got slammed with what seemed like a flu: a tremendous headache and unbearable body aches and a high fever that floored me for the day. Nothing abnormal about that, really. I can’t get the flu vaccine because of a presumed allergy to what it’s cultured in, so it’s no shock that I’d, you know, get the flu. Life was marching on as this inconvenient virus did battle with my white blood cells, and so as I started to feel a bit better the next day, Tuesday, I skipped out on resting and wrangled my energetic, touchy, and destructive toddler for the day — my usual day off from work and time to spend with His Grouchiness.

But it was rough — rougher than I expected, even. I’d be easily winded, and I’d lurch back and forth to feeling absurdly cold to a sweat-drenchingly overheated. Just getting over the flu, I supposed. Though I never had the cold-like symptoms that often come with a flu, but whatever, it must have been the flu.

Back to work on Wednesday and Thursday. Both days were very rough, though, and I knew I wasn’t fully recovered. I was tired, a little hazy, and not capable of concentrating on a meaningful level. Oh, I was also extremely unpleasant, short-tempered, and overly dramatic about my slightest emotional sensations. So I was a lot of fun for everyone around me. I’d never had so many people ask me “are you okay?” and not already be hospitalized. But stay tuned!!!

Thursday’s work day was the worst, as my headache reasserted itself. But it wasn’t just a regular oh-I’m-sick headache. It was the Headache to End All Headaches. A headache that will live in infamy. A noun and a verb and this headache. More precisely, it felt as though two mean-looking guys were squeezing my eyeballs with rusty pliers.

So I called out of work for the next day. I just can’t power through this, I thought, I need another day to rest. Jess was concerned enough to call our doctor to be on the safe side, and they thought it prudent to bring me in for a look-see. Great! Nothing I’d like more than to drive into Portland to be asked a bunch of questions about my headache so they can tell me what I already know. Great!

But I go. And it’s unbearable. The sunlight, the office lights, moving my eyes, all of it is excruciating and increasingly so. I find myself apologizing to nurses and staff every few sentences or so because I know I’m sounding brusque and foul-tempered.

They discover I’m still sporting a fever, which concerns them, and then I see the available general practitioner in the office (my usual guy wasn’t there that day). I get what feels like an interrogation at a CIA rendition site as she pummels me with questions about my liquid intake and exactly how much does your head hurt, Mr. Fidalgo, if that is your real name?!?!?

At one point, she asks me what seems like a throwaway question about neck stiffness. Meh, I say, everything is stiff, I have the god damn flu, so sure. Neck stiffness.

Bad move.

After “consulting with her colleagues” (quick check at WebMD is my guess) I am told that my wife must leave work to pick me up and get me to the emergency room. Yes, Paul, you may be the lucky winner of a brand…new…lumbar puncture!!!!

Listen. I’m not good with anything-punctures. When I have blood drawn, I pass out, but not until after having convulsions and writhing in agony. Yes, I’m that way with needles and things. Now this woman is telling me she “would not be a good doc” unless she sent me over the hospital to have my spine stabbed and sucked of fluid to see if I have meningitis. GREAT.

Not bacterial, she notes, “the bad one.” Much more likely that it’s viral, which means, essentially, that I’d just have to suck it up and get over it. So in case you’re wondering, whether or not the stabbing of my spine yielded a positive result for meningitis, the treatment would be exactly the same.

Anyway, back to my reaction when she said I’d need the puncture:

“No. No. No.”

Didn’t seem to land with her. So Jess left work, picked me up, and brought my wrenched-with-both-pain-and-fear self to the hospital.

And then things get really absurd. First, I wait an abysmally long time — in an uncomfortable chair — to be seen. Then a nurse interviews me, asks me about my symptoms, and takes my vitals. In this room, I wait an abysmally long time in an uncomfortable chair. (Remember, I’m still in agony and gripped with paralyzing fear.) I am still cycling through feeling ultra-cold and ultra-hot. Finally, I’m brought to an actual exam room. After waiting an abysmally long time in an uncomfortable chair, cycling through extreme body temperatures and gripped by pain and fear (and a wife getting plum sick of it all, thank you very much) another nurse comes in and — can you guess? — interviews me about my symptoms, as though this was all brand new and I had had no contact with anyone else in the hospital, and takes my vitals.

I take to the stretcher in the room, because I can’t bear being seated anymore in the uncomfortable chair. What feels like hours later, all the while my headache and fear are worsening, yet another nurse asks me about my symptoms and takes my vitals. Finally I’m given an IV of fluids and painkillers to deal with what’s ailing me (dehydration is one of the concerns). Remember what I said about needles? It applies to IVs too. When the needle was inserted, I writhed and wriggled and cursed and whined like a puppy being tortured with surgical tools. Even after the actual puncturing was over, I was still aching and complaining of the pain in my arm.

Oh, and the medicine wasn’t working. My headache was not being mitigated one iota. But one drug they decided to inject me with was having an effect: Benadryl.

Now let me tell you something about Benadryl. I’m a pretty allergic guy, so I know my antihistamines. Benadryl, as opposed to say Claritin or Zyrtec, is a last resort drug. If nothing else is remedying an allergy or cold symptom, one resorts to Benadryl. Why last resort? Because it may as well be the off switch for my consciousness. I would say it turns me into a zombie, but even zombies have the wherewithal to go after brains. On Benadryl, I am a corpse.

But they injected me with Benadryl for reasons never explained. But while on this Benadryl, I get a new parade of people coming once every (what feels like) few hours to — bonus if you can guess again — ask me what my symptoms are and check my vitals. No fewer than three more nurse visits plus three separate doctors come in to pepper me with nuanced questions about my status, all while I can barely — barely — even make out what they’re saying to me, let alone answer coherently (and definitely not politely).

Three doctors!!!

And the headache is still not improving. I would have contemplated suicide if I’d had the energy to think so creatively.

Finally, they dose me with some morphine which begins to take the edge off the headache, only very slightly. In the midst of my interviews, the three doctors all seem pretty confident that I mean it when I say that my neck is not the center of my agony. If my neck had been seizing up when I moved my limbs, that’d have been a cause for concern, but being that it was, as it were, all in my head, meningitis no longer seemed to be a viable diagnosis.

(In the midst of all this interrogation, no fewer than three medical professionals prodded with their thumbs in the very spot my orbital bone was fractured in my assault last year, because god forbid any of them first look at any medical records that say, “Try not to poke Paul in the right cheek, since a couple of thugs turned it into gravel a year ago.”)

So no lumbar puncture. If there is a silver lining to this misadventure, it is that, but it is tempered by the fact that had my general practitioner not overhyped my throwaway answer to what sounded like a merely incidental question about my neck, I’d never had to go through any of this. Everyone was well-meaning, many even downright sweet (one particular nurse was downright plucky in her attempts to both do her job and keep me from flying off the handle), but the confluence of circumstances made this something out of a satire.

My wife remains my hero, and she deserves the longest and most peaceful of vacations.

The next day I mainly slept and drank water, and only today am I able to keep my eyes open long enough, and hold my attention anywhere long enough, to type out this anecdote. I hope I hope I hope I’m through the worst of it, though today I still feel pretty awful. Either way, I managed to get through the anniversary of my attack without a psychological crisis. But my body and a few absurdities in our health care system made sure I didn’t get off without a physical crisis.

I can’t wait to see what happens next year.

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