Thirteen years ago today I was in my off-campus apartment in Harrisonburg, VA, getting ready for an early class. I always had early classes and I always watched the news while I got ready. I saw all the footage of the terrorist attacks live. There was no news about classes being cancelled, so I went. I’m pretty sure it was a theater class; I was going to minor in theater or costume design. We all just sat around, too stunned to leave, and talked about what little we knew about was going on in the world outside.
Nine years ago today I was in the hospital, preparing to go in to emergency surgery with the understanding that I only had an hour to live. I’d already had a long history of seeing doctors out of town, but I was working in Northern Virginia and it didn’t make sense to drive all the way to Richmond for appointments. I found a local doctor that I liked a lot and I thought I was very lucky. Then I got sick. So sick that I could barely make the leg movements necessary to drive my car home. So sick that, while waiting in an exam room for a doctor delayed by procedures, a nurse told me I needed to keep quiet because I was scaring other patients. I tried to explain I was in so much pain, rationalizing that she wouldn’t tell a woman in labor to quiet down. The nurse nastily told me if I was in “that much pain” I should go to the ER.
I eventually saw the doctor and he had me admitted directly to the hospital, where I stayed for eleven days. Even seven years ago, eleven days was a long time to stay in the hospital. I didn’t really even have a diagnosis. They were fairly sure it was some reproductive issue, cancer probably. They could feel a mass when they did pelvic exams, which they did at every opportunity and right in the hospital room.
Nine years ago, I was honestly relieved that it was cancer. Back then I believed cancer was easier to explain, more socially acceptable, and had more support. Nine years ago, I still (wrongly) believed cancer had an end point. After a certain number of years, you either were declared cured, or you were dead. Crohn’s disease was the opposite of all that and even nine years ago, at age 24, I was very tired of living that life.
A doctor came in to my room on the morning of September 11, 2005. It was not my doctor. This was Sunday, so I got the on call doctor. He told me my white cell count was too high. I forget the number, but it was almost impossibly high, especially with all the antibiotics and other drugs they’d had me on for eleven days. They thought the mass has exploded inside me. They were going to rush me into surgery.
No, I can’t have surgery here, I said. I needed to go to Richmond, to see my surgeon, the doctor who had performed all my other abdominal surgeries.
The on call doctor told me that I wouldn’t make it to Richmond in time.
Richmond is an hour away by car.
I had an hour to live.
Despite protests, the on call doctor would not notify my doctor. This on call doctor refused my request to be transferred to Richmond. I was trapped, and I believed I was dying, and I was 24, and very sick, and on so much pain medicine, but still in so much pain. I did not know what to do, and I could do nothing, held prisoner in that hospital. The on call doctor left the room to get everything ready. My mom and I were alone in my room. I figured someone from the hospital would be back to take me to surgery soon. Mom immediately called my dad. Then she called the Catholic church we belonged to and asked them to send the pastor over. I called my best friend, but got her voice mail. I didn’t leave a message. I didn’t want to leave her that message.
Time passed. More than an hour. I wasn’t dead, but I also had not seen one hospital employee in that time. When someone did show up, it was to put me on an ambulance for transport to Richmond. There was never any explanation. Mom was not allowed to ride in the ambulance with me, which I never understood. My parents drove down together. On the way, the ambulance got lost. Because I was strapped down, and facing backward, and on a ton of painkillers I could not navigate as well as I wanted. The time is fuzzy, but I know it took us over two hours, possibly even three. My parents were in my room by the time I got there. They, of course, were incredibly worried.
It was very late by the time I got to the hospital and the nurses got everything set up. They put me on the women’s specialty unit, which is where ladies go for hysterectomies and similar procedures. The unit was new, and set up to look like a hotel room. The nurses were amazing. My best friend was there. The doctor came in and said I didn’t have reproductive cancer. At all. It was just my Crohn’s disease. He also told me I was on an incredibly high dose of painkillers and that he was going to correct that. I was really scared because I was still in a lot of pain, even on the high dose, but eventually came to understand that he was right.
I did end up having surgery. I ended up having complications from that surgery which caused me (and my mother beside me) to spend three solid months in that second hospital and then at least one shorter trip back in the following month. It wasn’t easy. It’s still not easy. That wasn’t my first surgery and I don’t believe it will be my last. I’ve been left with a profoundly life altering shortage of intestine as a result of cumulative surgery and disease damage.
I’m still alive. Every bad thing that happens (as a natural pessimistic, it’s a long list) is still better than honestly believing I had an hour to live. Every sucky day is the opportunity to try again for a better day in the future. Things change, but I’m still alive. That hasn’t changed.
9/11 is a weird day for me. I’m normally very happy, because I’m grateful to be alive in a way that really hits home. It is weird to feel happy on a day that is so somber for our nation. It’s a day to remember those who were lost. For me it’s a reminder that I’m lucky to be alive.