Wednesday, April 1, 2015


One of the downsides of getting old is that any conversation with your contemporaries inevitably devolves into a protracted discussion about health issues.  Since I'm minimally sociable, I generally manage to limit my exposure to such encounters.  Others with a similar aversion and more sociability may need to start hanging out with a younger crowd.

So, let me tell you about my recent health crisis.

I offer in my defense the fact that no one is obligated to read any further.  Also, what I am going to explain along the way is that the ill health episode is really just the setting for an unexpected and more interesting experience.

I had a cold for about five days prior to our scheduled departure for Phoenix and a family reunion there.  I seemed to be on the road to recovery, so I did not really consider not making the drive east on I-40 to Flagstaff and south on 17 to Phoenix, which was uneventful.  Later, during the night of our arrival however, my condition took a sudden turn for the worse.  I could not stop coughing.  I had uncontrollable shaking which I managed to get under control with some Aleve, but I slept little.

At some point during the night I had something of a combination of a dream and an hallucination that seemed very real to me.  I saw an image of a rectangular silver or pewter plate that was pierced with an intricate design; it seemed to be hanging in space over a bubbling, magma-like surface.  The thin metal plate was trembling or vibrating and seemed to be held precariously in place somehow by my own will with great effort.  I seemed clearly to be engaged in an attempt to control the progression of my illness.

The image of the suspended metal plate faded away with no clear resolution.  I then became rather obsessed -- still in a semi-awake state -- with the nature or identity of the plate.  I had the idea that the plate with its intricate pierced design had a connection to a printing process.  It seemed that the name of the plate and the printing process was just beyond my grasp; I kept turning over the question in my mind, but got no closer to the answer.

When daylight arrived we called my daughter and she took us at my request to an urgent care clinic located not far from the little apartment we had rented close to central Phoenix.  I described my symptoms to the clerk and shortly afterward was seen by a young woman who could have been a doctor or a physician's assistant.  She briefly examined me, listening to my breathing sounds from fore and aft.  I was given a prescription for a penicillin-like drug and sent on my way.

We drove to a near-by Walgreens.  I waited in the car while Margaret and my daughter went in to get the script filled.  It was still very early in the day, but the Phoenix air was heating up quickly and I started to feel uncomfortable.  I recall a woman and her daughter arguing loudly in the car beside me.  I opened the door slightly to get more air.  My vision suddenly seemed to darken and I felt myself losing consciousness.

I'm told that I was found sitting strapped upright in the car.  My eyes were open, but I was unresponsive.  They thought momentarily that I might be dead.  My daughter drove us to the nearby emergency room of Saint Joseph's Hospital.  By the time we got there I was awake enough to stagger inside on my own and was able to answer some questions about my condition.  They weighed me, sat me in a wheelchair and wheeled me into an exam room.

I was put in a bed, hooked to an IV and had some blood drawn.  After hearing my list of symptoms the doctor ordered an x-ray of my lungs and a scan of my brain.  The results of the tests showed evidence of pneumonia and a possible blood infection.  The brain seemed unaffected.

The doctor was efficient and pleasant.  He managed to pronounce my name correctly on the first try, and explained he got it right because he was also Irish.  Not surprisingly, he said they would be keeping me in the hospital.

I remember that as I listened to the doctor explain his conclusions and the care plan I had no feeling at all of any discomfort though I had been given no medication at that point.  In fact, though I had no real idea about what the possible course of my illness might be, I was pervaded by an incongruous sense of complete serenity and well-being.  The presence of my wife and daughter and the brisk efficiency of the caregivers no doubt contributed to my mood at that moment.  I don't know if those facts fully explain my state of mind given the obvious uncertainties I faced.  It just seemed undeniable that I was somehow suspended in a time and place of great peace with no concern for ultimate outcomes.

I had three days in the hospital to think about my experience in the ER.  I was impatient to get out of the place in the end, but during the first day and a half much of that serenity I felt during the ER wait remained with me.  Because of my familiarity with Margaret's years of working in hospice settings, I was aware of the possibilities of coping effectively with anxiety and fear in life-threatening circumstances.  To personally experience such an event provided a much more profound conviction that my chances for a good death are really quite good.  Not that there is any hurry, of course.

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