Please, don’t tell me to lighten up about COVID-19. Yes, we can see the light. It is so very tempting to rip off that mask and pretend like everything is normal. It isn’t. And I am not sure when I will ever feel it is.
No, I did not contract COVID. I kept isolated. Masked. Zoomed. I have been careful and lucky. But it doesn’t mean I don’t have an understanding of what this disease can be.
People in my world know that I have died. But I rarely talk about the circumstances. I have talked a lot about fibro, PSA, and diabetes. What I haven’t talked about is achalasia. Achalasia is an uncommon disease that is, of course, connected to autoimmune issues. Its prevalence is 10 in 100,000 persons worldwide. Essentially, the sphincter muscle between the stomach and esophagus seizes shut, and it impairs your ability to eat and drink. The contents of your esophagus come up. And in my case, I aspirated into my left lung when I was sleeping. I know friends remember me gagging and running to the bathroom at dinner or throwing up in trashcans at the mall. This is why.
This all came to a head when I moved to Virginia in 2007. I wound up in the ER and was diagnosed with pneumonia, and I was told that I needed to see a GI to get a scope to check out my esophagus. I canceled my trip and stayed home to get better. The ER doc said I could go to work on Wednesday of that week. So, I did.
On Thursday, I decided to join the lobby day for some human trafficking legislation on which I was working. I made it through, but I felt like hell at the end so, I Metroed home. I stopped by the vet to get some meds for MacDuff, aka His Majesty, my ornery corgi. And I doubled over and passed out. They called the EMTs (the same guys from earlier), and back to INOVA, I went.
I was put into the mid-ICU. Alone. I couldn’t breathe. I could hear the gurgling in my lungs with every inhale and exhale. Every day it was harder and harder for me to breathe. I was drowning in my own body. I was dying. No one could figure out why the pneumonia wasn’t clearing. I was alone and terrified.
I was given antibiotics and meds to counter my allergies. But my lungs never cleared. Then the achalasia diagnosis came, and the realization that I was aspirating into my lung. No amount of antibiotics would cure it. So, chest tubes.
Now, if you have never had one, I really don’t recommend it. Essentially, they shove a garden hose into your lung to drain it. It isn’t the most delightful experience.
It was decided that I would have a Heller myotomy to open the sphincter muscle and mostly solve the issues. (I am sparing you the stories of the fights with doctors and invoking law degrees as not-so-veiled threats.) But the lungs needed to be cleared. I wound up with three chest tubes. My friend, Jeff, called me the Borg queen. I am so grateful to him. He visited me daily.
I was hospitalized for 14-days at that time. I was sent home to recuperate. I missed being by my grandfather’s side when he died. I missed Thanksgiving. My Christmas was dismal. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to live. I never felt so alone. Ever. I never felt so scared. Ever.
At the end of January, I was scheduled for surgery.
I went in, and I woke up with my stomach being pumped and hooked up to more antibiotics. Apparently, I started to aspirate when they were putting me under. I hadn’t eaten in 24-hours, but the egg drop soup I had was still in my esophagus because of the achalasia. And egg drop soup also looks a lot like an infection. Sigh…
Two days later, I am going back under. I wake up in ICU. Another chest tube and intubated. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t swallow. I was choking on my salvia. Mentally, I couldn’t handle it, and they wound up sedating me. There is no way to describe the feeling of knowing you would be dead if it weren’t for machines.
Nine days later, I was released. Afterward, I read my medical records. Both of my lungs collapsed while I was on the table. Then, I flatlined. Yes. I died.
I finally had to move home to Las Vegas to get my head straight and my life together. I am here. Most days, I am grateful. It has been a struggle to get to this point. I still have a collapsed lung and physical and mental scars.
Then here comes a virus. A virus that brings symptoms eerily familiar. A virus that has killed over a million people. I read my friend’s description of her experience. It triggered my PTSD. Every day for a year, I battle fear, no terror, of experiencing anything like this again. I don’t know if I am strong enough.
So, I will not be collateral damage to anyone’s political beliefs. It costs nothing for anyone to wear a mask; not wearing one can kill me. We are not remotely out of the woods. Clark County is still at high risk for infection; the vaccination rate is not even at 30% for one dose. I will ease into “normal life” at my pace and in my own time. Not on anyone else’s.