“Go to the Emergency Room in San Jose immediately,” my doctor texted me that morning, after seeing my most recent blood and urine test results in his inbox. “Can I go tomorrow?” I asked since I already had a flight booked for something completely unrelated. “No, do not wait. Every minute matters,” came the reply. That text signaled my “oh $hit” moment. This was serious. Therefore, my husband and I made the painful 5-hour trek to the ER in San Jose that morning.
Months after recovering from sepsis, I am still processing my dance with death – as I call it. If you are not familiar with this medical condition, sepsis is basically the point when an infection is raging within you so forcefully that your organs are at risk of shutting down. As many as one-third of people with sepsis die. Not exactly a happy stat.
The entire episode for me was – and still is – surreal. How does one go from being completely fit (eating healthy, juicing daily, avoiding “bad for you” foods, not smoking, barely drinking alcohol, exercising consistently, maintaining a healthy weight, having no family history of serious ailments, being of sound mind, meditating, strong social ties, zero histories of mental illness or health problems, blah, blah, blah.) to nearly dead. Like a light switch.
As of this writing, 4 months later, we do not know exactly what caused the sepsis. My doctors in San Jose (I live in Costa Rica) scratched their heads. It is either an odd leaky gut issue, a perforation, or sudden extreme diverticulitis. Long Covid? By the time I reached the ER on 28 Feb (I was in a closer hospital ER 3 days earlier and their tests failed to reveal the massive abscess growing within my gut – creating a very unbecoming pregnant look for me), I was slightly incoherent and, quite frankly, scared. “Badass” as I would like to think I am, a dance with death reduced me to a tiny figure howling in pain, attempting to grasp my new reality.
The hospital staff quickly began pumping painkillers, antibiotics and whatever other lifesaving liquids necessary into my already tired, collapsing veins from the previous ER visit. Although the CT scan from 3 days earlier did not indicate that massive abscess, the new sonogram did. It was explained to me that my body created it to save my life. And if I was not so young (relatively speaking, obviously) and fit, I would most likely be dead already. My body created this capsule to collect all the bacteria that were leaking from my intestines. I was rushed to surgery to insert a drainage tube and I spent a week watching disgusting, bloody pus drain from my gut into a little apricot-shaped container during my week’s stay at one of Costa Rica’s reputable JCI-certified medical facilities.
Not having eaten in 10 days, kilos we slipping off my already slim frame. I remember wondering what it would be like to eat again. I also remember the overwhelming feeling of loneliness in a foreign place. Thankfully, a day bed was set up in the room for my husband, so I was not alone. But I was hours away from friends in my hometown who might have visited and infinitely far away from family and friends in my homeland. Coupled with Spanish not being my first language, it exacerbated the feeling of being tiny and helpless in that gigantic hospital bed in a cold room (I am always cold). Several friends sent flowers to brighten my day. I did not have the heart to tell them that the hospitals in Costa Rica will not allow flowers in their rooms. So, they sit in the hospital lobby waiting for someone to take them. Fortunately, my husband was notified with each delivery and took photos so I could at least see them in their 2-dimensional, non-sensory version.
When they tell you arthroscopic surgery is non-evasive, don’t believe them. In order to locate the abscess, they must make several small incisions to guide the scope and they need to move around the intestines. This delicate organ does not return to the way it was perfectly tucked into place previously. It leaves you lumpy – with all kinds of twinges of pain, making you question if it is a normal part of the healing or if the infection has returned.
As I lay there shivering, an occasional tear would trickle down my cheek. I thought about the upcoming plans (painstakingly enormous ones) that were destined to be canceled. My husband and I had our Costa Rican (second) wedding planned on the beach in a couple of weeks and then an extended honeymoon to Turkey and Europe for 3.5 months. My surgeon at our follow-up appointment a week after the hospital discharge stated, “I am okay with you flying, but my only concern is if the infection returns.” I was cleared for the trip with a round of emergency antibiotics and a list of hospitals.
Perhaps, in hindsight, it was not the best decision to leave for so long not knowing the cause. But it was my decision, I own it. Travel has long been my passion. I was not going to quit living after surviving a dance with death and multiple cancellations the previous 3 years. In this case, being careful with diet and not over-extending myself was not enough. The infection returned. I wasn’t sure, but the new anger in my intestines suggested things were not right. This time I had the opportunity to visit the ER in Malta. The blood test revealed high markers for infection and inflammation again. Thankfully, the CT scan indicated the abscess had not yet reformed. The 5 days of a liquid diet and a round of antibiotics did their job and helped me through the remainder of my time in Malta.
The infection is brewing again just a little over a week before we arrive home. This time, with ongoing slight intestinal pain. I never thought it would be painful to eat, but it is. As I write this blog, I am on a transatlantic crossing on my way back to the Americas. I am on ANOTHER round of antibiotics from my doctor in Malta and things are obviously not right. The ship has a medical facility on board, but it is not as extensive as I would need if I went into sepsis again. And the irony is, you cannot be life-flighted out of the middle of the Atlantic (although we were diverted to Halifax, Nova Scotia for a medical emergency – thus delaying our arrival to NYC significantly).
And so, I turn to the healing vibrations of the universe. The kindness of so many friends and family who kept me in their thoughts, their prayers, or in whatever way they felt appropriate to send healing vibes surround me once again. It is what got me through that initial dance with death. I am almost home, with a colonoscopy appointment looming. The answers and possible surgery will come. I remain hopeful.
I went to a lecture on board the ship from an RAF fighter pilot, John Peters, who was shot down in Kuwait and tortured by Saddam Hussein’s regime for 75 days before the war ended. His emotional speech, sprinkled with humor, reminded me to find strength while in a scary place. And to find ways to laugh.