I way too eagerly smiled and waved goodbye to Michael and the kids as I turned to walk into the emergency entrance at Schneck Medical Center in Seymour, Indiana. “Don’t worry, kids! THIS IS TOTALLY NORMAL. EVERYTHING IS JUST FINE. MOM IS JUST FINE. LOTS OF MOMS GO TO THE ER ON THEIR DRIVE HOME FROM SPRING BREAK. This is just a quick pit stop! Have fun at the park with dad! See you soon!”
My dramatic handwaving would have been more fitting for a drop off at the airport than at the front door of a hospital. But I’m a champion suck-it-upper. “Mom thinks she’s dying, but look, kids, there’s a fun ice cream shop down the street!”
Mary Jo greeted me at reception with such kindness and sweet talkin’ (I love those half-southern Hoosier accents) as I explained what was happening to me. I couldn’t catch my breath, my chest ached, my left calf throbbed, my pulse raced and I was certain of one thing—I had a DVT in my leg and I was about to drop dead at any moment. (For those of you who aren’t google experts on the condition, a DVT is a dangerous blood clot.) “Aww, you sweet girl, let’s get you back right away,” Mary Jo cooed. She grabbed me a wheelchair and for the first time in ten days, I felt safe.
The faint pain in my lower left leg started a day or two after we arrived in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, for Spring Break last year. I noticed it one night when I couldn’t sleep. I stretched it out, massaged it and fell asleep. The next morning the pain was still there and it was a lot more pronounced. In the front of my mind, I chalked it up to bike riding, walking in the sand, a new workout circuit I had started. In the back of my mind—the place where I’m certain that every cough is cancer, the place where every time Michael is late it’s because he’s dead—in that back, deep, dark place I knew something much more serious was wrong.
It was the “back of my mind” that convinced me googling “left calf pain” late one night was my best and only option. And that’s when it became obvious to me that the symptoms of a DVT/Pulmonary Embolism matched perfectly with what I was feeling: pain in your leg, check. Red or discolored skin, kind-of-check (might have been sunburn). A feeling of warmth, check, because the more I rubbed it the warmer it felt to me. Shortness of breath, chest pain, dizziness, rapid pulse…hmmm…not really…not yet.
What factors lead to a DVT? Prolonged sitting, such as during a long car ride. Umm…we had just driven 18 hours straight to Mississippi; we’d never done it in one long haul before. I couldn’t remember moving my legs even once that whole time. Not once. Now that you mention it, I…can’t…really…breathe…that…well…enter chest pain, dizziness, rapid pulse, check, check, check. Sudden, imminent death was upon me.
I scoured google all night reading story after story of healthy people who dropped dead from a DVT. I couldn’t breathe. I thought I was going to pass out. My upper chest burned. My left arm tingled, my ring finger tingled. Hadn’t I read somewhere that that was also a sign of a heart attack? Is that what a DVT felt like? I tried desperately and unsuccessfully to fall asleep.
Other than mentioning it to my parents off and on—“Do you think I could be dying? Am I dying? What about this vein in my leg?—I didn’t talk about any of it. It was stupid, right? A blood clot? I could just hear Michael now, “Are you serious, Lauren?” I didn’t tell my best girlfriends who were down there with us even though one of them is an ER doc. A frickin’ ER doc. She was my expert, my lifeline. I felt dumb, so I kept quiet. But inside, my body and my mind were screaming.
I was dizzy and light-headed. I couldn’t take deep breaths. I couldn’t hear well. The top of my head tingled (and my left arm and my ring finger). I always felt right on the verge of passing out. My chest hurt. I didn’t like being inside. I was antsy and claustrophobic. And with no other creative way to say it, I felt short, like in a weird way. Like walking down the street I felt so small, like my body was sinking into the ground with every step I took.
I stopped sleeping; I spent most of my nights pouring out my pent-up fears to the google search engine. “Left leg pain,” “DVT,” “Blood clot,” “Chest pain,” “Arm pain,” “Ring finger pain” and on and on and on.
I was obsessed.
Fast forward to the end of spring break and I have now gone a week without sleeping and my body and my mind are in a constant state of heightened alert. Spending every waking moment expecting to drop dead takes its toll. And still, I kept silent and no one suspected a damn thing. Remember that part about me being a suck-it-upper? But maybe that isn’t the best descriptor, because, yeah, I was sucking it up, but not in a healthy way. It was more like hiding and discrediting myself and writing off my fears and not taking myself or my body seriously. That’s a pretty dangerous and lonely place to live.
I finally decided to tell Michael the day before we left that I was considering going to the local med center because “You know, maybe, there’s this little pain in my leg and maybe it’s a blood clot, but probably not because that would be so stupid and so unlikely. But maybe I should just go to check it out…maybe.”
Of course he was so nice about it. “Yeah, sure babe. Go if you think you need to.”
“Oh naw. It’s so dumb. I’m fine. I’m sure it’s nothing.”
We started our journey home and I should have known that eighteen hours in a small space with nothing to do except focus on my pain and think (and break up fights and feed kids and play the alphabet game) would aggravate my “condition.” I gripped the steering wheel, palms sweaty, heart racing and hemmed and hawed about talking to a doctor. This was so dumb, but I was dying, so…
After we stopped at a hotel for the night, I casually told Michael that I was going to wake up early before the kids and go to a med center in Nashville. I arrived so excited to finally get some help, some assurance, and then realized I forgot my ID at the hotel thirty minutes away. Bye. I took it as a sign to suck it up and went back to the room before anyone knew I was gone. We stopped for lunch near a hospital and I stealthily ran in to see what the wait time was in the ER…it was hours. Ugh. We kept driving and my body kept screaming. Finally, a few hours later, I said the words out loud (well, in a whisper to Michael and very nonchalantly), “I think I need to go to the hospital now. Something is wrong.”
Enter Schneck Medical Center. Enter Mary Jo. Enter EKGs and x-rays and ultrasounds and blood work and aspirin and guess what? They couldn’t find a damn thing. Are you surprised? I was shocked. Maybe it was a muscle strain, they weren’t sure. But I knew one thing, I WASN’T DYING. For the first time in days and days and days I could breathe easy. Maybe death wasn’t coming for me today. I jumped and danced and hugged my kids and cried a little and cranked the music in the car. “Mom’s alive and blood clot-free, kids! Let’s get fro-yo!” I drove the rest of the five hours home basking in this rich, physical and existential relief. I guess I had been wrong, a mis(self)diagnosis. I’m sure that’s never happened before!
Then it happened again. I ran up the stairs at home to grab something and my chest burned and I felt dizzy and I couldn’t catch my breath and my leg hurt and WHAT THE HELL WAS HAPPENING? I thought I was OK. The doctors must have missed something. There must be a blood clot in there still and they missed it and now I…really…am…going…to…die. I leaned my head against the wall and tried to steady myself. But my body wouldn’t stop, it wouldn’t settle down.
A few hours later I was sitting in my doctor’s office. The PA ran a bunch of tests and assured me that I didn’t have a blood clot. I felt a little better. Until night came and I…still…couldn’t…breathe. The next day I was back in the doctor’s office, desperate, scared, “dying,” and the same PA grabbed my hand and looked me in the eye and asked me a question that has shaped the last year of my life:
“Do you struggle with anxiety?”
“Ummm…no. I don’t have anxiety. This is real. I’m dying from a real physical problem.”
“Sweetie, I think you’re having a panic attack.”
A panic attack? Me? I’ve never struggled with depression or anxiety or any other mental health issues my whole life long. How could I be having a panic attack? I’m a strong, resilient, suck-it-upper. I don’t panic (except on airplanes or during tornado warnings). I’m not anxious.
I walked into the office that morning certain I was dying of a blood clot. I left with a diagnosis of “acute anxiety” and a prescription for Xanax. Say what?
What happened next? Stay tuned for Part Two: Living With a New Normal.