This Is What Serious Illness Does to You

This is what serious illness does to you. Once you’ve survived a dance with Mr. D (Bonus points if you get the musical reference), your life becomes a tango between symptoms, causes, and your medical history.

chest film (1)My story:

In August of 2012, I had a major embolism. How major? Picture three or four fuzzy golf ball size nodes crammed into my left lung. The clots began in my left calf, and ended up in my chest. For whatever reason, I had no real calf pain. I’m a cyclist. My legs always ache. I had no chest pain. I was a little short of breath. Nearly fatally so, as it turns out.

When my shortness of breath induced severe anxiety, I called the doctor. He ordered a stat Doppler and CT scan. He called me from his office whilst I sat in the lab’s waiting room.

“Dave, you’re going straight to the hospital. Do not go home. Go directly to the ER. Should you be scared? No, but you should be very concerned.”

I was not allowed to walk for 36 hours after admittance to the hospital for fear that movement, even in my highly anti-coagulated state, might jar a chunk of clot into my heart. People die that way-about 70,000 every year in the US alone.

Blood tests showed I had none of the sixteen known clotting disorders. After six months on anti-coagulants, I was weaned from my meds. Life returned to normal.

Three months post-wean, my left calf felt a little dead, like after a hard ride. I coughed and my chest hurt. I put it off. I was fine. I’m no whiner. Three months and two days post-wean, my calf felt even more dead. My cough became persistent. I might be no whiner but I was due to fly from Michigan to San Francisco to be on a Dad 2.0 Summit Speaker’s Panel. I was scared. I called the doctor.

The Doppler study of my leg and my CT scan showed a small blockage in my leg, and another clot, smaller and singular this time, in my left lung. No trip to SFO, but I did get a week of heparin shots. Plus, I didn’t die on a cross-country flight. So, I got that going for me. Which is nice.

I’m now a warfarin lifer. I get the monthly blood test. I’m okay.

Life goes on. I skied recklessly, as I always have, all winter. I’m training hard on the bike and in the weight room. I’ll race again.

But this is what serious illness does to you.

Last year, the spring of 2014, whilst doing dumbbell step-ups onto a plyo box, I strained a calf muscle. I got on the bike the next day, and the left side of my chest hurt. Right where my chest hurt during both of my PE episodes. I had to get off the bike, sit by the roadside, and do a series of deep breathing exercises to assuage the panic.

The rational mind knew what had happened. “Calm down, dude. You’re fine. You strained your calf yesterday. Maybe 1% of healthy people on warfarin get a DVT.”

The reptilian brain had an entirely different take. “Yeah, and you’re in that 1%. Get me the Hell out of here!” As is the case in all bad movies, the reptiles won the battle. I rode the few miles home, put the bike on the trainer, and finished my ride.

After three days of steady calf pain, and steadily worsening chest pain, my ability to calm my mind was gone. I called the doctor. The stat Doppler and CT scan were negative. My doctor was sympathetic. He said that any time I had several days of consistent calf or chest pain, we’d run the tests. My wife reminded me that it was far better to be scared and safe, than brave and dead.

This is what serious illness does to you.

You slip in the shower. You think “I hit my head on the tile and I’ll die in here from an intracranial bleed.”

You bump into a closed sliding glass door. You think “I put my arm through that and I’ll bleed out before the EMTs can get here with the fresh frozen plasma.”

You get a cold and you cough. All the sensation from the cough is centered in precisely the location where all your PE trouble began. You search frantically for the Xanax the doctor wrote for exactly this situation.

You forget to take your Zyrtec for your allergies for one day, and when allergy symptoms cause a little shortness of breath during a bike ride, you barely stave off a panic attack.

If you’ve had cancer (I’m also a cancer survivor), you know precisely what I mean. You had breast cancer, and the moment you feel a lump anywhere, you are instantly transported back to that hospital with the surgery and chemo and radiation. You had testicular cancer, and the slightest twinge in your groin instantly takes you back to that time when your testicle was removed, and the lymph nodes in your groin were pulled out by the roots.

Serious illness. We may be cured. We move forward. But the memory never leaves us alone for long. Serious illness is the panic-inducing bug bite that is certain to be a cancerous lump in the darkness of 3:14 am. Serious illness is a muscular fasciculation in the shower that is certain to be the early sign of a DVT.

It’s the shadow that makes us more compassionate and reflective and appreciative of every day. Serious illness-it might be a gift, if you’re willing to accept it.

This is what serious illness does to you.

David Stanley

View posts by David Stanley

David Stanley, B.S., M.A., is a writer and voice-over actor. His book, Melanoma; It Started with a Freckle is due out in spring 2016 via McGann Publishing. Follow @MelanomaBook for updates. Stanley writes regularly for Dads Roundtable. His freelance work has appeared in Velo, Peloton, ROAD, and magazines. His VO work can be heard at Follow him on Twitter @dstan58. He tweets early and often.

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