One thing I love about a blog is that I can edit things. Whether it be on a piece of paper I have scribbled on, or a computer with typed commentary, I have the ability to cross out, erase, or backspace through to edit and refine the language. The story always becomes something that I can take pride in.
I can’t say I take much pride in how I have handled the events of the last few weeks. As background, this summer challenged my allergies and sinuses. I either had watery eyes and a runny nose, or I was fighting aches in all of my sinus cavities. I think the really bizarre weather helped create an environment that made being outside a misery. When you fight shortness of breath due to heart failure, it doesn’t help that your respiratory system is plagued with allergies and sinus headaches or drainage.
I was happy when October rolled around and temperatures began to moderate. I could roam outside at will, without worrying about the impact on my health and taking advantage of my autumn, my favorite season. Little did I know what was brewing in this head of mine and how hard it would be to overcome.
It started on the evening of October 12 with drainage from my sinus cavities causing a scratchy throat and a pesky cough. I went to bed early thinking I could sleep it off before a busy Sunday at church. But sometime around 1:00 in the morning I woke up with a really powerful cough. My body shook with each cough. Not only was it uncomfortable, it made it impossible to sleep other than a quick catnap here and there. I finally got up around 6:00 a.m. I texted the minister and other church leaders to let them know I would be out and unavailable to perform some responsibilities I had agreed to perform.
Early in the week I started to feel a little better and figured all I had was a cold – especially since I never had a fever. But by Thursday morning my cough was back with a vengeance. Plus, there was a new complication – lower back pain. I stopped my resistance and yoga exercises. But I did continue to do some walking as I found the pain seemed less when I was moving around. The pain was greatest when I had been lying or sitting still for a while and I had to get up and move to feel comfortable.
Saturday rolled around and I took it easy because I wanted to have energy for the next day at church, including the service and a meeting. I went to bed early, but once again woke early with a severe coughing fit. But this time the coughs really highlighted the pain in my lower back. I was miserable. Once again, I checked in with the minister and church leaders to say I would not make it.
I went on-line and found that my doctor had an appointment for the next morning. I set up the appointment online. With the sore back and the coughs that still seemed to shake my whole body, I started to become afraid. What if these were two new chronic problems I had to manage? How would I be able to live any semblance of a life with purpose?
I am fortunate to have access to not one but two ministers. One of course is the minister of my church, but suffice it to say that he is a little busy on Sundays. The other minister is also an ordained minister who retired from her position at a nearby church a few years ago but still keeps active in the clerical community and in our church. She is also the minister who provides a pastoral presence for our support group, and she has a background in chronic illness issues. I reached out to her to see if we could talk at some point during the day. When we connected I the afternoon, she could hear the fear in my voice.
I walked through the scary feelings that had overwhelmed me. She helped me to realize that I can still remain a vital person if another physical challenge appears. With a soothing and calm and measured manner, she walked me off the ledge. She also offered to take me to the doctor the next morning. As we waited for the appointment to begin, we talked about my past and my career, and she built me up with praise for my accomplishments. I began to realize that if I walked step by step, just like in the past, I could overcome any obstacle because God lives within me.
When I got to see the doctor, she was very thorough asked a lot of questions. Basically, I had a lot of mucus going on in my ears and nose and head in general, so I definitely had encountered something that caused bronchitis. She heard some wheezing when she listened to my lungs. She sent me off for chest x rays and blood work. As for the lower back ache, the spine was fine. She thought it was a strained muscle or ligament. This could have been caused by a number of things. Based on my violent coughing episodes, I’m voting for assault by cough.
After reviewing the x-rays, she called me with a course of treatment that included an antibiotic. As for the back, she said it was okay to walk to help the back remain limber. We agreed that I could take Tylenol and apply heat to the back to help heal the strain and eventually start to do some stretches to work out the soreness. We agreed that if it I couldn’t work out the soreness, I would call in for a prescription for physical therapy.
I took the antibiotic as soon as I got it. I woke up in the middle of the night coughing and still feeling it in my back. The logical side of Melanie was saying – “be real, you’ve only had the antibiotic in your system for 9 hours. Take the full course and let it work its magic and give your back time to heal.” But the adrenaline junkie Melanie said: “this isn’t right – you’ve got to fight and get in there and do something!”
So what did Ms. Flight or Fight Mode do? Well I sent e-mails to the two ministers, recounting my fears, how much pain I was experiencing and how lonely I felt. Sometimes when you are a chronic illness patient it feels like it is you against the entire world and there is no one you can turn to.
Then I e-mailed my cardiologist, figuring why shouldn’t he be part of this equation? I mean, was he okay with the antibiotic I was on – and what about potential issues with my lung could impact my heart? Could he call my primary care doctor and find out exactly what the x-ray said? I also reached out to my sister.
I first heard back from the minister at my church. He phoned my landline but I didn’t recognize the number. Then he phoned my cell, but I had turned the sound off. A few minutes later I listened to his voice mail and called him back. He walked me through my anxiety and made me feel like it was reasonable to have my concerns. He said he would be around all day if I needed him. I told him it was great just to be able to say out loud what was bothering me and to be reassured by someone.
Then the minister who had taken me to the doctor e-mailed me. I had expressed in my initial e-mails that morning that I felt like a pain to everyone – my doctors, my ministers, my family. She said: “YOU ARE NOT A PAIN!!! I/we love you and hold you in the highest regard and totally agree with your caution and reaching out to the Drs because your heart needs that kind of assurance (and I mean that literally!). “ That positive reinforcement was so precious to me.
Then the doctor e-mailed me. Proving perhaps that doctors really are smarter than lawyers, he had the good sense not to contact my primary care doctor and perhaps make it seem like he was Monday morning quarterbacking. Instead, he got a copy of the x ray and sent me the results which included the important details: the lung are clear and no acute cardiopulmonary disease. (YAY!) But I continued to operate in anxiety mode and sent back an e-mail apologizing profusely for bothering him.
Then my sister both talked to me and also responded to my e-mails. I indicated I was worried that I was wearing out my welcome with my cardiologist. She assured me that the doctor was there to answer questions, there were no issues with that, and perhaps I was borrowing trouble. As wise as my sister is, I beg to differ. I didn’t borrow trouble – I purchased it fair and square on E-Bay!
Then I heard from the minister from my church. He was also responding to my e-mail that I was being a pain. He echoed what the other minister said. He also provided an insight that resonated with me: "You are not a pain (although you are feeling some pain). We understand that health is a constant concern and that when you get added pressures - it becomes difficult to deal with. When I was in Argentina, I developed a theory that people can consistently deal with one stress, sometimes two, but three is very problematic. During our time in Argentina - everyone we worked with was dealing with economic pressures - so it only took one or two additional stressors to put people in very difficult situations. Your heart is a constant - so the illness and back pain along with a feeling of loneliness makes at least three."
This resonated with me because it seemed to bear relation to two other recent events. The first was that on the morning I went to the hospital, I received a periodic e-mail from a retiree from the agency where I used to work. He provides an update on news items related to law enforcement in general, to our agency in particular and updates on employees and retirees. But he also includes a bible verse to start out with.
On Monday it was: 1 Thessalonians 5:11, “Comfort each other and edify one another.” Well, a lot of people sure had been comforting me and informing me of things I needed to hear. Of all the verses in the many page of the Bible, he chose this one for a day I needed it. Most people would call that coincidence. I would prefer to think of it as a message from God. Okay – I get that people had been helping me but how was I to pass it on? How could I become sensitive to those people who had that second or third stress putting them over the edge?
That afternoon, I walked over to the drug store to pick up some of the medical supplies my doctor had suggested. I saw an elderly man in a wheelchair who often sits adjacent to the metro station entrance. Gosh - I think I've seen him there for the past 3 or 4 years. He always has a cup in his hand with an American flag in it. His clothes usually several military service patches. He appears to have a number of disabilities and I suspect he is a veteran. He is always very pleasant.
I have been giving him a dollar every time I have seen him for years now, and see others do the same. I know a lot of people would advise against that, but something about this guy seems so very real and genuine. He always tells me to “have a nice day, God bless you” and I always smile and tell him to have a nice day. Well yesterday after I gave him a dollar he said "I want you to know that I really appreciate you." I looked at him and I put my hand on his shoulder and said "I really appreciate you too". I don't know, it just seemed the right thing to do, to make a connection to someone who probably had reached his stress quota I life.
So the common thread here is people connected with me when I was at a really low point. They built me up – they comforted me and gave me insights I never would have thought of on my own. They made me feel like I had unique value as a human on this earth. When I saw the man at the metro station entrance, I wanted to do the same thing.
I walk the streets of Arlington a lot, and I’m always looking at the people around me. What do I often see? People with a cell phone glued to their ears, or their eyes glued to the cell phone screen as they text with no concept of who is around them or what is going on.
Don’t get me wrong – I love my cell phone. But there is a time and place for everything, and to me, when you’re out walking around in God’s world, it’s time to observe your fellow humans. Do you see a sad look on their face, some uncertainty as to where they are going? How hard is it to smile, and maybe lift someone’s day – or to be accessible if they are a newcomer and need directions? Maybe they just need to see other people out there trying to make their way in a topsy-turvy world. Maybe that’s the bond we need – people trying to get along and not judging one another.
Yes it was two miserable weeks I live. The German philosopher Friederich Nietzsche said What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I think that is true. I have started to use my tenacity to recover from the back injury – even though it is painful to stretch out those muscles. Most important, I also have learned that my strength comes not just from me but from friends, advisers, doctors, etc.
And here the Bible once again speaks volumes. We need to take that bad experience to give us the lessons learned so we can help comfort and strengthen others. We need to make that human connection. Returning to the title of this post, I have learned that we should never want to erase an episode in our life. We need to embrace it, learn from it and use our resilience to help others we meet.
Melanie discovered that she had heart failure in 2013. Since that time, she has been learning how to live with the condition, and how to achieve balance and personal growth.