“She Could Have Died in the Elevator”
My plans for this past April 2nd Thursday were simple. I would get to the hospital on time, my blood work would be at 10 AM as scheduled, followed by an 11 AM MRI and a noon follow up with my oncologist.
I should have known things would once again conspire against me, when the simple 5 minute blood draw turned into a 35 minute ordeal.
At 10 o’clock, I was ushered into the infusion room and sat in one of the chemo armchairs, watching others in various stages of cancer progression.
The male nurse tech who came to draw my blood sat down next to me and proceeded to slowly open and prepare all the packets, needles and disinfection wipes. I frowned and shifted in my seat as I watched him bring each item all the way to his face, almost touching his nose, in order to see what he was doing.
He tied a piece of rubber around my upper right arm. Then he informed me that he would start my IV but that he couldn’t take my blood yet because he was “waiting for labels”. When my arm was starting to turn a considerably darker color than the rest of my body, he got up to go check if the labels arrived. No luck. I silently started counting down from 100, determined that when I get to 1, I would untie the rubber tie myself.
When I was at 56, he finally picked up the needle and once again brought it to his nose for an inspection. He leaned over my vein, bulging out of my purply arm. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes.
I felt the needle going in for what felt like 3 or 4 seconds. When he was finally done inserting it, he attached all the IV equipment and I started breathing again, trying to ignore the burn from the stick, but happy that the rubber band got snapped off my upper arm.
At 10:30, the labels finally arrived and I completed the first of my three appointments of the day. The IV remained in my vein for the MRI people to inject me with a contrast dye.
At 10:42, I emerged from the elevator downstairs in the hospital, and signed in at the MRI desk. All went well until the point of when I had to change out of my clothes. Pulling my turtle neck over the inserted IV presented some challenges.
“God damned!” I seethed behind the changing room curtain. “Fuck, that hurt!” I exclaimed loudly a couple seconds later when a portion of the tubing got stuck in the sleeve I was pulling down my arm.
When I was done with my curse tirade, I was told to sit in one of the wooden chairs in front of the changing room and wait.
At 12:00, I was still waiting, my feet and hands turned into icicles, shivering with what I couldn’t pin point: It was either cold or rage. At that time I was already supposed to be at the oncologist’s office. I attempted to call and apologize but the basement, where the MRI machines were, had no signal. I managed to ask the front desk to call upstairs and tell my doctor I would be late. It took all my concentration to not scream at them and throw something at their heads. Even if they had nothing to do with the delay.
At 12:30, the MRI tech, a man weighing about 300 pounds at 6 feet tall, swooshed into the waiting room, the tails of his white coat flying behind him. His head was beaded with sweat.
“OK, ready?” He breathed out.
Am I ready? Am I fucking ready?!! YES, I am ready, I wanted to yell on top of my lungs but his desperate and haggard face stopped me in my tracks and I just followed him through the airport like security frame to make sure I had nothing metal on me.
He strapped me on the MRI table and put the Man in the Iron Mask grate over my head. I slid into the MRI and heard all of the loud honks and burps and grinds of the machine because the tech forgot to turn on the music in my headphones.
A little while later, he injected the contrast dye and pulled the IV out of my vein. Thank God. Or so I thought.
About 5 minutes later, I started feeling very hot in my face. I also felt like my cheeks were starting to push up on my eyes. I wiggled my nose, trying to gauge if my face was swelling. I couldn’t tell. My heart sped up. My hands started to feel hot.
“OK, you have about another 7 minutes left.” The tech crackled through the intercom.
OK, I said to myself, you can do this. You can still breathe. You are fine. I repeated this mantra to myself as I felt hotter and hotter and as my heart beat faster and faster.
Finally, the scan was over and the tech came to free me.
“I feel a little weird.” I said to him.
He stared at me in the dimly lit room. “Well, just drink some water and you should feel better soon.”
Hmm, I thought, I guess I look normal. I was relieved a little bit. For about 48 seconds before I saw myself in the changing room mirror.
What stared back at me was a bright red face with swollen cheeks and glassy eyes. I took off the hospital clothes and found a red rash spreading from my face, down my neck, onto my shoulders, chest, stomach, all the way down half my thighs. I twisted around and saw my whole back was as red as one of those cautionary tanning photos.
I quickly put on my clothes and marched back to the MRI room.
“Uhm…I think I am having an allergic reaction or something.” I told the same tech.
Once again, he just stared at me.
“Come with me.” He said and ushered me back in the same wooden chair I waited in for hours.
The radiologist, a woman in her mid-forties, came out, observed me for a few seconds and asked: “Can you breathe?”
“Uhm…yeah…so far.” I said.
“Well, it’s probably just a mild reaction, it will go away soon.” She said. “You can go home.”
“Well, it’s really itchy.” I said.
“Do we have any liquid Benadryl?” She turned to the tech.
“No, I don’t think so.” He said, not leaving to make sure.
“Well, you’ll be fine.” She tried to assure me.
Seeing that sitting down there wasn’t going to get me any help, I decided to just go on upstairs.
“Well, I have an appointment with my oncologist now, maybe they have something?” My voice trailed off.
“Yeah, just go on upstairs.” The radiologist waved me off and was gone back in her dark cave of a room.
When I entered my oncologist’s office, the front desk girl did a double take upon seeing me and stopped typing on her computer.
“Hi”, I said, “I think I am having an allergic reaction to the MRI dye.”
Within less than a minute, two nurses and my oncologist burst into the waiting room and pulled me in the back, sat me in one of the chemo armchairs and I recounted to them all the details from downstairs.
My oncologist rapidly fired off a bunch of orders to the nurses and in the next instant I was getting an IV in one arm and taking some pills orally while my other arm was used to continuously measure my vital signs. Two nurses stood in front of me watching me like hawks. My oncologist stood on the phone behind the glass nurse station barrier, also watching me, while he talked to someone.
Then he came to sit in the armchair next to me and kept asking me how I felt and how my breathing was. Feeling the effects of whatever was in the IV, I slurred:
“I think I’m fine….,” I had a hard time enunciating, “Really, Dr. Lisp…I mean Lipson…,” I just wanted to lay down and sleep, “I feel drunk”.
He inspected my red torso and arms and went back behind the glass to make more phone calls.
Meanwhile, the oncology medical director materialized in front of me, and asked me in painstaking detail what exactly happened. Slurring and taking long pauses to re-tell my story, I could see her grind her teeth and her eyes growing wide at some points.
When I was done, she smiled and patted my arm. Then she turned to one of the nurses, the smile gone from her lips. I only heard pieces of her speech but they included “…I can’t believe they…”, “…not supposed to…”, “…I mean, she could have died in the elevator…”, “…right now…”. And she marched off. I got the feeling someone was in trouble and it wasn’t me.
About 2 hours later, the redness began dissipating as well as the drunk feeling. My oncologist and I conducted our appointment in the adjoining chemo chairs and I apologized for keeping him longer than his usual hours, knowing he commutes from Baltimore.
“Don’t worry about it.” He smiled. “Really.” And I almost got the feeling that he enjoyed, if only for a little while, the adrenaline of a somewhat of an emergency situation. I certainly felt so well taken care of that this was the very first time in years I didn’t feel like leaving the hospital.