Friday, March 06, 2009

Emergency! Keeping Sickness from Owning You

My head felt like a watermelon teetering at the top of my weak neck. My heart pumped up against my ribcage. The organs behind it felt like they wanted to break out of their bony prison. Cold and shaking, arms aching, I knew it was time. Emergency room, here I come.

They say you're not supposed to drive yourself, but I had no other option. My wife was working, and even though she knew how scared I was, she couldn't just up and leave. The thought of her not being there if this was something serious riddled me with anxiety and worsened my condition. Somehow I dizzily walked to the car and drove the mile to the hospital, pondering my fate. Was this morning the last time I'd share coffee with my wife?

I know. I sound like a drama queen, but this was strange new feeling for me. I normally hate even taking pain medicine, and I usually go to the doctor about once a year. But ever since the night before I couldn't shake the urge go to the ER. No matter how much I fought it, I was certain my body was rebelling against me. Was I just paranoid, or would I be sorry that I didn't seek care sooner?

I arrived with a sense of urgency. Apparently, I was the only one who felt that way. This was not TV; nobody was rushing like they do on Grey's Anatomy or ER. The automatic doors didn't open when I tried to come in. I stood there, waving and pleading for someone to open the door. The ladies at the front desk stared at me like I was a coach customer trying to weasel my way into first class. I finally got in only when someone else left.

The lady acknowledged me grudgingly. She took my insurance card and driver's license and instructed me to sit down. They'd process me after the paperwork printed out.

I sat down, and then it hit me. After the paperwork? Seriously? So you're telling me if I'm dying, it's more important to have a printed record that I checked in before I croaked? Apparently so.

Five minutes later, a neat stack of papers had rolled off the presses. I was still alive. To make a long and boring story shorter, after EKGs, X-rays, blood tests, and two bags of saline solution pumped through my veins over five hours, doctors were confident that my heart was normal along with everything else and that I was not, in fact, going to die - yet.

They discharged me, but this is just the beginning of the story. Over the next week, I went to my primary care doctor twice and mixed in another visit to the ER when severe lightheadedness rudely added itself to the growing list of uninvited symptoms crashing my body's party. Two weeks after that second ER visit, I'm back at work but still recovering.

Throughout the ordeal, I've learned some things about being sick, lessons that my good health kept me from learning over my first 23 years. If it were up to me, I'd do without these hard-earned nuggets of wisdom, but as he's reminded me in the past few weeks, God always has reasons for what he allows us to go through.

My main takeaway is that my faith - however fortified I thought it to be - was weak when tested with uncertainty. And what good is faith if it's not functional when doubt arrives? That's an oxymoron, like a health insurance policy that's only effective when you're well.

With weak faith and a body pummeled by the mysterious, unnamed illness, I allowed the sickness to own me. I worried constantly and dreamed up all kinds of explanations for my symptoms, the more severe the better. This was an open case, and I wanted to solve it rather than trust God to handle it.

An earnest prayer helped me find my way out of that trap, and since then, I've compiled a few ways to keep sickness from becoming an idol:

1. Stay around other people - Sickness, at least for me, has the tendency to cause self-absorption. It's understandably hard to think about others when you've got symptoms like mine or even more severe ailments, like so many unfortunate patients I saw on my ER visit.

But self-absorption can easily morph into worry, which usually has negative physiological effects. I found that I was most positive when I was focusing on someone else. Faith helps, but a head knowledge that God's got things under control doesn't take away fear. And fear is fertile ground for worry to take root.

2. Get married - Wives save lives, and I still owe mine a nice dinner. Maybe after all the medical bills are paid. Seriously, though, she was rock-solid when I was worrying like a pansy. She refused to believe anything bad might happen. Her insistence was a bit annoying when I felt like I was going to die, but if she had melted down, I might have.

3. Learn - This will be tough and next to impossible for those with life-threatening or terminal illnesses. I understand, and I'm trying not to be insensitive. But for me, once I found out that I was generally OK, the experience became a great opportunity to learn about the glories of empathy and the woes of the American health care system. This kept me distracted, which kept me from worry, just like #1.

4. Make peace with death so you can truly live - Those first few moments in the emergency room, I tried to make peace with death. This might be difficult for those who don't have faith in God or an afterlife. Those aren't hurdles for me. My life has been a good one, and although I'm still afraid of dying, knowing that I'm satisfied with the life I've lived is a strong source of peace.

It's freeing to be content with death, because death is pretty much the worst thing that could happen to you. Beyond that, what is there to fear? The best lives are lived not with a morbid focus on death, but with a realization of our transience and the urgency with which we must steward our time on earth.

Please pray that I'll continue to recover, but more than that, that the clarity that sickness has brought won't fade when the symptoms go away.

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