Diagnosis: Eat a Salad
It was 2:13 a.m. and I’d been up pacing the apartment floor for close to thirty minutes, walking from living room to kitchen to bathroom to kitchen to living room, over and over again. It started out like a really bad case of heartburn, but even after taking the maximum recommended dose of Tums, the feeling only became more intense. Pacing the floor didn’t help at all; it was simply a compulsion. Like my pain-addled brain believed maybe, just maybe, if I took the magic number of strides I could leave the pain behind. Put physical distance between it and my body. I stepped as lightly as I could over the squeaky apartment floorboards. I didn’t want to wake Dan or our neighbor downstairs in unit 1.
I flipped on the light and examined myself in the full-length mirror on the bathroom door. Something about my reflection seemed off. It took me a minute, but I figured it out. Throughout childhood and adolescence I’d mostly associated pain with blood. A scraped up elbow or knee, a gash in my forehead that required stitches, even my period. Where is the blood? I wondered. Where is the giant knife under my right boob and the one in my chest and the half gallon of sticky red stuff dripping from my T-shit? Why isn’t it pooling on the cold white tile?
On TV shows I’d seen people, mostly pregnant women, survive extreme pain by breathing rhythmically. Maybe it would work for me. I inhaled deeply then immediately doubled over as the intensity increased by magnitudes of ten. I looked at the clock again. It was only 2:15. I’d never last the night. I hugged my torso as I walked to the bedroom and gently woke Dan up. “I’m sorry. I need you to take me to the ER.”
We’d only been in Champaign-Urbana for a few weeks, and though we’d made it a point to locate the drugstores, restaurants, and grocery stores closest to our apartment, we hadn’t yet conducted hospital reconnaissance. Dan and I both knew we’d seen one–somewhere. Neither of us were at the top of our game at 2:30 in the morning though, so we drove around fruitlessly for several minutes before I had the bright idea to ask Siri to find us a hospital. “Where is the nearest ER?” I winced. The car bounced over a pothole, sending a flash of white hot pain up my shoulders, down my arms, and out to my fingers. When it couldn’t find its way out through my fingertips, it went back the way it came, eventually finding a way out through my mouth.
“Sorry,” Dan said, looking at me with sympathy.
Turns out there were two ERs in town, so I set a course for the closest, the one a co-worker would refer to as “not the greatest” a couple weeks later. File that under things I wish I’d known before I knew them.
The bright lights of the waiting room assaulted us as we walked through the automatic doors. The waiting room was empty except for a woman seated in the corner. Her coat was worn and her mousy hair fell like an unraveling nest to her shoulders. She appeared to be seconds away from falling asleep while holding a two-year-old issue of Self magazine. I had plenty of time to wonder about her, whether she was waiting to be seen by a doctor or waiting for some news about a loved one or just enjoying having found a warm place to sleep on a chilly October night.
I complained to Dan about how long they kept me in the waiting room. In retrospect, though, I was hurting so profoundly I can’t be sure misery hadn’t altered my perception of time. Maybe I was just perceiving individual seconds as hours. However long it was, they did eventually put me in a room.
“Can you rate your pain on a scale of 1 to 10?” the nurse asked. I looked over my toes to the chart on the wall she was pointing at. I could just barely make out the faces of the pain emojis drawn under each number because the stabbing feeling in my chest had weirdly rendered me cross-eyed.
“Nine? I guess?” It was definitely a ten, but saying “ten” out loud felt ridiculous. In my mind, ten was sacred. Ten was reserved for people in labor, on fire, or having their toenails ripped off with pliers. I was none of the above.
When the doctor came in, I told him about the unbearable pain in my chest. He nodded then used his stethoscope to listen to all my internal gurglings and pumpings and swooshings. He rolled up a backless stool and sat at the end of my bed.
“And what did you have for dinner tonight?” he asked pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose.
The question seemed so odd to me. I looked at Dan while I tried to access the part of my brain that dealt in memories. It was difficult because most of my brain was diverting resources to the part screaming “PAIN! HURT! AGONIZING DEATH!”
“Uh, Chinese food?” I said. “General Tso’s, white rice, crab rangoon.”
The doctor told me I was experiencing indigestion and ordered the nurse to whip me up a GI cocktail of Mylanta and lidocaine. Then he left the room.
Wait. What? Heartburn? Really? I’d eaten Chinese food probably three hundred times in just the last five years. And I’d had heartburn probably one thousand times in the last five years. This was not heartburn, I’d already tried Tums. Was this quack even licensed? I looked at my nurse. Was she thinking what I was thinking? Apparently not. “I’ll be right back with that cocktail,” she smiled.
The nurse fixed the concoction and handed me a milky white drink in a clear Solo cup. It tasted like chalk and something I couldn’t identify–liquefied plastic maybe. It was hard to choke down at first, but eventually the lidocaine dulled my taste buds to its flavor. After that it was just a matter of overcoming its snot-like viscosity. Equally repulsive, but in its own way. After I’d downed the whole thing, I hung out in the hospital bed while my nurse finished entering the details of our encounter in her computer.
When the doctor came back, the dynamic between him and the nurse felt different, more tense somehow. Like maybe they’d argued about something while they’d both been out of the room. “Feeling better?” he asked. I rated my pain a five out of ten. It wasn’t gone, but it had lessened. I wasn’t sure if the lidocaine had helped, if the episode was nearing its conclusion, or a both. To my mind, though, nothing had been resolved. Diagnosing me with indigestion was just fucking lazy. I thought about the stories I’d heard my mom tell about her gallbladder attacks, about how she’d endured them for years before her doctor had identified the problem. I knew this doctor was wrong, but I was too exhausted to challenge him. I could barely keep my eyes open, and the sun would be up in just over an hour.
When he left the hospital room for the last time, the nurse swiveled around in her chair. “I’m not allowed to say so, but honey, that’s not heartburn. That’s your gallbladder.”