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Lifestyles: Learning to Recognise Symptoms - Archives

This Really Is Spinal Tap
Heather Neal

What I thought was just a little wee dehydrated dent in my weekend plans, turned out to be a severe case of meningitis that rendered me helpless, bedridden and out of work ...

Most people start off the summer season with a splash in the lake. Off they go, stripping off angora sweaters, relegating fleece pants to the back side of their closet, running head first, half naked into a semi-polluted, algae-covered body of water without a care in the world. Others kick start the season with a vigorous jog around the sea wall, or a back-patio inebriation marathon in the company of good friends.
Not me.

This year things were different. It was the middle of May; I was swamped with work, but had justified a 48-hour reprieve to attend a friend’s wedding on Vancouver Island. The plan was to whip back there on the late ferry after work on Friday, spend one night as a bumbling idiot slurring, "I love you man," in the direction of my buddy the groom, and then jet back to work. End of story.

What I didn’t know was that the story had yet to unfold itself and this was far from its end.

Five hours into my stay in Victoria, visiting with a girlfriend over a glass of champagne, I felt a severe headache come on. The logical conclusion at the time, it seemed to me, was that it was the alcohol going to my head; as usual, I was upholding my painfully obvious and occasionally obnoxious reputation for being a cheap drunk. (This is a trait that only seems to be charming on dates.) ‘Stupid girl - you know better than to have more than one glass of this stuff’, was running through my mind. I was somewhat embarrassed about it, so I hid the pain from my friend and just laughed along with her as best I could.

I woke up the next morning to a headache that had stretched down into my neck, back and chest like a determined tidal wave. The pain was so intense that I could barely take a step without wincing, but I figured by the time I got to the wedding, the ‘hangover’ would be gone.

Not so.

By the end of the wedding reception my date requested that I sit down because he was embarrassed to dance with me. (It may have had something to do with the fact that I was only moving my legs in time to the music while keeping my head in one position. I sort of resembled a reverse bobble head doll with arms and legs flailing out behind me.)

Almost 72 hours later, when the pain was still there- and unbearable I might add- I went to the doctor. And then to the hospital.

Two excruciating months later I came home.

What I thought was just a little wee dehydrated dent in my weekend plans, turned out to be a severe case of meningitis that rendered me helpless, bedridden and out of work for what seemed like eons. The pain even caused blurred vision for a couple of weeks. It was so bad that any light or sound could send me into fitful moaning sessions, writhing around on the bed like a leech lying in the sun. I couldn’t read at first due to this problem, so I resorted to staring at the ceiling for hours at a time. The morphine did cause some interesting hallucinations to ponder, but one can only be entertained by the ceiling for so long- even when on drugs. Eventually, I resorted to listening to books on tape and keeping the blinds pulled to hide from the sun. Book-reading withdrawal was torturous for a geek like myself.

But I could watch television. So, now I am a reality TV expert despite myself and a morphine addict to boot. I was quickly brought up to speed on who the Bachelor really loved and whether or not Erin would choose one million dollars or some sleazy lawyer from the south to marry on "For Love or Money," the surprisingly predictable show set to replace the Bachelor.

Tough choice.

But the best part of the whole hospital stay, (and please note the irreverent sarcasm here) was perfecting the ‘hide the mystery meal and say you ate it,’ routine. The food they serve in hospitals has got to be selected by dogs. The entrée - usually composed of some sort of foreign meat product and ‘who’s-the-sucker-sauce’ accompanied with a side of dead vegetables - was always the worst. It would hide under its plastic cover smirking to itself just waiting to be revealed and then laugh in your gaunt little food-starved face saying, ‘ha ha, you can’t eat me- go fish SUCKER.’

It’s not that the food was officially inedible, but more that anybody in their right mind would not dare touch it. I even caught the 93-year old rakish man in the bed beside me collecting extra paper towels before dinner one night so that he could dump the delight when the nurses weren’t looking.
So instead, I counted on friends to deliver chocolate and candy and all things bad.
And yet, ooooh so good.

One of the shocks for me during this time was my inability to accept that my body was weak. I am so used to jumping out of bed in the morning and hitting the seawall for a happy hour-long jaunt, or grabbing my bike and hitting the hills, that I just take for granted things like walking. But I guess I didn’t realize I was a control freak about it. So it came as a shock three weeks after having been bedridden that my legs started shaking as I approached the bathroom three feet away- and that it really bothered me. It was weeks before I could go out for a ten minute stroll without collapsing with sweat and fatigue to follow.

I learned a great deal from this excruciatingly long experience. I learned that despite our sense of human superiority and the ability to be in control of our bodies and minds, we really can’t predict what is going to happen, and must accept that our bodies know themselves best. Our minds have just got to let go. I learned that I have the most amazing, supportive, and heartwarming friends in the whole world: friends who were willing to sit with me while doctors shoved gargantuan needles into my spine as I cried, friends who sent me flowers and ‘Sock Monkey’ comics to make me smile, drove me to doctors’ appointments when I was too delirious to remember, brought me care packages filled with fresh fruit and chocolate, did my laundry, watched my apartment, supplied earplugs to drown out the moaner beside me, and most of all, loved me unconditionally even when I was cursing the universe or citing the futility of existence- a sentiment that was clearly morphine induced.

I learned that and: I enjoy life a whole lot more when I’m healthy.

© Heather Neale August 4th 2003

Meningitus is fatal in 5%-15% of people who get this disease. If you ever have symptoms such as Heather has described, do not ignore them, see a Doctor. Ed (A fellow survivor)

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