A lot of my anxiety as a child resulted in me believing I would die in horribly tragic ways. For instance, I was terrified of sleeping under my ceiling fan because I believed that it would crash through my bed, chop me into little pieces, and send my remains and my bed through the floor onto my dad’s desk in his office below my room. My mother told me time and time again that if a ceiling fan were to dismantle itself, it would immediately stop spinning. I knew that those blades were powered by the devil, though, so I didn’t believe her.
I prophesied my death more times than I can count, each more exceedingly brutal than the time before. I imagined my mangled death from my American Girl Dolls, my demise at the hand of our swimming pool’s slide or the mysterious ghost shark, I knew if I climbed a tree I would fall out and break my neck when I hit the branches below, or the few times I tried to run away I would be eaten by a bear or rape-crazed cannibals.
So when I actually looked my death in the face, I didn’t even notice it.
Two years ago, my day started out like most normal days do. I went to brunch with my best friend (the same spot I took Le Clown to on our tour of Denver: Snooze) and complained about my significant other, probably. We ate delicious, delicious pancakes and drank orange juice. Then, after we paid to leave, I stood up.
And that’s when the shit metaphorically hit the fan. All of a sudden, I couldn’t breathe. It felt as if there were a lint filter in my lungs that hadn’t been cleaned out in the five years since the married couple bought the dryer. It was like breathing through clogged mesh, but clogged with what, I had no idea.
I started panicking because, no shit, I have an anxiety disorder. I told Batman I didn’t think I could walk the whole hundred yards to her car, so she held on to me and we took it a step at a time. Batman decided, smartly, to take me to an Urgent Care location. The people there were idiots. They looked at my medical history, saw that I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder and told me that I was having a panic attack.
“It doesn’t feel like a panic attack,” I started sobbing. “I can’t breathe, it’s hard to breathe.” The doctor nodded in a douchebastic (new word!) sort of way.
“Yes, that’s quite common with panic attacks.” He kept looking at his clipboard.
“I’ve had panic attacks, and this doesn’t feel like one,” I gasped. My hand was clutching my chest and tears were streaming down my face.
“They can be different each time,” the doctor frowned again. “I’m going to give you some Clonazepam to help you calm down, as I see you’ve been prescribed it before.”
I nodded, because what else was I supposed to do? A panic attack made sense, though this one hurt and I didn’t feel like I was having a panic attack. I felt like I couldn’t breathe and that was making me scared. Not the other way around. Oh, well. I’m not the one with the degree in medicine. I’m the one with the degrees in fancy words and political words.
We filled the prescription and Batman took me back to her house, where I promptly laid on the couch. I used my powers of deduction to figure out what was wrong with me: I didn’t think I was having a panic attack–that was for damn sure. It wasn’t my medication because I knew I wasn’t allergic to sertraline; it must have been my birth control. I was on it for only two months, and I had noticed during that two months that I was getting increasingly dizzy. I would go swimming three times a week while my sigfig was at work, and when I got out of the pool I would have to lean over and put my head in my hands to keep from falling over. Even just getting up out of bed required something to lean on as I gained my footing.
I didn’t even need WebMD, which I did look at when Batman took me home when the sigfig got off work. I knew it was my birth control, so I removed it. I thought, “sure, getting rid of this will somehow make me breathe again,” and I looked up my symptoms on WebMD.
WebMD is not accurate, of course. I knew this. I knew it because it suggested I had mono when I had a cold, or told me I had gangrene when my limbs tingled after they fell asleep. But it made sense. I knew I wasn’t having a panic attack, and not being able to breathe with an extremely elevated (we’re talking resting rate of 130-140) heart rate.
But I took the clonazepam because I hoped it was a panic attack. And clonazepam is a tranquilizer. So my heart rate didn’t slow down (another cue that I was very sick) but I didn’t care. I was floating in a cloud of narcotics, drowsily aware that something was seriously wrong but mostly ambivalent about everything around me. I was basically a mannequin, except more flexible and with proportions more similar to that of an antelope than Barbie. But whatever, I digress.
Morning came, and I still couldn’t breathe much. My boyfriend had left to go to work and I dressed slowly and took another tranquilizer, because at that point, it was the only thing keeping me calm. Also, I had convinced myself that they would help. I am an expert in denial. My boyfriend promised to take me back to the Urgent Care when he got back from work if I didn’t feel any better.
Surprise! Nothing changed, except I grew weaker. I kept my mother updated and she and my stepdad were planning on coming up that evening to take me home.
My then-boyfriend took me to the same Urgent Care as the one Batman and I visited the day before. I retold my story of not being able to breathe and the diagnosis of a panic attack and admitted to being on clonazepam, which was, obviously, not working to calm my heart rate down.
The new doctor brought out an EKG machine that looked like it was meant for electroshock therapy. The nurse attached the little electrodes to five different spots on my chest, making me look like I had plastic nipples up and down my abs. And then, since the machine was so old, they had to wind it up to start it.
Wind, wind, wind… I sat there imagining a great bolt of electricity running through my body, but the machine just began to hum and spit out paper with squiggly lines on it. Lots and lots of squiggly lines.
“Have you ever had any heart problems before?” The doctor asked me, concerned. I lay there, ambivalent as before, and replied “no.” His brow furrowed some more and he said, “Well, we’re getting an abnormal reading here. I can give you the name of some heart doctors to see.”
“That would be great. My parents are on their way up here.” I called them immediately after removing my third through eighth nipples from my chest and my mom said my stepdad had called a former client who is a heart surgeon and told him all my symptoms. He had told them to bring me back down to Denver immediately, or that he’d call a friend of his up in Fort Collins. He didn’t think it was a panic attack either, especially now that my EKG was abnormal.
I don’t really remember waiting for my parents. I know I was laying on the couch in SigFig’s house with my head in his lap, focusing on my breathing. I was still high out of my mind, so reality hadn’t set in yet that something serious was going on. Reality didn’t set in, actually, until a week ago when I sobbed at a party commemorating my Life Day.
I remember my parents arriving and the worried look on my mom’s face. I remember that I was too exhausted from walking around earlier to move, so they half-carried me to the car and put me in the back seat. The next thing I remember is sitting in a wheel chair outside of the hospital.
My mom wheeled me in. “She’s having chest pains and trouble breathing,” she told the nurse at the check-in. My mom volunteers in an ER and knows that those two phrases are key to getting seen sooner; not to mention the fact that in this case, they were entirely true.
Maybe at this point I should have been frightened. I should have been nervous or worried. But to me, it was all a vacation, an adventure… and definitely future writing material. I remained calm, probably overly so, as they wheeled me into the room and set me up on the bed.
They placed oxygen tubes in my nose. My mom sat holding my hand, reminiscing about the last time I had oxygen tubes in–when I was born. She was remarkably calm, no sign of tears, no shaking, just small smiles that kept me reassured.
She turned to me. “Whitney, your dad is on the phone.”
I don’t remember what we said beyond saying we loved each other. I was just so shocked and happy to hear his voice.
I hung up the phone, and shrugged at my mother. She held my hand. I lolled my head over to the other side. “Step, could you turn the TV on?” My stepdad obliged, and we found Swamp People on the Discovery Channel. I had recently discovered and fell in love with this show.
“Mom, look,” I said, “They give people subtitles when they’re speaking English. It’s hilarious. They’re from here!” I chuckled, straining. I was entirely too goofy for the situation, much like the person who laughs uncontrollably at a funeral or when someone farts during a serious conversation.
In through the door strode a magnificent human being: blonde hair, blue eyes, chiseled jawline… He was beautiful. Was he a real life Ken Doll? For a second I wondered if I hadn’t been transported to the set of Grey’s Anatomy as I gazed longingly at what was probably his nose. I couldn’t focus on anything, because my eyes got wide and my pupils probably dilated and drool may have come out of my mouth. That could’ve been the tranquilizers, but we will never know. (Hint: It wasn’t the Clonazepam)
He strode over and authoritatively shook my hand and my mother’s.
“Hello, you must be Whitney,” he said, with the bedside manner that every doctor perfects. I couldn’t help imagining his bedside manner, if you know what I mean. He sat down by my bed and kept looking back and forth between my mother and I.
“I am the guy you call when someone’s about to die. I’m not the guy you call when you’re having an asthma attack. I’m the guy you call to save your life.” My mother and I nodded emphatically. I was probably too enthusiastic, but I wanted him to like me.
“We have a couple of options as to what it could be. There’s a possibility it could be blood clots, but I don’t think that’s what it is. You’re young, you’re healthy, you don’t drink often or smoke… I’ve only had one guy under 40 get blood clots and he was diabetic and a smoker. However, we need to rule everything out so we’re going to run some tests.”
My mother squeezed my hand, and I smiled serenely, completely at peace with whatever Dr. Green might tell me. Hopefully he was going to tell me that whatever ailed me could be cured by a makeout session. That would be awesome, if only I could breathe deeply enough to sustain kissing.
Shortly after he got up and left, a mid-twenties nurse came in with tousled black hair and piercing eyes. My brain was awash with romance-literature language, as I saw everything in hyper-saturated, exaggerated tones.
“I’m Eric,” he said, and tossed his hair in the gentle breeze that was blowing in my imagination. “I’m going to inject you with this fluid in order to run some tests and make sure it’s not blood clots.”
I nodded, and he approached me, smiling. “This is going to feel weird. It’s going to make you feel like you’re peeing yourself.”
I laughed. That’s the first time anyone told me that about something they were going to inject me with… that’s what she said, I thought. My 12 year old boy humor was acting up with a vengeance.
But shortly thereafter, as they rolled me to the MRI, I felt a really warm sensation in my armpits, neck, and–you guessed it–groin. I thought I was peeing myself. In fact, I would have been positive I was had Eric not warned me. I lay in the MRI checking occasionally to see if I was peeing myself–Kegel exercises came in handy here–and giggled to myself at the sensation. The MRI was over quickly, as was the warm sensation, but I’ll never forget how convinced I was that I was peeing my pants.
Time passed. An indeterminate amount, since I was floating in WhitneyLand with Swamp People and the crocodiles they were hunting. But I snapped out of it and back into reality when Dr. Green walked in with a frown on his face. He sighed and sat down next to us.
“Well,” he began, “it’s blood clots. And they’re really serious. We have to admit you and get treatment started as soon as possible.” I distinctly remember looking over to my mom and holding her hand. Our eyes went wide.
“I’m really glad you called me,” he continued. “These clots are very large and are taking up a fair amount of her lungs and heart.” I knew what he was saying was serious, but it seemed almost funny to me. Then again, everything on Clonazepam when you haven’t gotten much oxygen to your brain is hilarious. I resurfaced briefly to interact with Eric as he came in bearing a large syringe.
“I’m going to write about this,” I said, smiling at Eric.
“Oh, are you now?” He was drawing a large amount of fluid into the syringe.
“Yes, my daughter is a very talented writer,” My mom said, holding my hand.
“This is going in my memoir. You’ll get your own chapter,” I nodded enthusiastically.
Eric smiled gently, “well, I’m going to give you a shot now, and it’s going to be very painful. I’m sorry, but it will start breaking up the clots immediately.”
I paused, and squinted at him. “Then I will call this chapter, ‘Eric’s Revenge.'”
He plunged the syringe into my stomach, and I was wheeled away to the cardio ward, shouting obsceneties in my head.
I wasn’t awake much the next day, maybe a total of ten minutes. That should have been a warning call to me that I was on the brink of extinction, that Whitney was an Endangered Species, but I was more wrapped up in the hotel-type excursion I was on. Room service? Fuck, yes! Movies on demand? Sure! Servants to do my bidding, change my sheets, and help me walk to the bathroom because 15 feet was too much? Of course! Gifts and friends and family (that I hadn’t seen in a long time) at all times of the day? Suh-weet!
My one moment of holy-shit-ness came when I pressed the button one day, and two nurses came running in. Not walking, or power-walking, or even a brisk jog. They came sprinting into that room like my life depended on it. It didn’t at the time–I think I just needed my heart monitors detached–but it did alert me to the seriousness of the situation.
That was my mentality throughout the entire experience. It was more of down-time. It let me consider the aspects of my life that were working (friends, family, school) and that weren’t (relationship, partying, apparently birth control, and my first serious attempt at heterosexuality). It also let me bond with a bunch of really wonderful people. One nurse and I swapped haunted house stories. I also demanded that he bring me 500 thread-count sheets. He left me a note when I got out of the shower once that said, “I took the last set for myself… I don’t even think these are 50 :(.” The nurses told me they fought over my shift because I was fun, and I eagerly awaited entertaining the people who were busy keeping me alive. They were wonderful, and I kind of miss them a lot. It was, strangely, one of the most fun experiences of my life.
The only thing that upset me was that my mom told me I may not be able to go back to school in two weeks. I was planning on graduating early (which I did), but recovery might have kept me from driving or flying out to Los Angeles. So, instead of succumbing to an extra-long summer vacation, I applied for handicap privileges at USC and a handicap parking placard. I got both, and my school year went smoothly with the addition of three very understanding professors.
I was one hour away from intensive surgery involving lasers to get rid of the clots and clean up my new capillaries. I was twelve hours away from a wooden box in the ground. My right ventricle was 90% occluded and my right lung was about 75% dead. And yet, through all of this, I managed because of friends, family, and the staff, to stay extremely calm and even–dare I say it–have fun.
Two years ago I almost died. But I handled it like a bad-ass. Today, I’m glad to say I’m here and that I’m thankful for everything my friends, family, school, and doctors did for me. Without them, I wouldn’t have graduated early, and then I wouldn’t have created this blog.
So, in a way, my blood clots are responsible for Highest Form of Whit… Which is fucking ridiculous.