This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful to be alive and healthy.
Although I keep a daily gratitude journal where I notate these two gifts, they have taken on a deeper and more profound meaning in the wake of an unexpected event that took place this past September. There’s nothing like being in danger of losing your life to make you appreciate how much you treasure it.
Without delving into the details of why or how it happened, let’s just say I thought was doing something good for my body, based on information presented by a credible source. Little did I know, over a period of six months, with every pill I swallowed I caused incremental harm to my heart, liver, metabolism and other vital bodily organs and functions. Yet, not once did I experience any warning signs — shortness of breath, dizziness, low-energy — that would indicate a storm was brewing.
Then the thyroid storm hit me out of nowhere, like a Category 5 hurricane.
On a spiritual level, I now understand the significance of this life-threatening medical condition’s name. Thyroid storm is highly appropriate, considering that this year has been characterized by upheaval — including the end of a 17-year friendship and the discovery of complex PTSD in someone I love — rather than my intended outcome of “expansion” (though it’s possible expansion will result from these personal challenges).
Were they truly blessings in disguise? I’m keeping an open heart and mind.
If you’ve never endured a thyroid storm, it is a terrifying experience. I’m eternally grateful I wasn’t alone when it happened. Of course, I didn’t know what was wrong the morning I woke up in a dear friend’s guest room after a fitful night’s sleep, barely able to muster the strength to sit up in bed. I’d tossed and turned for eight hours, sweating profusely through my pajamas while shivering with the chills. Could it be the flu? I wondered.
Delirious with fever, my brain and mind contributed to my discomfort by playing an endless loop of the miniseries Rome, which I’d discovered and watched on Amazon Prime over Labor Day weekend. Combined with the thyroid storm’s mental and emotional impact and the authenticity of the miniseries’ portrayal of Roman barbarism in the ancient world, I had endless nightmares about being trapped in that time period, fearing crucifixion or some other excruciating punishment for the crime of being a lowly plebeian or slave.
At first, I didn’t make the connection but about a week before this occurred, I’d completely lost my appetite — an unusual phenomenon for someone who loves to eat (mostly) healthy, satisfying food. For whatever reason (avoidance? fear?), I chalked it up to stress resulting from a difficult, ongoing personal situation, even though my intuition told me otherwise.
The loss of appetite preceded my heart rate’s acceleration to 170 beats per minute.
Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I convinced myself that these ominous symptoms were the result of the flu or some other weird virus. Once I managed to get out of bed of bed that morning, for some inexplicable reason I decided to take a shower — which I regretted from the second the hot water rained down on me. Still in denial that something was seriously wrong, I raised my arms above my head to wash my hair and almost fainted from the effort.
I got out of the steamy bathroom and collapsed on the bed, where I closed my eyes to find peace and relieve my relentless, pounding headache. Instead, all I saw were bright, pulsating geometric patterns, leading me to believe I must be starting with migraines.
I’d like to say that was enough to ask my friend to take me to the hospital immediately. However, thanks to my irrational desire to avoid inconveniencing her and being a “hypochondriac,” I actually waited another 24 hours ~ a decision that could have killed me, if not for the fact that my body was healthy and strong enough to withstand the punishment.
Did we go directly to the emergency room?
I’d like to answer “yes,” because that’s what any clear-thinking person would have done. Instead, I asked my friend to drive me to the closest walk-in clinic, where I almost fainted twice. I remember trying to sign the signature line on the iPad during registration and begging the receptionist to just let me see the doctor before I collapsed on the floor. That’s when my friend spotted a wheelchair in the waiting room, moved it behind me in the nick of time, and used it to transport me to an examining room.
Initially, we left without a diagnosis and advice to eat well and rest. As I paid for the visit at the reception desk, I came close to fainting again, so they brought me back to see the concerned doctor. He urged us to go to the emergency room of the nearest hospital ASAP because they had limited resources at the clinic. By then I was experiencing tightness in my chest, causing fear of a heart attack. When I arrived at JFK Medical Center, they wasted no time hooking me up to monitors, checking my vitals, and assigning a doctor.
Over the course of eight days, I went from a room in an observation ward, to a regular room, to a private room in the step-down ward (after I spiked a fever of 102.9). Thankfully, there was a sink in my room in the step-down ward, if not a shower (eight days without one was torture). I was also blessed to be cared for by a competent, intelligent, sharp and dedicated young doctor (who could have been a model had she not chosen medicine) with an excellent bedside manner. When my blood results revealed that my TSH was “undetectable,” I asked her what that meant.
“Your body is on a treadmill,” she replied. Then she announced I would no longer be taking the stuff that led to the storm and my uninsured hospital stay.
As expected, my heart rate began to come down. However, the blood work had also indicated that my liver enzymes were in the 400’s (normal is in the 30’s and 40’s). And I continued to spike cyclical, high fevers. Ironically, I never got fevers as a kid, even when I was sick. Experiencing them as an adult was unsettling and scary. While I sweated through multiple hospital gowns, my “extra-thin spaghetti veins” endured countless needle pricks because my thorough medical team was determined to find the cause. (As a side-note, many thanks to all the wonderful lab technicians who treated me with kindness and compassion…even when I wasn’t thrilled to see them walk into my room).
My doctor ordered tests for every infectious disease you can imagine, from Lyme disease to AIDS, but everything kept coming back negative. There was no blood infection, no elevated counts, no presence of a bacterial infection. Yet the fevers kept raging.
In an effort to solve this medical mystery, my primary doctor called in an infectious disease specialist and a gastrointestinal specialist, refusing to send me home with dangerously high fevers without knowing their exact cause and how to eliminate them. Looking back, I’m convinced NOT having insurance was a good thing (even with the avalanche of medical bills coming at me from all directions) because it allowed my doctors to actually practice medicine and act in the best interest of their patient.
It enabled them to run multiple tests including an MRI and biopsy of my liver, an ultrasound of my abdomen, and an echocardiogram of my heart. While being there alone (until my mom and sister arrived by plane) was traumatic and scary, I deeply appreciate the professionalism, dedication and kindness of the men and women who took care of me, from nurses to technicians to transport guys to food service employees.
In the end, I walked away with an intact, healthy liver, as confirmed by the biopsy. There is no permanent damage from the virus that somehow activated in my system and attacked it during the thyroid storm. After a nurse administered just one IV of the anti-viral on a Friday evening, I woke up Saturday morning feeling noticeably better. From that point on, I received three IV’s per day, in one-hour increments.
By the time my mom and sister arrived I wanted out (I missed the feel of the sun and fresh air on my face), but the doctor didn’t release me until the following Monday because she wanted to be certain the fevers were gone for good and the liver enzyme numbers were in a normal range. I am more grateful to my family than I can ever express for dropping everything to jump on a plane to be with me. To think, for the first few days of my hospitalization, I pretended all was well when on the phone with my mom, as did my sister. Neither one of us wanted to worry her, though I kept begging God to let me live because if I died, I knew she would too. It wasn’t until the nurse announced they’d ordered a liver biopsy that I understood it was time to be completely honest.
There’s nothing quite like coming close to death to make you realize the extent to which you want to live. Particularly during those first few days, a mantra played over and over again in my mind: “I want to live,” “I want to live.”
That’s why this Thanksgiving, I am more grateful than ever for the gift of life and health. I thought I appreciated life and health before, but after this experience my gratitude is all-consuming. In fact, I recently bawled my eyes out one morning in profound thankfulness to God and Jesus for allowing me to stay on earth for a while longer. Now, I’m living with renewed purpose, determined to let the Divine Plan unfold.
When I share this story in real life, people often remark that they would love to lose their appetite to rid themselves of those stubborn extra pounds. I tell them no one wants to know what it feels like to look at food with dread, wondering how the heck you’re going to consume it. To clarify, loss of appetite for me did not involve nausea, vomiting, or stomach pains and bloating: it simply meant I could not eat. And it took several weeks to regain my normal appetite.
Am I happy I lost a significant amount of weight? Of course. However, I do not recommend the “thyroid storm diet.” Since it was something I was supposed to experience, I’ll take all the good that resulted from it, including a head start on reaching my fitness goals. I’m determined to go the distance the healthy way from here on out.
Due to the trauma to my body and mind, I took about 30 days off to recover. I’m grateful for my wonderful friend for creating a calm, nurturing environment in her home (complete with the cutest dog ever) to assist in my healing. I’m grateful for the lessons of 2018, no matter how difficult, and look forward to sunnier days in 2019.
What are you grateful for?
Wishing you a Happy Thanksgiving!