On December 20, 2010, a phone call with my internist that ended with "you have Cancer" forced me for the first time to face my own mortality.
On May 20, 2011, 6 months and 6 rounds of chemotherapy later, I received another call, this time from North Shore Hospital's Emergency Room Department, that would likewise force me to face death for a second time.
Earlier that morning, I woke up at 5:30 am, wiggled my toes, adjusted my shoulders, and started my ritualized deep breathing exercises that help me focus on the present moment and remind me that I am alive. As I lay in my bed, smiling, I couldn't stop thinking about how excited I was to face the day, and more importantly to rejoin the world after living in isolation for 6 months. My immune system had clearly started to rebound, and I was getting ready to return to Northwestern Hospital for the last time to give blood and assess my levels.
I showered, returned to my bedroom and started to pack. Moments later I was overcome by shooting pains that originated in my abdomen and radiated down through the tips of my toes. The pain was so excruciating that I fell to the ground. I moved into fetal position hoping that this would provide momentary comfort. To no avail I couldn't get comfortable. I then tried to gradually stand up, only to realize that my situation was progressively worsening.
I screamed out to my parents, who quickly tried to figure out ways to ease my pain. As the pain increased, my voice noticeably quieted. We all came to the conclusion that not only was I unable to drive myself to Northwestern Hospital, but that my parents were not going to be able to get me there fast enough.
My father called an ambulance, and within minutes I was strapped to a gurney with tears streaming down my face. I have no idea what transpired from when I was laid out on a stretcher to when I was brought into the emergency room. The only memory I have is that I realized the ambulance driver was the same police officer that politely called my father during my high school graduation to tell him that I would need to be escorted home because they found a flask of alcohol taped to my leg.
Realizing the connection, I swallowed my pride, and quickly got back to concentrating on managing my pain.
Without knowing it, I had shown up for my final test.
What if's- off the charts.
I had no choice but to draw upon lessons gleaned from the last six months in order to get through the next three days.
Once I was admitted to North Shore Hospital's ER, they hooked me up to Dilaudid which is a stronger derivative of morphine. This somewhat helped manage my pain, but by no means eradicated the abdominal cramping and burning.
After a CT scan, and blood and urine tests, the doctors diagnosed me with a mild Urinary Tract Infection which they believed I contracted while I was immunosuppressed after my final round of Chemoetherapy. UTI's are very common, particularly with women during Chemotherapy. I was eventually sent me home with an anti-biotic, and told me to drink lots of fluids.
Upon returning home, I told my parents that I believed I had been misdiagnosed and that there was something more serious going on. 5 hours later, while I was on the phone with my dear friend Dr. Lindsay Freud, I received a call from Evanston Hospital stating that I had Gram Negative Bacteria Rods in my blood and that I needed to be urgently readmitted. I asked if I could come back in the morning and they told me that minutes mattered.
In a panic, I called my oncologist and we both agreed that I should head back to Northwestern Hospital. He told me that he believed I had enough time to head downtown but that I needed to be seen right away.
I spoke with Lindsay who similarly echoed the other doctors sentiments. In all three doctors voices, it was clear that this was serious- very serious.
I started to panic. I could feel my body physically tightening up and mentally shutting down. I was out of focus and moving in slow motion. I walked over to the full length mirror in my bedroom, and stared deeply into my reflection. I no longer saw a victim, a patient, a shadow of my former self. Instead, I saw a warrior, a badass, a Cancer survivor who was unwilling to let another invader ravage my body.
As I stared deeper and deeper, I started talking to myself out-loud. " Jenna, you've got this. You are going to Kill this in the Butt. You are going to knock the shit out of this bacteria and you are going to start now."
I turned to my Mom who was surprisingly very calm, and I said, "We've got this." She nodded and we quickly packed our bags.
I turned to my Dad, and held him for an extended period of time. Fighting back tears I looked at him, and hoped that this would not be the last time we would embrace.
Within 30 minutes we arrived at the hospital. After causing a great scene at intake, we were eventually escorted into an isolated room away from the other patients. I was quickly admitted and soon thereafter seen by a team of doctors. I was hooked up to fluid, and started recieving intravenous anti-biotics which quickly attacked the bacteria in my blood.
The doctors at Northwestern believed that in addition to having bacteria in my blood, my port (affectionately known as my trip-nip or port authority) was infected. They decided to take more blood from different locations which they eventually cultured.
After 8 hours in the ER, I was admitted back to floor 16 at Hotel Prentice. I was greeted by Meghan, one of the nurses whom has affectionately become one of my lead dancers. It was 6:00 am and my Mom and I together watched the sunrise, desperately trying to take our minds off of the fear, the uncertainty, and the fact that we were back on the floor that we swore we would never return to.
We finally were able to sleep a few hours, and in that time, learned more about the invaders that had entered my blood stream, my urine, my body. After a chest x-ray, CT Scan, Ultra Sound, and more blood work and urine samples, my doctors all believe that I have a severe UTI that was contracted while I was immuno-suppressed. This bacteria moved from my urine into my blood and started to spread. My port, likewise was infected and needed to be surgically removed.
Yesterday, as I continued to receive anti-biotics intravenously, I had my port removed while I was awake. As they cut me open, and released me from this contaminate, I decided to sing Bridge Over Troubled Water on the top of my lungs. I couldn't stomach the sound of being cut open, so instead I embraced one of Paul's Simon's greatest hits, and sang as if it were my very last performance.
Today, I woke up with more abdominal pain, but with the knowledge that my infections are starting to clear up. I am told that I must stay here until my pain subsides, and there is no longer blood in my urine.
It has been an emotionally draining few days.
Over the past 36 hours :
I learned what it feels like to be so close to the finish line but unable to actually cross it.
I learned what it feels like to repeatedly fall down, and still continue to get back up.
I learned that I love and appreciate my parents in a way that I didn't think was possible.
I learned that there is a fine line between vulnerability and strength.
I learned that my desire to live is stronger than my pain.
I learned that my mind is stronger than my body.
I learned that just because I faced death once, doesn't make facing it for the second time any easier.
I learned that I need to slowly tiptoe back into the world.
Until then- I will give my body what it needs, and fight with every last strength.