My usual busy day was interrupted Tuesday afternoon by a doctor's appointment, in which I explained a few minor symptoms to my sympathetic physician. When I came to symptom #3 he bounded from the chair he was sitting in and rushed me to the examination room. The cause for his immediate concern was that I told him that I had experience a mysterious swelling on the right side of my face on three occasions recently and once on the left.
I admit that the first thing I noticed when the swelling happened was a little heaviness in the face, and then I thought, "This is beginning to feel as if it's swollen," and then I looked in the mirror and it looked as if I'd had a rather large shot of Novacaine that extended up to the eye and down as far as the upper lip. It lasted a couple of hours and then disappeared--until it returned a week later and once much less, on the left side. It happened again Tuesday morning, too, and there was a little left of the swelling when I arrived at the doctor's office at 1 P.M. At no time did it feel numb or tingly. Just somewhat uncomfortably swollen, but not what you could call painful.
The doctor said, "I'm going to tell you something you won't like..." and I interrupted with a quip. He continued, "I'm going to say you have to go to the Emergency Room of the hospital immediately. I'll put you in a cab." Which he did, and I did; I was admitted to the hospital for tests at 2 P.M. Tuesday and stayed, being tested for every conceivable malady of the heart, blood, and brain until I was checked out yesterday at 3 P.M.
Being in the hospital was a surreal experience, having been thrust there so unexpectedly. While realizing the gravity of the situation I had to apply extreme concentration to hold onto the hope such a situation requires. The atmosphere at Hoboken Medical Center was by turns chaotic, noisy and awesomely efficient. I had an EKG, a CAT Scan, a couple of sonograms which sounded like video games but revealed to the experts the workings of my heartbeats and the clarity of my carotid arteries. I had blood taken at least four times. I had a drip of blood thinner attached to my right wrist. I wore a heart monitor dangling around my neck and attached to various spots on my frontal facade. I had an elderly roommate who made hilarious comments about the staff between her bouts of frightening coughs. I met nice, bright nurses and extremely helpful aides who called me "Mami." The neurogolist on duty examined the results of all my tests and talked to me quite a while, asking me to make faces and hitting me with mallets, ultimately coming to the conclusion that nothing really pointed to a stroke. The cardiologist said my heart was functioning perfectly.
All that had to be done last night was the one test I have dreaded ever since I saw a picture of the machine for the first time some 30 years ago: The MRI.
I have dealt with a slight case of claustrophobia since my early 40s, coupled with a tendency toward panic attacks on bridges and in high places. Tunnels and subways became extremely difficult for me. But in the early 1980s when I saw that picture of an MRI machine I thought, "If I ever have to go in one of those, it's all over, finito."
Over time, most of the phobias have faded. I can do the subway with no fear of the heart-stopping anxiety of the past. I can talk my way over a bridge and through a tunnel, knowing I'm going to come out the other side.
I asked the nurse how long they keep you in the MRI. "I don't know exactly," she said. "Maybe 15 minutes." "Oh, that's better," thinks I. "Fifteen minutes I could do. Just relax, get ready. I'm sure I can take it for 15 minutes."
When they wheeled me down, the MRI operator couldn't have been gentler or more solicitous. He made me feel protected from the big bad machine. He was so nice I thought of him as Tender Mercies, or T.M. Nevertheless there the MRI machine stood, big and sealed-in feeling, and I was scared. T.M. said it sometimes scared people because it makes a lot of noises--well, that's better, I thought. Noises I can deal with.
I asked how long the procedure would take.
"Oh, not long," said T.M. "About 40 minutes."
There was no way I was prepared for that. My time had come. There was nothing for it but just to take a deep breath and try to fill my mind with relaxing thoughts for 40 minutes while not being allowed to move a muscle, much less try to bolt upright and make a run for it. T.M. put a black bulb in my hand and said if I had a panic attack in the machine and wanted out, I could squeeze it at any time. I held onto that bulb for dear life, knowing I would not allow myself to squeeze it, but knowing that I wanted to squeeze it more than anything on earth.
I won't go into the experience of the MRI any more, except to say I could write a book about it. I came away aware I had been through my worst nightmare, and was able to face down my fears. My face was as red as if I'd run the Boston Marathon when I got out, and my first thought was, "I could use a drink about now." They don't serve booze in hospitals, but I promised myself I'd ask for a mild sleeping medication that night, which I did and it was heaven.
I made it--and the upshot was that the test came out negative for any signs of brain malfunction, blood clot, or anything out of the ordinary.
The experience in the hospital was on balance a good one. Now I've learned a little of the routine of a hospital from the inside, which is that everything takes a long time to happen, but the miracles of medicine are impressive and promise only get better and more awesome in coming years. I felt I had my grandmother, whom I never met because she died of a stroke in her early 50s, with me, and I was showing her things she never could have dreamed of--futuristic medicine that might have saved her life. She was a sturdy woman who probably would not have flinched at the MRI machine, as many (maybe most) people just sail through the procedure with little stress.
It was a profound couple of days. I kept thinking I could get some interesting blog posts out of it. The results did not reveal any immediate danger. In fact, if they revealed anything, it was minor and technical and my many new doctors didn't tell me. I've had an adventure or two, and in more ways than one, I can say for sure that I'm finding myself in Hoboken.