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The Long Road to Recovery

As told to P. Diamond

It was supposed to have been a regular Wednesday morning. I got out of bed and took a few steps when I suddenly felt a sharp pain in my chest. I walked a few more steps but the pain only became more acute. I’ll lie down for a bit, I thought, until the pain recedes. But when I tried to lie down, I discovered I couldn’t lift my legs. In a panic, I called a local medical hotline. “You must be having a heart attack,” the woman at the other end told me. “I suggest you get yourself straight to the hospital.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A heart attack? Was she kidding? I wasn’t old (not that old) and I’d never had any heart trouble. But what else could explain the chest pain, or the fact that my legs were going numb? Slowly, painfully, I tried to get down the stairs. How am I supposed to get to the hospital if I can hardly manage a few steps? I wondered.

Luckily, my husband was home. Somehow, I made it to our car and within 15 minutes, we were at the accident and emergency department of the nearest hospital. The A&E is notorious for its long wait but when I told the woman at reception that I had chest pain, she arranged for a doctor to see me immediately.

The doctor took my blood pressure, temperature, pulse, and other vital signs — and then declared me fit as a fiddle. “I don’t see anything wrong with you, it’s probably just a virus,” she smiled brightly. “Just sign this form, please, and you can go home.” I was immensely relieved, although I wondered when the benign chest pains would disappear. I hobbled over to the gurney the hospital staff had provided because I knew I couldn’t walk back to the car unaided.

And then my legs gave way. One minute I was standing, the next, I was lying on the hospital floor.

By then, the doctor who had attended me wasn’t around anymore. My husband walked over to someone else with a name tag that began with “Dr.,” pointed to me, and said, “My wife’s been discharged but I can’t take her home in this condition. Can you please examine her again?”

I was lifted onto the gurney. After a quick examination, the doctor said, “You don’t look well at all, Ma’am. You’re not going home yet.” I was transferred to a bed in the hospital ward, where the hospital’s medical team puzzled over my mysterious condition.

And then I felt myself becoming paralyzed. I lost feeling in my legs. I lost feeling in my hands. It was becoming hard for me to breathe. The situation was getting graver by the minute. The doctor put me on oxygen to help me breathe, but I was still struggling. He tapped me on the knee. There was no knee-jerk reflex. “I’m going to call a neurologist,” he said.

When the neurologist showed up, he examined me and did some more knee-tapping. Then he declared his prognosis: “It’s either Guillain-Barré or Lou Gehrig’s disease or …”

At that point, I lost him. I hadn’t heard of Guillain-Barré, but Lou Gehrig’s? The degenerative motor neuron disease that paralyzes a person’s muscles very slowly but very surely until he loses control over all his limbs?

I was struggling to focus on what the doctor was saying, struggling to breathe, struggling to move my motionless hands and legs. Through the haze of it all, I could see a hospital cleaner swishing the floor with her mop — swish, swash, there and back, swish, swash — and all I could think was, Hashem, please let me be able to do that. Swish, swash, there and back — it was the most joyful activity I could ever imagine doing.

“We’ll have to move her to intensive care and put her on a ventilator,” the neurologist was saying. “Soon she won’t be able to breathe on her own anymore.”

Was that me they were talking about?

Then I lost consciousness.


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