One of my favorite stories to tell is that of “The Time I Almost Died”. As the title suggests, it’s full of drama, high stakes, death-defying stunts, gory bodily fluids, plot twists, and even has a crowd pleaser of a happy ending.
The story begins at the beginning of senior year with the decision to direct a play as my thesis for my Theater Arts degree. I was determined to do a full scale production of Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who is Sylvia (my favorite play, my favorite playwright). Though not exactly appropriate for my college-aged actors it is extremely appropriate for my target audience of liberal art college students. I decide they need to see this play and I can make that happen.
I cast the play in May, thought about it all summer, and was all ready to go before classes even began. I had just over a month to produce and direct my little master piece before department productions took over. I worked my ass off, attending classes, being president of the drama club, holding daily rehearsals, filling out campus paper work, and generally trying to do everything by myself. This was my baby, no one else was gonna touch her.
Two weeks in I was exhausted. Three weeks in my throat started to hurt. Strep throat kind of hurt. My days turned into nothing but going to health services during the day and rehearsal at night. I was negative for strep, a positive thing I thought. Wrong. The sore throat got worse and worse, the swelling so bad that every swallow was accompanied with a wince and my voice sounded strangled, entirely unrecognizable from my normal speech.
Health services put me on steroids to control the swelling and told me I probably had mono but the test for mono is only effective after a certain period of infection. I cursed my horrid luck, blamed a professor who had said “Macbeth” multiple times in the theater where my play was being produced, and continued going to rehearsal everyday whispering directions to my actors, thinking of nothing else but producing the best damn production no matter what my state. I felt so awful one day I had to missed the last rehearsal before tech and cried from frustration. I was fully present for tech and dress and proud as hell, the set looked great, my actors were awesome, publicity was out, I was still alive, and we were totally ready for opening night on Friday.
Friday morning I make my way over to health services, a daily activity at this point, the excitement of opening night eclipsing the excruciating pain I am feeling. And at health services my worst fears come true: the swelling of my throat has gotten so extreme that the doctor is afraid it will obstruct my ability to breathe. And demands I go to the ER. I try to talk her out of it “Can’t you just get me more steroids? I can breathe, it’s not that bad! I’ve lasted this long!” but the protests of someone who can barely whisper are easy to ignore. The next thing I know I’m stuck in the ER, trying to choke down Gatorade, waiting hours and hours to see a doctor. By late afternoon I’ve finally been seen, they’re repeating all sorts of tests (“Um, I was already tested for strep, ok? Can you just tell me I have mono so I can go attend to the opening my play, please?”), and not telling me shit.
My doctor is kind of an asshole with a shitty, mean, sense of humor. He makes fun of my voice. That doesn’t make me feel better buddy, shut the fuck up and fix it or let me GO TAKE CARE OF MY BABY! At 6pm, though I’m still convinced I will make the 8pm curtain, my friends (who have been amazing, holding my hand through all the awfulness of the ER) start giving each other looks of “oh man, she’s not going to take it well when she emerges from denial….”
This provides the perfect cue for Dr. Asshole to come in and finally tell me what’s wrong with me: “You have a peritonsilar abscess. Huge pockets of puss in the back of your throat. We’ve called in an ENT (EarNoseThroat) specialist who is on his way. He’ll stick a huge needle into the back of your throat to drain the puss.” What? Um, what? I think I misunderstood you, you said You have mono, here’s a pill, you can go to your play now, right? Dr. Asshole laughs and says, “I’m afraid you won’t be going anywhere tonight. After the procedure you’re looking at a night or two in the hospital. You’re severely dehydrated, we need to set up an IV and monitor your progress.”
After many tears- a truly pathetic sight when the crier can barely breathe- I’m out of denial. I’m missing opening night, at the very least, and the whole opening weekend at the very worst. Thank GOD I planned a two weekend run.
In the end 10 mL of puss was drained from my throat (it was impressive/disgusting to look at) they told me that if I hadn’t come in when I did, chances are I would have died, my case was so advanced. I spent the next two nights (read: entire weekend) in the hospital. My assistant director took over my play, thank God, and from everything I heard- including that the president of the college (who had never come to a student production in all my time at school) was in the audience and seemed to enjoy himself- my baby was very well received. Understandably this takeover caused a lot of stress for my AD, unfortunately she didn’t handle it well and had a bad attitude toward me for the rest of production, really the rest of the time we were at school together. So uncool.
Now for a happy ending: The next weekend I was able to attend every performance, was on the way to full recovery, and received an insane number of flowers and complements on how good the show was. I sat in the audience and watched people in front of me, who I didn’t know at all, gasp and exclaim “Oh my God!” so affected were they by my play. Truly an awesome feeling. I got incredibly positive feedback from professors and months later heard freshmen talk about my play and how it got them interested in the theatre program. Another truly awesome feeling. My throat recovered 100% and a month or so later I was able to look back or the experience as something horrible that had happened in the past but a freak disease (my doctors told me it was rare) I would never experience again. And it made a good story.
Any time my throat has felt sore since a small part of me is terrified I have a peritonsillar abscess. Which I always deemed a rather paranoid fear. A few weeks ago my throat started to hurt severely and I cursed my roommate who works at a preschool thinking she had brought home strep throat. I went to the doctor. He didn’t even do a test said, “Yep, probably strep,” and gave me a prescription. I took my meds and my throat only got worse.
Realization that this was an eerie, horrid deja vu descended. I went back to the clinic three days later and tested negative for strep. Uncontrollable tears streamed down my face as a physician told me that from what they could tell I had an abscess and sent me to the ENT Infirmary. They confirmed the abscess, drained it (think: hacking up blood and puss, think: gross), and sent me home. Fortunately I avoided an overnight. I couldn’t talk at all for almost a week. I haven’t been to work in over two weeks. Yesterday was the first time in 15 days that my throat didn’t hurt every time I swallowed. It’s been a long, slow, awful recovery.
NYC is an awful place to be sick. At first, no one believes you. You tell them you’re sick and they think you’re doing something awesomely fun- playing hookie to escape to the beach. Fortunately my voice was as extremely effected as my first experience, so anyone I called would know I was not lying. Which inspired many of my friends to visit me with soup and to keep me company in spite of my mute-itude. Which was all very nice for a week. I have learned that after a week, it becomes extremely socially unacceptable to still be sick. To not be able to answer “How are you feeling?” with “Better!” is such a social faux pas. But to do so would have been a huge lie until the very tail end of the 2 weeks, depression started to engulf me well before then. Fortunately, it didn’t have time to settle. Now I can correctly answer the question. I am feeling so much better. I CAN TALK. I’m going to go to work tomorrow. I should be going out and functioning as normal by this weekend. I can start actually living life again.
When I got sick it was summer. Now it’s fall. That’s time I’ll never get back. When you don’t have your health, you realize how nothing else really matters. Now that I have it back (mostly) I am going to cherish it. Make taking care of myself a number one priority. It’s a good time for fresh starts. Do things that are fulfilling. Things I’ve neglected that I truly enjoy. Like writing here. Creating art in all the ways I love to. And making some money. Right now, if I’m healthy I feel like I can do anything. That’s a good place to be.