Hospitalized for 11 Days with No Diagnosis
What it's like to deal with a mystery illness
Ever been in the Emergency Room of a hospital and felt completely helpless? That’s where I was, the beginning of a scary 11-day hospital stay which, while it wasn’t Coronavirus, was some sort of lingering virus with no name. This is what it was like to have a mystery illness:
They shove the thermometer into your mouth and tell you to keep it under your tongue, and you wait and wait and wait and still there’s no reading. They wrap the blood pressure cuff around your upper arm and squeeze it so tight you think your bicep will break in half. What are your symptoms? they ask. You tell them chills and sweats and extreme weakness and a pounding headache. They press the cold diaphragm of a stethoscope to your back and chest and tell you to breathe deep. They prod your stomach with tightened fists and ask, “Does it hurt here? How about here? They insist it’s the flu. You tell them you’ve already had a flu shot. They slap an admission bracelet on your arm.
You wonder for a moment what you’re doing here. Just a little while ago you were at your internist’s office complaining of an achy body, shivering, pounding headache, stomachache, nausea. But once you explained you’d had the flu shot, your brilliant internist had no idea what was wrong so he sent you to the E.R. You told him you didn’t have the energy to get up off the examining table, so he called an ambulance, your first ever. It arrived soon after, EMTs strapped you into a chair, and drove you here.
A nurse arrives and pokes your arm until she finds a suitable vein, then fills multiple glass vials with your blood, so much you think you’ll need a transfusion. Finally, she presses a wad of gauze on the spot and slaps on a Band-Aid. A transporter arrives, and two men plop you onto a gurney and bump you along corridor after corridor as you try to distract yourself by looking at the strange meaningless art on the walls. You arrive at the X-ray room and the men lift you off the gurney onto another bed-sized surface. They take the X-ray with you lying down — a good thing because you don’t have the energy to stand.
They wheel you back to the hall and you wait for what feels like hours before the transporter pushes you back down the zigzagging corridor, through the automatic doors, back up the elevator and into your new hospital room. They plop you onto a hospital bed. Oh happiness. It’s a private room. But from the number of specialists walking in and out, it feels like Grand Central Terminal at rush hour.
As if you haven’t been poked and prodded and moved enough, they shove an IV in your arm, telling you you’re dehydrated. Two infectious disease doctors arrive, one extremely tall and skinny with glasses, the other short and chubby with a face like a melon. Mutt and Jeff. They examine your face.
“Looks like you have a droopy eye,” Mutt says.
“Follow my finger,” he points his index finger at you and makes you look up and down and left and right and both ways on the diagonal.
“Your eye is droopy,” Mutt says. Nonsense, I say. Now Jeff, the short dumpy one, does the same thing with his finger and concurs, “Droopy eye. Must be a tick.” A tick?
“Have you been traveling?” they ask. I tell them I was in Charleston and visited a plantation two weeks ago, but it was below 50 and pouring rain. “Those ticks had umbrellas,” I say. They don’t think it’s funny. “I don’t have a tick,” I scream. They send me for a brain scan.
Again, they bump you along on a gurney into a cold room where they position your head inside a round machine that makes sounds as loud as a hammer hitting an anvil: BBBrung, Bbbbrung.
After 30 — yes, 30 minutes — it stops and they wheel you back to the hallway, but you have to wait at least a half hour for the transporter to return and you’re positioned up against the wall where you continuously hear Bbbrung, Bbbbrung, and think you’ll go crazy.
Next they do a CAT scan. When you are finally wheeled back to your room, flipped like a pancake onto your bed, the attending doctor arrives to tell you the CAT scan revealed you do have a droopy left eye but it could have been droopy for years. It’s not Lyme disease, but it could still be a tick. A tick? How? There are at least 850 tick species, she says. What does it mean to have a tick, you wonder.
They don’t know what the problem is, but it’s enough of a problem that they won’t let you go home. And you wouldn’t have the energy to get up off the bed, anyway. So for the next 11 days — yes, 11 days, count them — they keep you in that hospital room doing the eye test ad nauseam, insisting it’s a tick. Finally, they deem you well enough to let you go.
You arrive at your comfortable home and get into your bed with the powder blue quilt and no hospital side rails. No doo-dad to call the nurse, and no IV sticking out of your arm. You try to forget the entire experience but you can’t. Every morning from that day on, you will wake up wondering if you’ll have a pounding headache, chills, fever, nausea, or be too weak to get out of bed. And you’ll never know if it was a tick or just a lingering virus. But no matter what it was, at least it wasn’t Coronavirus and you’re finished forever with Mutt and Jeff making you do those endless follow-the-eye tests.