Saturday, March 5, 2022

The Big Sick


I blogged too soon. In my last post, I thought we were on the other side of the vicious cold-viral diarrhea-cold cycle sweeping through my toddler's system. Oh, how wrong I was. Life just couldn’t help but take one more giant shit on my family’s health.

It all started on a now-rare outdoor walk with my husband. My teens were at home watching the toddler and the baby. As my husband and I basked in the weak winter sunshine, we discussed the memoir I was reading, Hannah’s Gift: Lessons from a Life Fully Lived, written by a mother whose 3-year-old daughter was diagnosed with cancer. The author, Maria Housden, somehow found truth and joy and love in the midst of an unfathomable situation. She even expanded her family in the midst of her grief. It was quite the read. 

As we wondered how parents with sick kids cope and how sick people manage to parent, my stomach started churning and gurgling. I chalked it up to the peanut butter chocolate crispy bars I had come to call my “emotional support snack” because I made and ate them so frequently in such embarrassingly large quantities. (For the food fetishists out there, they're a mixture of gluten-free cocoa crispy rice cereal, honey, and peanut butter that gets pressed into a pan, topped with melted chocolate and peanut butter, then sprinkled with chopped Reese’s peanut butter cups, and served chilled.) My tolerance of my drug of choice was currently 1/3 of an 8 x 11 pan daily. I no longer really ate “bars” but “slabs” of the stuff.

Anyone’s stomach would rumble if you consumed that day after day for months (which I did), but I always prided myself on my stomach of steel, so for me, an upset stomach was unusual.

A block from home, my older teen called me in tears.

“My stomach was hurting and I just threw up,” she said.

By the time we walked in the door, she was on her second round of spewing into the toilet as my toddler looked on. From there, it was almost comical (except so not, because we lived it) how quickly “the big sick” spread through the house. It hit me next, striking not just in the form of vomiting but diarrhea, too. The two forms of evacuation alternated until both were happening so frequently that when I ran to the bathroom, I didn’t know which end the fresh hell was going to come out of first.

By my toddler’s bedtime, I was completely depleted. The Google-suggested remedies of Pepto Bismol and Sprite had not helped – in fact, they made it worse. My whole body ached. I was shaking. I felt too weak to lift the littles. My husband called a nurse line and after an unnecessarily long conversation, I asked her what would happen if I went to the ER. She said they would provide “supportive care,” meaning IV fluids and medications to stop the nausea and diarrhea.

I really didn’t feel like leaving the house, especially given how often I was literally running to the bathroom, but I didn’t feel safe in my own skin, either. When I thought about being in a hospital bed – even with the bright fluorescent lights, insensitive staff, and inability to rest – the promise of being able to lie down without a child attached to me and an IV line in my arm sounded like a five-star vacation. So I went.

Against my better judgment, I decided to go to the ER where I was (mis)treated for endometritis because it was the hospital closest to home. My younger teen begrudgingly drove me, stopping once beside a co-op so I could puke on the pavement.

The ER reception area was mostly empty when I arrived, save for a patient with chest pains and myself. (Given my familial hypercholesterolemia diagnosis, I really hoped that wasn't a preview of horrors to come.) A nurse led me back to triage, where she took my vitals and asked about my symptoms. I suspected food poisoning from a bag of Taylor Farms lettuce that I’d momentarily thought, “Does that look a little slimy?” before eating the night prior.

“Are you periods regular?” the nurse asked.

I could see where she was going with this but, please, God, no. I explained that I didn’t know if they were regular because I’d only had one since the baby’s birth in November. 

And speaking of the birth, it was around this point when I wondered which was worse: birth or food poisoning? Because goddamn, this experience was awful beyond explanation. At least with a birth, there’s a baby on the other side of the suffering, plus all those glorious drugs to usher you through it. With food poisoning, I didn’t know how long the pain was going to last or if anything was going to help me feel better.

The triage nurse took me back to a room and gave me gown instructions.

“Can you bring me a Poise pad?” I asked. Since the baby’s birth, my bladder control has been iffy during exercise and, apparently, vomiting. I’d soaked through my previous pad with the puking pit stop on the way to the hospital.

Poise pad in place, gown open to the back, I half-reclined on the hospital bed. Whenever I’m well and everyone around me is sick, I always think, “Well, if I do get sick, at least I’ll have time to catch up on all that reading and journaling I’ve been wanting to do!” Then, when I do get sick, I remember that illness makes you incapable of doing anything other than staring at the ceiling and praying that it will all end soon.

So that is what I did until a doctor with an Irish surname appeared at my bedside to palpate my stomach. Since nothing hurt, she recommended the standard IV fluids, anti-nausea medication, and anti-diarrheal medication.

“This could be food poisoning or it could be viral,” she said. “Either way, the treatment doesn’t change.”

I never thought I would hope for food poisoning, but in this case, I did, because the recovery would be quicker. I really didn’t want to be shitting myself for the next five to 14 days like my toddler.

Soon, a nurse with a badass demeanor arrived to draw blood and get my IV going.

“That one’s rockin’!” she said as she prodded a particularly prominent vein in my right arm. She administered Zofran for nausea, then the fluids. I instantly felt a cool, slippery sensation spread down my arm and into my body. It felt refreshing, but it also made me shiver. The nurse fetched me several hot blankets (oh, sweet angel) and dimmed the lights. She used her pocket scissors to cut free a couple of Imodium from their packet. Then she made sure to close both the curtains and the glass door so I wouldn’t have to hear the old man retching out what sounded like all his organs in the adjacent room.

An hour passed. Every time I started to doze off, a staff person entered the room, so I didn’t get any sleep. But I didn’t throw up and I didn’t shit myself, so win-win on those fronts. When the bag of fluids was empty, the nurse sent me home with prescriptions and instructions for a liquid diet followed by the BRAT diet.

My younger teen who had driven me to the hospital was now at home gripping the toilet bowl, the latest victim of this vile sickness, so I ordered an Uber. As I waited in the reception area, I wondered who decided a cooking show was appropriate viewing for an audience like me who probably had no plans on eating anytime soon. Though I had presumably been rehydrated by the IV, I was the thirstiest I had ever been. I would have killed for a Gatorade. Alas, there were no vending machines in sight.

My Uber driver’s car smelled like deeply-embedded cigarette stench that someone had tried to scrub off to no avail. I opened the window and stuck my face out of it like a dog.

By the time I got home, the only thing I wanted was a Pedialyte popsicle (which we thankfully had leftover from my toddler’s diarrhea ordeal) and my bed. The blue frozen pop that I chomped on while trying to corral my now-wide-awake-and-wondering-where-mommy-was toddler was the most delicious thing I have ever tasted in my life.

Around midnight, my toddler and I both fell asleep. But the relief was short-lived…because a couple of hours later, my toddler woke up with a start and puked all over herself, me, the bed, and the floor (in that order). My husband was so deeply asleep downstairs, he didn’t rouse during any of this or when I yelled for help. I had to haul my toddler, pineapple-studded puke covering both of our pajamas, to the living room to shake him awake. Somehow, we got all the vomit cleaned up, the pajamas changed, and the sheets stripped without waking the baby.

Oh, but this shit wasn’t done with us yet. Because next came more toddler diarrhea…and then my husband got sick.

Monday morning found all five solid-food-eating family members limp and listless and slurping Pedialyte pops in the living room. (Seriously, where have you been all my life, Pedialyte? I love you.) The baby seemed fine, but just to be safe, she stayed home from daycare. Both teens also skipped classes. My husband spent all afternoon in the ER, where, for some reason, he got a slightly different treatment and discharge plan than mine. His included a stool sample, which 24 hours later, confirmed norovirus (aka food poisoning).

We still couldn’t figure out exactly which food was the culprit. Lettuce seemed most likely, but two out of five of us didn’t consume it. We did, however, all eat pineapple on the day the puking began. We also all devoured chicken thighs the same night as the lettuce, so now we were wary of that, too. (The irony being that on the fateful night in question, I really wanted hot mixed vegetables with my chicken, but everyone else wanted salad and I was trying to be healthy, so I acquiesced. Never again! This gives “trust your gut” a whole new meaning.)

The days of recovery passed in a fog of fluids (both imbibe-able and bodily), lethargy, and tears of exhaustion. It was strange to see how formless and lonely the days were without meals and snacks to break up the monotony and bring us together. We were like separate buoys bobbing in the same sea of shit. And yet, we were all kind of amazed at how little sustenance one needed to function (in the short-term, at least).

But one by one, little by little, the grownups recovered, growing bolder with our food choices as we progressed from applesauce and bananas to Saltines and oatmeal. Our first family “dinner” post-food-poisoning featured my husband, younger teen, and me sitting around the table tentatively nibbling forkfuls of brown rice at 4:30 p.m., when we couldn’t stand the hunger pains any longer.

My teens went back to school. My husband went back to work. The baby went back to daycare.

My toddler took much longer to return to any semblance of normal. Before all this happened, she'd been on a food jag of chocolate chip mini muffins and coconut milk yogurt mixed with protein powder. Now, the most she would eat was half a banana. Beverage-wise, she regressed to formula in bottles and nothing else. (I swear, every time I’m about to wean her…) The toilet training I was planning to start? (I'm serious! I bought the Pull-Ups!) Fuggedaboutit. Her attachment issues also roared back full-force, to the point where I couldn’t even set her down without a huge tantrum erupting. (Is this ever going to get better?!) 

Unlike aforementioned author Maria Housden, I don’t insist that every shitty situation has a silver lining. Some simply don’t. But this one did have a few. I finally dropped those last few stubborn pounds of baby weight. (Easiest weight loss ever!) I got an early start on my Lenten promise of giving up the crispy bars (which I probably wasn’t going to follow through on had I not gotten sick). I was reminded that I am more adaptable than I think I am and will not in fact go crazy if I don’t exercise, eat, and work at exactly the same pace or with the same enthusiasm as I usually do. Because my toddler had less energy, she was more interested in reading. Her extended naps also meant I got more work done. And it was a weird kind of bonding experience, prompting some unusual conversations, like: "Would you rather have vomiting or diarrhea?" and "What food will you never eat again?"

I thought nothing could be harder than the shit I went through in 2021. But the shit is still coming (metaphorically speaking, I hope). 2022 was supposed to bring reprieve. Promise me it isn’t too far off. Easter miracles, anyone?

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