Diagnosis: Don’t Try This at Home

There are things you should know:

You might go on a long run one Sunday and feel fine.  But that night, you might realize you’ve been scheduled to be on-call in the Emergency Department of the large, urban hospital in which you volunteer.

But you’re volunteer-fatigued.  The coordinator of the program scheduled your on-call hours for every summer holiday; two weekends a month; now a Sunday.  She put on the schedule a phone number you haven’t had in two years.  So when the Emergency Department calls you at 10pm, when you’ve come in from London 48hours prior, and you’ve run 35mi between arriving at JFK and ED’s call, you’ve had enough.

We needed you an hour ago, the social worker says, But your phone number is wrong.  He says it like it’s your fault.  But you listen, and do what you can from the Upper East Side, because there’s nothing else you can do.

You go to bed, and at 4:30am, another call comes in, and they want you to come uptown.  You say you will, but you fall back asleep — a restless, dreamless sleep where you’re uneasy but you can’t wake up.  You wake up an hour later for a breakfast and for work.  You feel guilty, but you don’t remember why until 10am.

You email the program coordinator, intending to tell her about the night’s events.  Instead, your email says, I quit.

You might find that those things happen one Sunday-night-into-Monday-morning.

That Monday night, you sleep without rest because a pain in your side wakes you every hour.  Maybe the pain is called failure; maybe it’s called guilt.  But at a Dr’s appointment on Tuesday evening, he says, Maybe the pain is called appendicitis.  He walks you across the street to NYU Hospital. On the way, he stops on the way to shake the hand of an older man with a dog.  Do you know who that was? That was the medical examiner. 

They begin checking you in at NYU, but you’re registered under your married name, with your marital address; your former husband as your emergency contact.  That’s not my name, you protest, but you want to say, that’s not my life.

We can’t do anything about it.  Is that your social? Then that’s your medical record.  You can change it when you check out.

So you stand there, dumbfounded, and you decide to walk away.  Again.  Back out on to First Avenue.  Gasping for air; breathing in; breathing out.  Exhaling the death-stink into the night.

Days pass; work intervenes.  Go to the hospital! friends say; they beg you to slow down.  But you won’t.  You can’t.  The minute you stop spinning, the plates will come crashing down.  It hurts when you laugh; it hurts when you cry.  You try not to do either.  But by Thursday, you have no choice, so you leave work early, you feed and walk the dog, and you walk to 68th and York.

This was easier with a partner.

They check you in quickly; they call you by the proper name.   Once they find out you’ve had no appetite for anything but crackers since Monday, they pump you full of medicine to quell the queasiness.  They want to get rid of your pain.  You acquiesce, as long as they’re not going to strip you of control.  You have no one to yield it to.

They move you; they poke you; they prod you.  You’re beyond caring.  Just help me.  Make this feel better, so I can go home and walk the dog, then get this deal done by morning.

One of your friends, the nurse, stands at the foot of your bed with a look of care and concern.  She yells at the medical student who is tending to you.  You made it up a mountain and back with her without toileting incident, but then here she is, following you into the bathroom to hold your IV.  There’s something funny about perfection at 14,500ft and disaster on 68th Street.

What you have is not appendicitis.  They make you as comfortable as possible; they give you instructions on what to do next.  You’ll be out in time not to miss a working beat.  One friend screams by text: Meredith, this is serious.  You cannot yet respond coherently, but you’ll have a rebuttal just as soon as you’re able.

It’s morning; it’s Friday.  You go home to an empty house; you walk the dog.  The dog doesn’t care where you’ve been or what your problem is.

More messages: Meredith, did you sleep?  Do you ever sleep?

You lie.

But in crisis, there things that you learn:

Yes, love is patient, love is kind…love is all those things that St. Paul told the Corinthians it was. But love is other, much stranger, more concrete, mundane things too.

Love is the friends who check in every hour to make sure you’re okay; the ones who stay up all night talking just to talk.  Love is the people in the trenches.  Love is being reminded how serious your situation really is, when you’re too far gone through the looking-glass.  Love is the people who show up in those moments.

Love is never being alone, even when you sigh and say: I am tired of doing this by myself; maybe I’ll just go back to that woman I used to be.

Love is being reminded of who that woman used to be. Love is quitting; love is walking away; love is saying awful, ridiculous things sometimes and finding that everyone is still there in the sober light of morning.

Love is the people who take a vested interest in your kayak; who meet you in airports; who always respond; who believe in fortune cookies.  Love is the people who say “no.”  Love is the people who say “yes.”

And love always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

It just doesn’t arrive on the doorstep of your thirtysomething self in the package your thirteen year-old self had anticipated.

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