Aaaannnnndd, we’re back. Apologies for the delay on Part the Second, but getting over one of these spasm attacks is rough. It feels like a Kenworth has been using my left side as a parking lot for the last week or so. Now where were we? Oh yes…in the taxi, on the way to the hospital. Not peeing all over the cab. And breathing, because you know…important and stuff. Also, two parts kicking myself in the ass, and one part pleading with the Powers That Be that I didn’t decide it was time to get some help until it was already too late. It’s hard for me to make the call, to say, “Hey guys, pack your stuff and let’s get back on the Magical Medical Merry-Go-Round of misery again, because remember how much fun it was last time?” Plus I feel like a wuss every time we have to go to the Emergency Room.
But that pales in comparison to how I’m feeling a few minutes later, because after the cab that I have not peed in screeches up to the ER doors and Steve is occupied with paying the guy, I get the fabulously bright idea to go on in there RIGHTNOW and get this party started already. Eli’s hovering just off my starboard beam, trying to reason with the crazy lady, “Ummm, Mom, why don’t we wait for Dad and we can help you get inside, ok?” And I’m all, “Pffffttt! Hush child, do you not see that wall over there? I will use it to help me walk and I’ve got this covered and shit.” Does almost count? I’m thinking not.
We make our grand entrance and it must have been a doozy because the guy behind the counter pops right up out of his chair with a concerned look on his face. “Ayúdenme, por favor, ” I say. “Tengo muchos espasamos y–” and then the sadistic demon in my gut rakes his claws through my diaphragm again and I reach for the edge of the counter to steady myself. And miss. Spectacularly. I crumple down to the floor with all the grace and dignity of a flamingo with concrete ankle boots on. Niiice. Left side working pretty much not at all. Just in time for Steve to walk in the door. My grand plan was for him to walk in and the ball would already be rolling and things would be under control and he wouldn’t have to feel like Atlas, with the whole world resting on his shoulders. For once.
Instead, his horrified face swims into focus amidst the forest of people who’ve sprouted up around me. They reach down, gently enfold me in their arms and carry me away to a bed in the triage area. I pity the people who have to try and figure out the weirdness of a high voltage injury survivor after she collapses in the middle of their Emergency Room. Because I’m not stupid, I know what this looks like. I’m shaky and pale and staggering around. Sometimes I can’t even talk very well because the left side of my tongue’s gone completely numb, at which point there will be other attractive things happening, like drooling, for instance. And vomiting like a Hollywood starlet, two weeks before the Oscars, let’s not forget that. I come in with all the aforementioned unlovliness happening and ask for two things: stop the spasms and ratchet back the pain a little, because this makes childbirth look like fun. They look at me and immediately think, “Junkie.”
Here’s where things diverge radically between the health care I’ve received in the US vs. health care in Mexico.
The first time I had spasms like this we were totally clueless. And terrified. We went into a San Luis Obispo ER and I got treated for an upset tummy, which we now know, works zero percent of the time. Sucked to be me, but hours and hours and half a day later, they finally came full circle and listened to what we told them in the first place– not the least bit nauseated, but throwing up regular as clockwork, history of chronic spasms, blah, blah, blah, maybe this is just another kind of spasm. In exasperation, they finally gave me a heavy duty muscle relaxant and within half an hour, the “stomach bug” or “withdrawals” they thought were going on had evaporated. Like magic. It was a big lightbulb moment for me, less so for the docs.
The second time this happened, we wound up in the same ER and, thinking to save everybody a lot of time and misery, handed over the big three ring binder with all my medical records and research in it and said, “Look we know what’s going on. She has chronic spasms from an electrical injury. Last time they gave her a strong muscle relaxant and some pain meds and that broke the spasm. Can we do that this time?” They looked at us and were all, Riiiiiiiiiight. Then walked away for a while. A long while. Probably sniping about us around the corner for telling them their jobs. I can understand that feeling but the thing is, while I don’t expect anybody to know what to do 100% of the time, I do expect them to gather all the relevant information and make a decision based on facts and experience. Dealing with the long-term effects of a high voltage electrical injury is like putting together a puzzle with half the pieces missing and no picture on the box. There aren’t that many survivors wandering around and while many of us share similar problems, a lot of the time it’s just plain weird. And my expectation from the medical profession is that when I stagger in the door dragging all my extra weirdness with me, that they won’t automatically discount what’s inside the big three ring binder I like to call, “Care and Feeding of the Electrically Challenged.”
When the US doctor finally made an appearance, he yelled at me for taking up valuable bed space in his ER. He assumed I was hooked on narcotics and looking for a fix. “Look,” I said, trying not to puke all over his loafers, “just test for the drugs you think I’m looking for. When it comes back negative, please, please, please….treat me for what’s actually happening.” In retrospect, I should’ve showered him in hurl. Because the tests did come back negative. A long while later, they actually treated the spasm and then a short while later, we were on our way home. That doctor never apologized. In fact, he hid behind the nurses as we left the ER. No joke.
I’d like to say that guy was an isolated incident, but it was pretty much Standard Operating Procedure every where we went. In San Francisco or San Luis Obispo–they all treated me like a drug addict and refused to consider that the actual problem might be a different sort of thing altogether. When their assumptions fell apart, they continued to act like I’d done something shameful, even as they administered the muscle relaxant and watched the spasm subside. I’ve endured a lot of these spasm attacks. Some of them are worse than others, but they’re all really horrible. And scary. And painful. Being treated like crap by the people who are supposed to help you makes it so much worse. I’ve got to tell you, for people who took an oath to Do No Harm, some of these doctors are pretty good at inflicting pain.
It’s been almost a year since I had a spasm attack bad enough to land me in the hospital. Curled sideways on my gurney in a Mexican ER, I think, “I’m doomed. How can this possibly work? I can’t even make the doctors understand what’s going on in my own language, let alone Spanish.” A warm hand pats me reassuringly, “Hola, Señora. I am sorry you have troubles. I am Dr. Camacho. I speak some English. Can you tell me what is the problem?” We manage to Spanglish through it well enough, because when a Mexican tells you they speak only a little English, they mean to say, “I speak pretty damn good English.” “Ok,” he says, “I am giving you IV fluids, because you are dehydrated. This will help. And I am testing your blood for many things. Including the drugs. I believe the things you say. They are reasonable. But I must test, because I would not be a good doctor if I did not make sure. While we wait, we will give you a small amount of muscle relaxant, to start.” He takes my hand and gives it a squeeze. “No worries, Señora, it will be ok.”
The waiting begins. I put my head through the railing and try to puke into the trashcan with a modicum of dignity. The spasms come so fast now, I’m lightheaded and it’s hard to breathe. More hands come to gently push my head back onto the gurney and straighten me out a little so they can take the blood. “Lo siento, Señora,” he says as he slides the needle into my vein. “No hay problema,” I say, “Gracias.” I wish I could tell him that the left side of my body, which he’s currently drawing blood from, doesn’t have a lot of surface sensation. I sat for 10 hours of tattooing on that side and most of the time it only kind of tickled. That’s a good thought. I hang onto it. And wait. I shove my mind outside of my body for a rest. I think about Apothecary of Art, where my friend Jake inscribed a triumphant phoenix on my shoulder and wicked electricity down my arm. I see his wife, Kayde, head tilted back, laughter pealing from her throat, a fierce wonderful girl who’s like a daughter in my heart. Their son Rafe is no doubt in the middle of masterminding up as big a tornado of mischief as a toddler can get into. I imagine Mensa will come knocking on his door in the not-so-distant future. I remember Eli showing Rafe how to play with Legos and Steve teaching Kayde how to weld. I remember the day they rolled into the San Luis Auto Center, where we had our shop and set up a tattoo studio, of all things, right across the way. I make these thoughts into a life raft of happiness in my mind and try to live right in the middle of it.
And then I’m back on the gurney. There is a horrible keening moan coming out of my mouth and I think it just torpedoed my lifeboat. I look down, expecting to see fiery chunks of magnesium melting down through my left side, but there is only pale skin and a blue t-shirt. The spasm skitters across my diaphragm and all I get are short, spastic breaths. It’s not enough. While I was floating in my life raft, someone snaked an oxygen cannula across my face and the cool air bounces around my nose, hitching its way down toward my lungs in short increments. “Más despacio, Señora, respire más despacio.” She says. But every time I try to breathe more slowly, a spasm kicks the air right back out. I keep trying. And making awful noises. Eli said later that he wasn’t sure if it was me or the pregnant lady in the bed next door making all the racket. I’d like to say it was her, but at this point, we all know that would be a lie.
The doctor comes back. “I am sorry you had to wait, I know it is hard. Some blood results came back. Thank you for being honest and patient. I can give you more muscle relaxant and something also for your pain. You should feel better soon. Rest now.” He smiles and then turns away. The nurse comes right over and begins carefully emptying several syringes into the IV port. Within 15 minutes, the spasm begins to loosen and my oxygen levels are good. It’s only been a couple of hours since we got here and I feel optimistic. This might be a record for shortest time ever in the ER. Things are looking so good that we even decide it’s time to go home. Silly us. What were we thinking?
Pain medication is particularly good at masking abdominal problems…which is why you use it in the first place, right? Masking of the agony and all? I’m all fixed up in a wheelchair, waiting to get through the paperwork and get discharged back to real life, when I skooch my butt half a centimeter to the right. You ever watch a YouTube video of what happens when you throw a ping pong ball into a gymnasium full of mousetraps with ping pong balls balanced on top? It was like that, only 520% more stabby in the abdominal region. Yeah, these spasms can cascade all over the place. And once they get started, they really don’t want to stop. We did a quick about-face and headed back to the ER, while the ER doctor got on the phone to my Mexican doctor here in Ensenada. Then some other stuff happened which I totally don’t remember because they ramped up the muscle relaxant and pain meds and I might have been dozing a bit. Steve will have to fill you in on that part.
They admitted me to Velmar Hospital that night and I woke up in the morning to find the ER doctor (who must never sleep), looming over the bed. “How are you feeling?” he said, “Better, I hope?” I nodded yes. “I spoke to Dr. Villagrana and read more about your type of injury.” He paused a minute, “We ran more tests on your blood and you are very low in potassium. I think that is why you were having such bad spasms. We are giving you potassium through the IV, but it must be slow and we have to watch over your heart. It will take several days.”
So let me get this straight…some random doctor, who just happened to be on duty at the closest hospital to Cruiseport Village marina, put his head together with my local doctor here in Mexico and together they solved a big piece of my weirdness puzzle. Overnight. This is the same puzzle my US doctors couldn’t figure out in 6 years. And I got treated with kindness and respect. This is why there are so many things I love about living and cruising in Mexico.