As promised, Laura’s finally going to tell the story about what happened to her a few weeks ago while taking some pills, even though the story kind of makes her look like a total gweeb for screwing up something as easy as taking pills. But that’s neither here nor there.
Almost a month ago, when Laura was just 4 weeks post-surgery and minutes after her husband and son left for school, Laura started her usual routine: climbing the stairs back to bed after seeing her boys off for the day. Winded and hunched over, she went to her night-table and took the usual daily handful of painkillers and Antidepressants, only the glass of water she used to swallow the pills with had less water in it than she’d thought. So before she knew it, all the pills went down except for one teeny tiny one (one of her Antidepressants) which didn’t go down and which proceeded to burn the back of her throat like a circus torch.
Laura couldn’t believe how painful the burning in her throat was! She ran to the bathroom and stuck her face under the tap in the sink (thereby killing herself with abdominal-surgery recovery pain) and drank some water, but that didn’t help. Racing as quickly as she could back down the steps (one step at a time, pathetically, though with incredible determination), she even went to the freezer and took a spoonful of fuzzy frost-crystalled ice cream in the hopes that the cold creamy sensation would ease the pain. But again, nothing. In fact, the burning searing pain in the back of her throat wasn’t only not getting any better, it was actually getting worse!
Laura didn’t know what to do. And as she stood in the kitchen holding her throat (as if that would help, which of course it didn’t), she began to feel the back of her throat swelling due to the extreme iritation the pill had caused. She was certain the pill wasn’t even there anymore, but clearly the severity of her pain had something to do with the fact that the pill was generic and was thus not coated. Not that she could really even focus on that somewhat arcane point of pharmaceutical manufacturing because she was too busy focusing on the fact that her throat was starting to swell and she suddenly thought she was going to die.
Maybe it was because she’d watched too many medical dramas in her youth (Marcus Welby, MD; Chad Everett’s Medical Center; St. Elsewhere; ER) where every time you turned around someone was being rushed into the emergency room requiring a fake doctor to punch a whole through the neck and straight into the fake patient’s trachea to access a blocked windpipe. Or maybe it was because she was just naturally negative and pessimistic and a catastrophizer of the highest order who feared death not only from the usual every day things (car accidents, plane crashes, cancer, aneuryism) but also from slightly more esoteric things, like taking a handful of pills without enough water. For Laura The Writer, The Branter, The Recovering Surgical Patient, the irony of the situation was inescapable:
I can’t believe I’m going to drop dead right here because I fucked up swallowing some stupid pills that I was taking after breast cancer surgery!
Despite the fact that she was still able to breathe, she still had no idea whether or not the swelling in her throat was going to get so bad that the swelling would indeed make it impossible for her to breathe, so she did the only thing she could do:
She called 911.
After one ring, she hung up in embarrassment.
A second later, they called back. Apparently, Laura thinks she remembers hearing once, by law, they have to call back anyone who calls 911 and then immediately hangs up because they’re not sure if they actually have an emergency or not.
What followed was the usual sort of tragi-comic scenario Laura always seems to get herself into. There she was with her intensely burning throat feeling like a total idiot for having called 911, then trying to explain with her extremely raspy voice and limited supply of oxygen exactly what had transpired before she thought she might expire from an inability to respire.
“Is there an emergency?” the dispatcher said.
“Sort of. I think so. I’m not sure.”
“OK Ma’am. Just tell me what your emergency is.”
“Well, I swallowed some pills,” she began slowly, gearing up for the rest of the explanation.
“Is this an overdose?” the dispatcher asked.
“No,” Laura said in as loud a whisper as she could manage, “but one of the pills got stuck because I didn’t have enough water.”
“So you have a breathing obstruction,” the dispatcher said. “Can you reach the object and dislodge it?”
“No…” Laura rasped with exasperation, about to clarify but not getting the chance to.
“So you have a blocked airway,” the dispatcher said.
“NO!” Laura again rasped exasperatedly. “The pill got stuck at the back of my throat and burned the back of my throat and the reason I’m having trouble breathing,” she said, pausing momentarily because she was having trouble breathing, “is because the pill burned the back of my throat before I had a chance to swallow it.”
“So…” the dispatcher said, clearly trying to understand what the hell Laura was angrily whispering about, “you’re having an allergic reaction to a medication you took.”
Completely exhausted, Laura wanted to give up and hang up, but she knew she couldn’t: Brendan and Benji would be home in six hours and she couldn’t bear the idea of them finding her collapsed in the front hallway with her stupid elastic waistband-black-”yoga-pants” (that she never actually wore to yoga because she was too lazy to go to yoga) on and the cordless phone in her hand having tried and failed to explain herself to a 911 dispatcher!
(Besides, if she did hang up, they’d only call back and then she’d have to start all over from the beginning….)
And so despite herself, when the dispatcher offered to send “a unit” to her house, Laura agreed. As she waited for the unit to arrive, she opened her front door to get some fresh air even though she couldn’t actually breathe in much of it and when she did, oddly enough, none of her many neighbors was out.
Laura lives on a cul-de-sac, a dead-end that abuts a golf course, and their house is the last house on the dead end. It’s a beautiful spot for a house, a 1933 Colonial tucked in under some trees with all that sloping green (or, in winter, white) beyond, but the houses are really close together which makes for some rather “tight” situations with the neighbors. Usually, at that time of day, mid-morning, there would be any one of several neighbors out — Karl across the street who has a contracting business he runs from home; Carole his wife who is a nurse and part-time student; John, the stay-at-home dad two houses up; and Barry, the new neighbor directly next door who works from home, too — not to mention Al across the street who, though several decades older than all of them, is always outside doing yardwork — but today of all days — a day when Laura was fighting for her life, sort of! – the street was quiet. Empty. As the fire engine heaved down the street and came to a stop across the street from her house, Laura was grateful that no one was around to witness her latest grand mal seisure of idiocy.
She was also glad they weren’t around to witness the fact that not only did a fire truck arrive with three firemen, but a police car arrived with one policeman, and then an ambulance arrived with two EMTs.
In seconds they — all six of them — were in her house in her livingroom; the firemen offering her oxygen which she accepted; the policeman checking out her amazing-for-a-fake Christmas tree (”It’s from Target,” she stage-whispered, moving the oxygen mask aside just long enough to get the words out as if her telling him and him hearing her were a matter of life and death); and the two EMTs — two slightly-odd short-haired navy-windbreaker-wearing middle-aged women, TweedleDum and TweedleDee — trying to figure out if they should take her to the hospital.
At the mention of going to the hospital, it was as if Laura suddenly came to her senses. What a ridiculous thought! she thought. Sure! Fine! A house full of emergency personnel! But I’m not going to over-react and actually go to the hospital!!
In the end, of course, she did go, since the EMTs convinced her that since they were there, they might as well just take her in — especially since Laura informed them (in a desperate attempt to gain sympathy and prove that she wasn’t crazy) that she was recovering from a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction. Both EMTs nodded in agreement.
“Better safe then sorry,” they said in unison. And with that, they escorted Laura out of the house and over to the ambulance.
Laura was still surprised that no one on her close tight never-any-fucking-privacy street was around — where were these people when you actually needed them?! she thought wryly — and she started to get nervous because she realized that she hadn’t called Brendan, or left him a note, and now that her voice was completely gone, he’d have no idea why she’d left the house, since the last time he saw her she was shuffling around the kitchen, still unable to drive. She also realized that having no voice was preventing her from correcting how the two EMTs were describing her situation as they called it into the ER — why couldn’t anyone seem to understand that there was no actual obstruction in her throat, just a burned out larynx from a misguided uncoated generic pharmaceutical!
All of that annoyance, paled, however, to the fact that they were having a hard time getting her strapped on to the stretcher. This would have been annoying and uncomfortable enough given her sore throat and feelings of idiocy, but since she was still in a great deal of pain from her breast cancer surgery, it was extremely annoying. It was also scary, since they couldn’t seem to figure out how to get the stretcher up and into the back of the ambulance without tipping her over. Had she been able to scream, she would have; instead, she just mouthed the words:
DON’T TIP ME OVER!!!!
To make a long story short, when they arrived at the hospital, less than a mile away, the ER people seemed both completely unaware of her arrival and completely uninterested and unconcerned about her condition. Laura thinks this bizarre combination of unfortunate events — the perfect storm of potential malpractice! — had to do with the fact that 1) the EMTs had a lot of friends in the ER to say hello to and 2) the EMTs had told the ER nurses and doctor that there had been an airway obstruction but whatever had obstructed the airway wasn’t there anymore. Laura assumes this is the case because both the nurses and the one doctor kept looking at her as if she was crazy, and they only looked in her mouth once to make sure there was no giant object stuck in the back of her throat. Whenever Laura, out of frustration at the fact that no one was treating her intense throat pain, tried to speak, no one heard her, which would then force her to wave her arms and pantomime various messages:
GIVE ME A PEN AND PAD! she mimed desperately first. And then:
CALL MY HUSBAND ON MY CELL PHONE AND TELL HIM WHERE I AM!
In time and with great disinterest they deciphered her flapping arms and waving hands game-of-charades and called her husband, and shortly thereafter he arrived, shocked to see her on a stretcher looking crazed with only an IV in her hand administering only a mild pain killer and nothing else — no anesthetic spray to the back of her throat; no Ears-Nose-and-Throat doctor checking to make sure her voice box and vocal chords were still there and assuring her that she would indeed, someday, speak again.
Eventually, Laura was released, and Brendan drove her home, and it was only after scouring the Internet looking for a similar freak medical condition to show up on Google, that she found one: a bulemic woman who was also an aspiring opera singer. Her question about whether frequent vomiting could be the cause of her recent voice loss was answered by a voice teacher who said that yes it was because the vocal chords had been burned, but that they would heal themselves in about a month.
It’s been three weeks for Laura’s vocal chords, and while she is talking up a storm, her voice is two octaves lower than normal. She sounds like Brenda Vaccaro now and she hopes she always will.