Only the Beginning: Chapter 2

I was admitted, for the first time in my life, to the hospital. I was instantly hooked up to an IV and given medication to help dull the pain. Needless to say, I was terrified. As soon as we got a moment alone, we called my dad and told him the news. His heart sank to his stomach as he heard the words, “she’s going to have surgery.” He worried about what to do, asking if he should come to the hospital? We told him no, there was nothing he would be able to do here. Before hanging up he told me he loved me. We said goodnight, but we both knew nobody was going to get very much sleep.

For hours, I waited to go in for surgery. Each agonizing minute felt longer than the last. The pain medication helped dull my senses, but I was still very uncomfortable and very nervous. I fought back tears by trying to make light of the situation. Odd, I know, but I always laugh when I’m nervous. Mostly, I joked about how student teaching had literally become a pain in my ass. I also made sure to email all of my teachers to fill them in on what was happening and explain that I wouldn’t be back to school for, what I assumed would be, a few days. My mom chuckled slightly and said, “Only you would be concerned about school at a time like this.” I forced a tight smile and nodded in agreement. The day had taken its toll on us; we were both exhausted.

Eventually, I was taken for surgery. It was a quick procedure. The surgeon drained the abscess and packed it with some gauze. I thought that I would get to go home immediately afterward, but they kept me in the hospital to monitor my recovery. The day after my surgery, when I finally awoke from my groggy, drug-induced slumber, I met with the surgeon who had worked on me. He introduced himself, explained what he had done during the procedure, and told me that he had some bad news for me. He explained that I had Crohn’s Disease, a chronic autoimmune disease and that it was the contributing factor in the formation of the abscess. I was devastated. I was confused. I was scared. I was bewildered. I was at a complete loss of what to do. “Crohn’s Disease? What does that even mean? How did I get it? What am I supposed to do now? Am I going to be okay?” I questioned. The only answer my surgeon had was that I would need to follow up with a GI. I would know more once a specialist took a look at me.

I sank back into my bed, devastated, scared, and tired. I covered my face with my hands and bit back tears. Out loud, I moaned, “What does this mean? What’s wrong with me? How did this happen to me? Did I cause this? Is it because of something I did?” There were no answers. Suddenly, overcome with fear and anxiety, I burst into tears. Sobs wracked my body as I cried hysterically, while my mom rubbed my back. I had absolutely no idea what to do. I felt scared and alone. And, honestly, I didn’t even grasp the full gravity of the situation. I didn’t quite realize what having a chronic illness meant, how it would affect me, how it would change me, the impact it would have on my life. Lost on me was the fact that this wouldn’t just go away, it would be something I would have to live with for the rest of my life, which was more than I could fathom at the time.

Eventually, I calmed down. My mom assured me that everything would be okay, that the surgeon had fixed me. Her words worked on me. I was convinced that I would be okay, that this was something easily treated. Neither of us had any idea how wrong we were. At the time, I was uneducated on chronic illness and Crohn’s Disease. It wasn’t anything I had ever heard of before. To my knowledge, I had never met anyone with a chronic disease or with Crohn’s. In my mind, it was just another sickness, like getting the flu or something.

While recovering in the hospital, I received a response from the advising teacher from my college who was in charge of my progress throughout student teaching. In her email, she explained that since I missed the last week of student teaching, despite starting a full month ahead of the scheduled start date and receiving straight A’s the entire time, I was going to have to redo the entire practicum. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Panic and frustration washed over me. How was I supposed to deal with this on top of everything else? Not only was I trying to cope with being diagnosed with a chronic illness, being in the hospital for the very first time, and the incredible pain in my butt, now I also had to deal with the possibility of not graduating on time and having to pay for an extra semester of college because I got sick, something that was totally out of my control. Gulping back tears, I put on a brave face and got to work. I fought hard from my hospital bed, making frantic phone calls to try to sort everything out, all the while being pumped full of pain meds and heavy-duty antibiotics. I cried, a lot.

Once I was finally home from the hospital I figured this whole ordeal was coming to a close and that I would be back on my feet in a matter of days. Ha. There was a brief moment of peace. I felt “normal” for about two weeks. In those two weeks, I wrapped up all loose ends for student teaching (I passed with an A), I went to a Cubs game (they won), and then I crashed. Hard. A few days into the third week of feeling “normal” again, I began to notice the same butt pain starting to creep back into focus. I felt it, I could tell something wasn’t right, but it wasn’t severe so I tried to ignore it. Again, I came up with excuses to explain away the pain, like maybe I had done too much walking around at the Cubs game, maybe I drank too much beer, maybe I sat on those uncomfortable bleachers for too long. It wasn’t until I could hardly walk without crying that I finally broke down and told my mom that the pain was back. I felt like it was my fault, like I had somehow done something wrong to cause this. Why was the pain coming back?

Nervously, I explained to my mom that I had the same weird butt pain again. It was in the same spot as before, despite being promised the fiasco was over. I didn’t know why it was back or what caused it. I felt like my body had betrayed me. Why wouldn’t it just heal already? In addition to the pain, I was also feeling really, really tired. Like totally exhausted for no apparent reason. So exhausted that I needed to take a nap after I showered because I was just that wiped out. My body felt heavy and fatigued, like I had worked a 12-hour shift on my feet without a break, even though it was still early in the morning. At this point, it was no surprise to me that I had to get back to the hospital; something just wasn’t right.

This time the surgery to drain the abscess was a little easier, but being new to the whole “being sick” process, I was still terrified. I wasn’t yet used to dealing with doctors and surgeons, I wasn’t used to being in a hospital, I wasn’t used to being put under for surgery, I wasn’t used to being stuck time and again with needles. Trying to find a bit of comfort through the whole ordeal, I used the same hospital and surgeon as I had the last time, and this time I was scheduled for an out-patient procedure. At this point, I was just relieved I didn’t have to stay in the hospital and be poked and prodded all night long.

After my out-patient procedure, I was again told that this should be my last visit and that the packing should do the trick. The surgeon seemed convinced that this would be his last time seeing me, he said goodbye, and we parted ways. I was sent home with instructions to stay off my feet as much as possible and rest for the next few days while the wound healed. I was told that I should feel fine by the end of the week. Feeling confident that this whole mess was behind me, I relaxed, thinking this had to be my last surgery. I was getting pretty tired of dealing with the literal pain in my ass, anyways. In reality, I didn’t have the slightest clue that this was only the beginning.


How Getting Sick Saved My Life: Chapter 1

If you had told me that one day I would get sick and never get better, I wouldn’t have believed you. I would have laughed, thought, “yeah, right,” and shrugged it off without a second thought. After all, I had no reason to believe that I, an active, healthy 22-year-old, unknowingly had a horrific disease brewing beneath the surface. There was no way I could have known. There were no warning signs, no hints of an underlying illness, nothing to indicate that everything was about to come crashing down around me.

Prior to getting sick, I was lively, energetic, and outgoing. I was always up for an adventure, always the life of the party, always smiling, always laughing. I played soccer and volleyball and was a premier Scottish dancer. I was an active member of a sorority, I worked diligently on my studies, spent quality time with friends and family, and just enjoyed life. I had no idea that life as I knew it was about to change forever. I was just finishing my student teaching experience when the disease that would plague my life for the next five years began to swallow me whole

***

Each day felt longer than the last as I counted down the days until the end of the year. I was working myself to the bone, passing out exhausted every night around midnight, and looking forward to the promise of a relaxing weekend when I first noticed that I wasn’t feeling well.

I had been feeling a little under the weather, suffering from a sinus infection or something like that, for a few weeks. I knew I was run down, but I easily chalked that up to the late nights and long hours of lesson planning and grading taking a toll on me. It wasn’t until my cooperating teacher stopped me mid-sentence about the intended lesson for the next day that I finally noticed how miserable I actually felt. I tried to push on and continue the conversation about The Great Gatsby, but my cooperating teacher interrupted me and said, “No offense, but you look awful. Why don’t you take tonight off? Take it easy and get your health back under control.”

After being given permission to take care of myself, I hastily threw my lesson plans and essays to be graded into my teaching bag, said goodbye, and rushed out of the office. Ducking against the cold, I placed my phone to my ear as I ran to my car. I yanked the door open, sunk into my seat and called my mom to complain about how awful I felt. Obviously, you can’t be sick unless you tell your mom about it. I tried, at first, to downplay my symptoms, but in the back of my head, I knew something really wasn’t right and that I needed to go see a doctor.  I knew this because as I walked down the hallway to and from my classes and the English office I noticed a strange pain, and there’s really no nice way to put this, but in my butt. It hurt when I walked, it hurt when I stood still, it hurt when I sat down. It just hurt. It was a severe, dull pain. It was unlike anything I had ever felt before. Not realizing that it could actually be something serious, I explained it away as a drunken tumble from the weekend before and a resulting bruised tailbone or something. After all, what else could it be? Luckily, my mom convinced me to go see a doctor. And that started the ball rolling.

I stopped briefly at my grandparents’ house, where I was staying at the time, to change out of my work clothes, then I headed to the doctor. By the way, I was on my way to see a Pediatrician. I was so terrified of “the doctor” that I refused to leave my childhood practitioner, even though I was in college. I guess there was something oddly comforting about the alphabet border on the walls and the muted Disney movie playing in the waiting room. Or maybe I was just a bit of a wimp.

In the waiting room, I fidgeted nervously side to side and waited to be called back to a room. I watched a kid try to smash a block through a round hole and picked at my nails.  When it was finally my turn I followed a nurse back to a room, climbed on top of that awful examination table and waited to be poked and prodded.

Once the doctor had finished her exam, I was exhausted and ready to hear the prognosis. To my surprise, the doctor concluded that besides a sinus infection which she could treat, she had no explanation as to why my butt hurt. She suggested I take the next few days off of work to rest and recover and to find a GI doctor; at the time, I didn’t realize the significance of that moment or that a GI specialist would quickly become a prominent figure in my life. Being naive and completely in the dark about even the idea of a chronic illness, I ignored the doctor’s advice about finding a GI and simply took the antibiotics for the sinus infection and took Thursday and Friday off of student teaching. I figured my butt pain would clear up on its own.

Now, I am not someone whoever takes it easy. On the contrary, I’m actually a little tightly wound and a bit of an overachiever. What can I say, I’m a perfectionist. It’s in my blood. So, having to take a step back because of my health was really frustrating. It felt unfair, like a cheap excuse. But when I didn’t start to feel better by the end of the weekend, I knew something was wrong. Even though I felt miserable, all I could worry about was missing work, because missing work was simply out of the question. It was unacceptable, and lazy, to take time off. So, I put on a brave face and pretended like I felt fine. There was absolutely no way I was going to take off another day of student teaching after already missing two. I had worked too hard for too long to take it easy now. If I failed now, then all of the late nights and long hours were for nothing. If I failed now, then all of the time and energy, all of the pressure I placed on myself to succeed, all of the sacrifices that had been made along the way would be wasted. And that, I couldn’t live with. So, to prove I was fine I went to DSW with my mom to do some shoe shopping, my favorite thing ever. I rationalized that if I could get myself to go out and walk around and look at shoes, I could muster up the strength to teach the next day.

Sunday morning I walked into the shoe store with my mom. I was able to make it three steps down an aisle before I doubled over in pain. The blood drained from my face and I shivered violently as I was suddenly overcome with goosebumps and chills. My mom, noticing that something was wrong, put her arm around me. I leaned fully onto her, unable to support myself any longer. A sob caught in my throat. My stomach turned and I worried that I might throw up. Not wanting to cause a scene in the middle of the store, we left immediately and went home. For the rest of the day, I laid on the couch and literally writhed in pain. It was the most intense hurt I had ever felt, at least up until that point of my life.The next day my mom insisted we go to the hospital and without any reluctance, I agreed. When we arrived, we found a spot in the corner and tried to get comfortable; we knew it was going to be a long day. As we sat in the waiting room on cheap chairs with the too-straight backs, I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. My butt hurt terribly on the right side, so I crossed my left leg under my body and leaned fully to the left. Within the first ten minutes, my back twisted into knots and began to ache. Little did I know at the time that this would become my permanent sitting position for the next five years. UGH.

When they finally called my name, mispronouncing it Brittany as always, the nurse brought me back and got me ready to have an ultrasound. It was the first one I had ever had; I didn’t know what to expect. Up until this point in my life, I had been a relatively healthy person. After all, I was an athlete. And besides taking Imodium religiously because of a few stomach problems, which I referred to as “DSS” (Distressed Stomach Syndrome), I was perfectly fine. Or so I thought. I was quickly proved wrong.

My mom worried quietly in the chair next to my rolling hospital bed. Neither of us knew what to say. I was in too much pain to make conversation. My mom tried to comfort me, but her attempt was futile; we both knew there was nothing she could say to relieve any of the pain.

We waited and worried, worried and waited. I rocked back and forth trying to find a moment of relief from the pain but was unable to find a comfortable position. Eventually, a doctor came in to read the results to us. My mouth went dry as I listened to the doctor. He explained that the pain I was feeling was due to a perianal abscess, a little bigger than a golf ball, located about 6 inches up into the muscles of my right butt cheek.

What? What does that even mean? How is that possible? What caused it? Did I do this to myself? Can you fix me? A stream of questions rushed through my head and out of my mouth. Unfortunately, the doctor could only offer up the information he saw on the scan. We would have to see a specialist and have more tests done before we really knew what we were dealing with. All we knew moving forward was that I was going to have to get the abscess drained, immediately.