My ear is tuned to the music around me, sounds an untrained ear might never notice. A man coughing as his wife pats his back, a baby gasping for breath after a crying spell, a woman by the window slurring her speech after one cocktail too many. All of these have the potential for disaster, but, while that stage is latent, I wait in the shadows, taking another spoonful of soup.
It is but another side effect of growing up in a medically-minded family. Medicine appears everywhere: in the grocery store, the park, the highway, even the elegant cruise ship dining room where we now sit. Thanks to countless hours on call in the hospital, I have now perfected the art of semi-relaxing, always ready to jump to the call of duty when it sounds. Disaster isn’t heralded with flashy neon signs. It’s subtle. It’s quiet.
Then it explodes.
So I listen, ready to act if need be. The baby is drinking from its bottle. The man is back to his dinner. Everything is quiet, at least for now. I turn my head, bringing my focus back to the table in front of me. I am wearing a special dress, a pink-and-white flowery thing with box pleats and a thin belt. It took thirty minutes to iron, but I didn’t mind. I’m a girly-girl. I like dressing up, when I get the chance.
The soup is tangy, green tomatoes and lemon and something else I can’t pinpoint. Cayenne? Perhaps. There is a strange sound to my left. The baby’s mother is making cooing noises. Behind them, the intoxicated woman is being helped outside by a friend. I relax, slightly, scolding myself for being so uptight on a holiday. Free time is scarce in medical school, and I know I should be relishing every moment I have off. But I know how easy it is for the compass to turn. The images are raw and, even in the middle of the ocean, far away from hospitals and pagers, old habits die hard. I take two more mouthfuls of soup, hoping to wash down the feeling, the memory, of how little time it takes for a patient to code…or a child to arrest…
Or a doctor to become a patient.
It starts in my throat. The spoon clunks noisily against the side of the bowl, and I try to steady my breathing. It’s a familiar feeling: burning and stabbing and pins and needles, all at the same time. I take a breath in to try and clear the feeling. It doesn’t go away.
I glance at my mother. She has finished her soup, too, and is laughing at something, a joke that isn’t funny. She is happy, happier than I have seen her in a long time. I don’t want to burden her with undue concern. I know I often overreact; medical school has joined years of bullying to teach me anxiety and paranoia. Perhaps this is just nerves. I’ve had a sore throat for the last few days. Perhaps the acidity was too much. Perhaps it will pass. Perhaps I can…
And then it strikes. The hallmark of any allergic reaction: feelings of impending doom. It’s a strange sensation, difficult to describe if you’ve never felt it, but unforgettable once you have. It starts in your stomach, small, bubbling its way up, then explodes, paralysing your heart and mind in an inexplicable, terrifying horror. As if you’ve woken up to find a murderer in your bedroom. And a knife in your chest.
The fear surges, and the hum of the dining room disappears. The feeling in my throat is growing larger, now the size of a quarter. I grab my mother’s hand. She looks at me. With one gesture, I have relinquished all control. My mother is a nurse. She is used to emergencies. We are both used to emergencies.
I’m just not used to being one.
We stand up, and the room tilts sideways. I am vaguely aware of my mother pulling my arm, guiding me through tables to the nearest exit, but I can’t focus. I’m helpless. I’m scared. I think some people stare. I’m not sure. I hate staring. Everything is shaking. I’m swimming through a fog. I trip on something, and my mother’s grip tightens. The feeling in my throat is spreading. Backwards. Up my tongue and towards my lips. I hear voices. Everything is blurry. My mother says something. I can’t speak. My tongue is too thick, like a dumbbell in my mouth.
I am helpless. I am scared. We reach the lift. It’s empty. We’re going up. Back up to our room. The lift jerks upwards, and my stomach jerks, too. My lips feel funny. Burning, shooting, pins and needles. I lick my lips. They feel too big. My tongue is too big. This isn’t right. I’ve had anaphylactic reactions before, but not like this. It’s supposed to go down, to my stomach. I get cramps. I feel sick. And then it goes away. But this isn’t going away. It’s getting worse. It’s going backwards. The wrong way. The feeling in my throat is now the size of a tangerine. A lump. It’s growing. It’s not supposed to grow like this.
I turn to my mother. “My lippppsh shfeeeel sffunny,” I say. Everything is tilted. Why is the boat rocking this much? A woman passes us, walking on the walls. Or is that just my head? My mother starts moving faster. My lips are swollen. She pushes me into the room, onto the bed. Why is everything spinning so much? I can’t think straight. I can’t see well. Where are my glasses? Am I wearing my glasses? There’s an orange in my throat. It’s heavy. It hurts. My father is squeezing my hand. Where did he come from? I don’t remember.
Everything is dark and blurry. My mother gives me a bottle of water to drink. I can’t swallow. It hurts. It’s swollen. It’s blurry. I start to think it’s not the boat that’s shaking. Eventually the water goes down. It hurts and squeezes and gets stuck inside the orange, somewhere. I swallow once more. Twice. Thrice. It squeezes down eventually. Painfully. My eyes water. My tongue is too big.
My mother is doing something. I can’t see what. I can’t do anything. I can’t say anything. I’m used to being in charge, in control. But here I have no control. There are hands around my throat, squeezing. Who is squeezing me? Why isn’t anyone stopping them? Why are they squeezing? What do they want?
The orange in my throat hurts. It’s growing. I’m choking. My mother turns around. In her hands is anorange-and-blue tube. I know it. I’ve counselled countless patients on its use. I’ve demonstrated it and discussed it, know it better than my own stethoscope. But why is it here? Why here? Why now?
And then I realise that those are not hands, that no one is squeezing me. My throat is closing up, all by itself. In a few minutes, I won’t be able to breathe at all. My vision will turn dark, completely black. Fade into nothingness. Already I can’t sit up by myself. I’m leaning against something. My father? The wall?
It’s cold. It’s cold and hot, at the same time. My mother lifts up my beautiful box pleat dress, marking the skin with her fingers. “I’m sorry,” she says. At least, that’s what I think she says. There are tears streaming down my face. I’m crying. Why am I crying? When did I start crying?
There is a pause. A click. And then pain. I’m not a screamer. My throat is too tight to scream. So I say, “Ouch!” Quietly. Very quietly. But the pain stays. It grows. One, two, three, four, five…each second is an hour. I’ve been like this at least five hours. Ten hours. The pressure is released, but the pain lingers. “Ouch,” I say again, louder this time. “Owaaaaaaaa…” My tongue is too heavy. They’re something on my tongue. It tastes like grape medicine and chalk. Chalk. Where did we get chalk? My tongue is too heavy. Everything is spinning. A telephone is ringing. RIIIIING! RIIIIIING!
My heart starts to race. Slowly at first, then faster. Louder. I close my eyes, pressing a hand against my chest. B-B-Beat, b-b-beat, b-b-beat. I crack open and eyelid. Everything is dizzy; I close it again. My mother is next to me. Something about a doctor, someone coming up. I’m confused. My leg is bleeding. I bleed too easily. Too much. I ask for a tissue, noticing my tongue isn’t as heavy. My words aren’t as blurry. The medicine must be working. My hands are shaking. I reach for the tissue, and I’m shaking. I’m freezing. I’m burning. I’m so cold I’m burning up. That doesn’t make sense. None of this makes sense. My leg is still bleeding, but I can’t put pressure. My mother puts pressure. My hands are shaking. My legs are shaking. My heart is racing. There’s a knock at the door.
Someone is at the door. My mother stands me up. We are walking somewhere. My legs can’t walk. They’re shaking too hard. There’s pain — pain! My bleeding leg hurts. “Can we slow down?” I ask. My leg is seizing up. I can’t walk. I can’t stand. A man says sorry. Who is this man? I can’t see his face. It’s blurry. It’s dizzy. Everything is shaking. The orange in my throat has stopped growing. It still hurts. My lips are huge. I can feel it. We get into a lift again. All the buttons on the lift are lit up. Now I know I’m seeing things. I stare a bit harder.
“The boys,” someone says. That man. He is apologising. A game, he says. How are they playing games, I wonder. My world has stopped. It has shattered. Time is standing still.
But it doesn’t stand still for anyone else.
At every floor, there is activity. People get on the lift. People get off. Two women in bikinis. A man with a cocktail. Teenagers with ice cream. Some of them stare, stare at the shaking girl with the swollen, tear-stained face and bleeding leg. I stand against the wall. I don’t like their stares. I try to close my eyes, but the shaking seems worse, somehow. A woman laughs. Time hasn’t stopped for them. They are on holidays. They are living. I am dying.
Am I dying?
We’re down in the bottom of the ship. The lowest level. They put me on a chair. A bed. They wire me to the monitors. I smile. Everything is dizzy, but I know these monitors. They’re my friends. I hear the beep. Beep, beep, beep. I’m alive, beep, beep. People speak. Ask what happened. They think I’m diabetic. I’m not diabetic. My mother tells them I’m not diabetic. They’re timing things on clocks. Beep, beep, beep, says the monitor. Every beep is good. I’m still breathing. My heart is still beating. My mother takes off my glasses. I was still wearing my glasses?
The orange in my throat is back to a tangerine. It’s sore, raw, like strep throat. I can’t stop shaking. There’s a feeling in my stomach. Cramps. It aches. It’s sore. Someone asks me about my periods. A doctor. I want to yell at him, to scream, to call him names. I’m not pregnant. I’m not diabetic. My stomach hurts. My leg hurts. I focus on the monitor. The beeping. It’s familiar. It’s normal.
Eventually, my mother grows tired of the questions. They are asking the wrong questions. We’ve been here long enough anyway, she says. She disconnects the monitors, taking me upstairs. I’m still shaking, but I’m hyper. Extremely. The adrenaline has gone to my head. My stomach is cramping and my throat is sore and my leg is in spasms but I want sugar. I. Need. Sugar. I start speaking fast. Random things. Everything. That girl in my ninth grade dance class and the recipe for chocolate sushi and the reason barracudas should have ten legs and golly how my legs ache can I please have something to eat I need sugar is there any sugar? My stomach is churning. I lay down. The spinning has stopped. My lips are still swollen, but I suspect they will be for a while.
When I wake up, the sun is high in the sky. My stomach is sore and my lips are still swollen, but I can speak. My mother says I have had a restless night. I say it was dreamless. I am exhausted. Drained. I have no appetite. After last night, I think I’ll never want to eat again. Certainly not soup, with green tomatoes and lemon and something else. I was sick before this, and I get even sicker afterwards. Asthma. Gastro. I lose six pounds before I get home.
And yet, time didn’t stop while I was gone. I have messages to send, work to be done. It’s CaRMS season. I have to get my letters out. It’s back to school. Back to work. The patients are waiting. I am out of shape. I gasp going up the stairs. I walk with a limp. I ache all over. But now I’m back in charge. I answer questions. And time works in its own strange ways. Two close family members (one in my own house) are diagnosed with cancer, five days apart. The phone rings nonstop. I am answering questions. I am a counsellor, a library, a “rock”.
But I don’t feel like a rock. I feel helpless, vulnerable, open and soft and squishy. I was a patient. My world stopped. Time stopped.
But only for me.
Is that how these people feel, lying on stretchers, eyes closed, hands shaking? Vulnerable? Afraid? Alone? I am lucky. I had help. I knew what was happening. But many of these people don’t. They lie in purgatory, waiting for the gavel to fall. The dice to roll. What will happen to them? Will they walk out of here, limping up stairs, but grateful for the chance to recover? Or will they be taken out the back door, a white sheet covering their faces?
Either way, their lives are frozen. They are here, but not here, suspended in an alternate limbo while they wait for their fates to catch up. I know the feeling, of time standing still. But, whether on a ship in the middle of the ocean or in a hospital on the edge of a lake, one truth lingers: time stops for no one, least of all me.
It is hard to understand something if you have not lived through it. I might go as far as to say you cannot understand it, not fully, until you have seen it from both sides. As the doctor, and as the patient. Many people don’t understand allergies. It’s just a little butter, they say. You can’t even see it. It’s so tiny. Just scrape it off. I scraped the nuts off the top, they say. They scraped the nuts off the soup. They even changed the bowl. But it didn’t matter. It wasn’t enough.
At first, I was a patient. Then I started to become a doctor, and forgot about being a patient. But, sometimes, a reminder is all we need to shock us back into reality, to remind us that we aren’t invincible, that we can still fail, that we can still fall. We are all human.
And time doesn’t stop for anyone.