A month before we left Madison, I had a series of medical appointments.
First up was a dermatologist. I wanted to know about the “flakies” on my face. They weren’t present right now–they came and went, which was frustrating, since I wished I could show them to the doctor now. But I could describe them and bring a picture for her to see.
I suspected the flakies were psoriasis, because Dad had had that skin disease. Although I wanted an answer, I dreaded this diagnosis. Psoriasis can be disfiguring. Dad had red patches on his forehead or temples sometimes, and horrifically crusted skin on his forearms that he usually hid, but that I discovered when he was in the hospital. I told myself that Alison, too, had psoriasis, and she was not disfigured. She said it just appeared on her knees, little hints of flaking or color. Since psoriasis is an autoimmune disease like proctitis, both ailments responded well to her vegan, antiinflammatory diet.
At the appointment I got a piece of good news: This was not psoriasis. Based on my description, the dermatologist suspected yet another autoimmune condition I’d never heard of, a more minor problem called seborrheic dermatitis. Like most autoimmune diseases, its cause is unknown. It typically strikes in the prime of life–between ages 30 and 60. The dermatologist recommended dandruff shampoo if the condition flared up on my scalp. For my face, there wasn’t much to do except moisturize.
I could add dermatitis to my list of autoimmune disorders…but at least I wasn’t adding psoriasis. Maybe whatever diet worked for my proctitis would also help with my skin.
Next I had a blood draw. Like the dermatology appointment, I had requested this one, too. Ever on the hunt for clues about my illness, I wanted to know about my Vitamin D levels. In one of my many books–I couldn’t remember which–I’d read that low Vitamin D can lead to inflammation. Two-and-a-half years ago, I’d had low Vitamin D. I’d taken supplements and brought the level back to normal, and had continued the supplements ever since. I wondered now if the supplements weren’t enough. Had my Vitamin D levels fallen again, perhaps due to my cloistered writing lifestyle? Lately I stayed inside far more than I used to. It would be interesting to get the result.
The day after these two appointments was my second round of acupuncture. I was looking forward to it, despite the bout of sobbing I’d experienced the first time. Those tears had felt good. Regardless of what acupuncture might do for my gut, it had already accomplished something emotionally, like a cleansing.
This time Ron needed the car during my appointment. He dropped me off at the office and I waved and smiled as he drove off. The woman with the straight brown hair greeted me and led me past the Buddhas and Zen art to my little room, leaving me to put on a robe and lay atop the sheets. She returned and again I felt the tiny sting, then the soothing heaviness, of each little needle.
No tears came this time. Perhaps I had spooked them by expecting them. But I loved the Tibetan singing bowls and the chance to slow down my racing mind, which was always full, these days, of the logistics of our impending move.
Ron picked me up in the bright afternoon sunlight. I felt tired and relaxed. It would only be a ten minute drive home, and as he drove I told him dreamily about my appointment.
As I talked, I noticed myself beginning to squirm.
I paused, frowning. My belly felt a bit bloated, the way it often felt lately since starting the prednisone. I was still on the drug, tapering off it now. I rested my hand absently on my stomach, and noticed a dull ache along with the bloating. Come to think of it, for a minute or two I’d been unconsciously pressing back against the car seat to make room for what felt like an enormous, increasingly painful belly.
Letting out a slow breath, I adjusted the seat to lean back farther. This was really beginning to hurt.
“My gut hurts,” I said with consternation. It was too bad that this was happening just after my blissful acupuncture session.
We were stuck in traffic. It was a Wednesday, and in summers there were classical music concerts on the steps of the state capitol, with thousands of people picnicking on the lawn that encircled the building. Madison’s little downtown was temporarily gridlocked as everyone looked for parking. I began to worry. Along with my increasing pain, I was now having urges for a bathroom. I tilted my seat back even farther, beginning to sweat. What if we didn’t make it home in time?
“This really hurts,” I repeated, gasping. Ron looked worried. We were inching forward, not even halfway home. At this rate it would take us an hour to get there.
Both of us were thinking the same thing, and said so. This reminded us of a disaster that had struck me several years ago, in 2007.
It was the summer after our first year of graduate school. We were 29, and although we had broken up the previous winter, we’d continued taking classes together. We even had the same internship now, working with farmers through the County Land Conservation Division. We’d gotten used to being colleagues. Ours was a strange, uneasy friendship that still felt a bit like dating, but we’d also discovered that we worked well together.
My crisis occurred on a sweltering July morning. We were attending a plant-identification workshop outdoors. We drove to the site together in a big County truck, blasting the AC on the way. I was tired, and at 8 am it was already around 80 degrees and humid. When we joined the group of scientists in the field of tall grass, I began feeling lightheaded, and whispered to Ron that I needed to rest in the truck. Already I sensed that something was wrong–I asked him to check on me after a few minutes. I had felt perfectly healthy lately, and was unnerved by my unexplained light-headedness and queasiness.
In the truck I turned on the AC and tried to lay back, but I could not get comfortable. Despite the cold air pounding against my skin, I felt unbearably hot. It was as if some threshold had been crossed in my body. I couldn’t cool down. I wasn’t sweating much at all. Nausea and cramping came over me, and I felt that I needed a bathroom, which worried me–there wasn’t one nearby.
When Ron checked on me, I fearfully and apologetically said I needed to go home. This must be a strange sort of cold, I thought. I must have a fever, and I now definitely needed a bathroom. He told our colleagues, hiding his irritation that his ex-girlfriend was keeping him from the workshop, and began to drive.
As he drove I rapidly worsened. Soon I was crying out in pain, clutching at the door and the seat, my body stretched and rigid. Ron kept glancing at me with increasing alarm. I remember gasping and groaning, and he told me later that sometimes my eyes rolled back in my head and my tongue stuck out unnaturally, and I looked deathly white.
At some point he pulled over and called 911. Immobilized by whatever this was, now overwhelmed with pain, I wondered if I was going to die. I could barely speak, but I could muster a few words here and there. I tried to plan what I would say if I sensed myself going unconscious. I wanted to say something about love: loving Ron, loving everyone. I thought about death more often than most people, I was sure, and for years I had hoped that my last words and thoughts would be about love. Now I prepared myself to make it happen.
The operator told him an ambulance was on the way, and to cool me down by dipping cloth into a water bottle and putting it gently on my face, letting cool water run down my skin. She said to give me just a little water in my mouth, and to keep me calm. He did all of this. The cool water helped.
Within seconds, it seemed, we heard sirens and an ambulance pulled up, and two sturdy, uniformed young people took over, seeming to know exactly what to do. They somehow moved me onto a gurney and into the ambulance, and Ron abandoned the County truck to ride with me at my request, and I asked him to hold my hand even though we were not technically dating. The young paramedic next to me put in an IV and I began to feel better, but after a few minutes she shouted up to the driver that my blood pressure had dropped to 80 over 40, and without another word he turned on the sirens.
Ron told me later that when those sirens went on, he wanted every car within view to pull the hell off the road, and it angered him when they didn’t get quickly out of the way. Forever afterwards, he and I would always remember that moment inside the ambulance when the siren turned on. We try to pull off immediately whenever we hear one.
My blood pressure stabilized. We arrived at the hospital. They wheeled me into my own room and my body relaxed and the pain subsided, and Ron sat next to me with my hand in his, holding my gaze while tears squeezed out of my eyes.
A doctor came in with a kind, wry smile that indicated this was not the most serious thing he had encountered that day, even that hour. It appeared I’d had a touch of heat exhaustion. The feeling that you have to go to the bathroom, he explained, is often just a sign that your body is under great stress. Diarrhea is a symptom of a myriad of problems–that’s why many people die on the toilet.
Was I dehydrated? the doctor asked. No, I replied, bewildered. I’d drunk the same amount I always drank in the morning, maybe a pint of water, and I’d been sipping Gatorade from my water bottle, although not abundantly, since there was no bathroom at the field site. I hadn’t done anything strenuous; I’d been sweating no more than anyone else. I’d eaten perhaps a little less than usual that morning. But it was the first day of my period, and we all agreed that that, plus the heat, must have overwhelmed my body.
After an hour or two of IV fluids and electrolytes, I was discharged and went home, promising the doctors and Ron and, later, our boss, to get lots of rest and take good care of myself. I returned to work the next day, embarrassed. Years passed, and the incident faded from our minds, except occasionally. Whenever something reminded us of it, Ron shuddered and recounted how deathly strange I had looked, how terrified he had been.
Now, stuck in traffic with me squirming and gasping next to him in the front seat, we both recalled the incident again. I was beginning to cry out in pain, and the agony of my gut and the need for the toilet and the feeling of overheating was all too familiar. “Maybe we should go to the hospital,” I panted. We were inching toward an intersection that marked the last easy turn to St. Mary’s.
As we approached the intersection, we made a final decision: better safe than sorry. Ron took the turn. Then nausea overcame me and I asked him to pull over, and as he did I opened my door just in time to vomit on the street.
Shaking, I collapsed back into my seat and managed to pull the door shut. I sipped some water from my bottle. And I began to feel better.
Throwing up seemed to have done the trick. On its own, without an IV this time, my system began to quiet down. My pain was subsiding. Cool sweat suffused my skin and I sensed some sort of detox taking place, like a fever breaking. I cautiously told Ron we could go home, after all. The episode seemed to have passed.
Resting back in our apartment, we dissected what had happened. Could I somehow have become dangerously dehydrated today? It was summer, but not a hot day–the high was 74. The only unusual thing that had happened today was acupuncture.
I kept returning to this fact. It was uncanny that a crisis-level episode had happened within minutes of finishing an acupuncture appointment. Nothing like this had happened after the first appointment, but still, today’s incident left me with absolutely no desire to return a third time.
For months, I had been hearing that acupuncture could help with gut problems, and in a way this incident confirmed that it might. Because if acupuncture can help the gut, it stands to reason that it can also hurt the gut. Today’s crisis seemed to prove that, indeed, acupuncture can affect the gut profoundly. Unfortunately, it had affected me profoundly in a dangerous way.
After everything, these were my conclusions: 1) that acupuncture can affect the gut, but 2) that the woman I was seeing was not the acupuncturist for me. She must not know how to use her powers to help my colitis. Perhaps I would try acupuncture again in the future, but it would need to be with someone else.