‘reflections on sepsis’ or ‘my blood tried to kill me’

the paramedics who picked me up viewed me with suspicion. justifiably so – my apartment smelled of recreational drug use, undercutting any claim to genuine emergency. probably just another hipster greened out on his bedroom floor. to be honest, i was suspicious myself. after all, i had experienced these symptoms before. we, my room mates and i, even had a name for it – ‘toronto fever’. a combination of exhaustion aggravated by a strict diet of venti starbucks and next gold regular. when i first arrived in toronto, three weeks shy of a year ago, i spent the first week or so bedridden with my first case of tf. shaking under the covers, regretting that i wasnt in a serious relationship or at least back at my mother’s house. basically, wishing that i had someone to bring me soup. thats what it all really boils down to in the end, someone to bring you a chicken noodle and make sure you dont die. in lieu of this i had a room mate curious enough to investigate what sounded like a book case falling over. turned out it was just yours truly losing consciousness in a crumpled mass of septic shock.

by the time i had gotten into the ambulance the tone of the paramedics had become somewhat more grave. they had measured my vitals and realized this was not just a case of hipster exhaustion. my blood pressure was dangerously low and i had the heart rate of an octogenarian on morphine. as we sped away in the ambulance, one of my room mates sitting beside the other remarked to no one in particular, ‘we almost made it a year’.

we arrived at the registration to the ER and my shoes got lost. the doctors started working on me with an urgency that dispelled any hope that this was a result of too much coffee and cheap darts. at that point, whether consciously or not, i mentally detached from the whole situation. i felt like a nascar that had just pulled into the pit. i was being poked and prodded, hooked up to all manner of machines, making sure that i was still pumping the correct fluids at the appropriate rates. it was explained that i had an infection that had spread into my blood. i had gone into septic shock. you dont have to be a doctor to realise that using the word ‘septic’ to explain anything in your body cant be good.

i kept asking what the time was. i wondered if i should call my family. i mean i may have been laid out on a gurney riddled with angry bacteria but there was no need to wake up anyone too early on a saturday morning. turns out catholic guilt is immune to sepsis.

part of my hesitance in calling was that i was mentally downplaying everything. i just kept thinking to myself stay calm, relax, youre going to be fine. the trick to getting through an ordeal in the emergency room is just to tell yourself that everything that is happening to you is perfectly normal. ten litres of iv solution? par for the course! cant get a catheter in so they have to jab you in the bladder by going through your abdomen? happens to everyone! getting transferred to the ICU? what? youve never been? even in my semi-delirious state i knew that ICU was not a good place. i have seen hospital procedurals. the c is not for ‘cuddling’. at that point i told them to call my parents, after all it was past nine o’clock.

the ICU is kept cold, to keep the smells down.

one day later i was transferred to the 8th floor, general internal medicine. the language of moving from ‘intensive’ to ‘general’ gave me a sense of relief. my family had arrived and i spent the next week bedridden attached to a catheter which is the acme of discomfort. i pejoratively referred to it as my ‘dick tube’ in an attempt to regain a modicum of masculinity. in my weakened state language was my only real way to keep sane. every time a nurse drew blood or emptied a catheter bag i made sure to thank them, often to their confusion. if you have the presence of mind to thank people, even in ridiculous scenarios, for things that they are probably rarely thanked for, it makes you feel more in control of the situation. it diminishes the weight of what happens to you. it allows you to keep some semblance of dignity in a situation that pretty much robs you of any. i think i really learned that after the third time i shat myself. or as i phrased it to the nurse, ‘my bowels moved involuntarily’. technical nomenclature, passive sentence structure, like my sphincter had breached a contract clause. thats the thing about the hospital, nobody ever just calls it piss and shit. its bms and passing water. bowel movement sounds like a section of an orchestral arrangement written strictly for tubas. but its all part of it. “’shall i bring in the commode?’ ‘oh you mean the lawn chair toilet hybrid that i shit into a bag from? sure! wheel it in here sister’”.

what surprised me was how soon i became, perhaps shameless is the wrong word, but ready to forfeit any claim to being a self-sufficient adult male. its a little disconcerting how easily i took to being infantilized. your world shrinks down into minuscule tasks. getting out of bed under your own power. breaking down the getting out of bed into all its composite steps, skipping none, lest you pitch over and extend your stay. going to the bathroom under your own power becomes your whole wednesday. the crazy thing is that you get this weird sense of freedom in simplicity. all your existential desires and conceptual forms of stress evaporate. all you have to do is focus on getting better. you actually start to feel a little guilty, slightly lazy that this is all you have to do. i could see the appeal of münchhausen syndrome. it makes life very uncomplicated.

florence nightingale syndrome, it totally makes sense to me now. becoming infatuated with doctors and nurses is inevitable. ive always had a thing for professionals. i have a jewish grandmother living inside me. i swear to crom, as i was lying there in the emergency room getting worked on, one of the first thoughts that came into my mind was ‘if i go back now, how long until i finish law school?’. im not sure what triggered it. some strange combination of being surrounded by a room full of people who have their lives together when mine was so obviously falling apart. who gets sepsis? with doctors, the appeal is their intelligence and ambition. with nurses, you realise why they include the ‘in sickness and in health’ caveat to wedding vows. sure, it is easy to make a relationship work when everybody’s vital signs are healthy. but how do you know this broad is going to stick around when youre shitting yourself into an adult pull-up? with a nurse, you already got that base covered. shit, she’s the one who brought you the pull-up. plus, she’s already seen your penis. and under less than ideal conditions. yet lo and below, the fruit cups doth appear.

a few weeks later the realisation that i actually could have died really sank in. that simple focus on the day to day recovery slips away and allows some perspective to assert itself. i was back in my apartment, the scene of the crime. just before i feel asleep, in that moment your internal monologue gets whisked away into dream, i was overcome with this physical sense of fear in my chest. there was nothing rational about it, just an intense feeling that a semi-trailer truck had whizzed by an inch from my nose. i was more afraid in that moment, weeks later, than at any point since i first collapsed.

i write this in an attempt to work it out for myself, to glean some kind of larger meaning or at least to put what happened into some kind of context. i wish i could end this with some kind of epiphany about life or with some enlightening perspective youve never heard before. some magic alchemy of words that will spur you to never waste another second and live life to its fullest. but i cant. everything i learned has been said before. ‘the clock is ticking’, ‘our grip on this life is more tenuous then we think, especially when we’re young’, blah blah blah. the difference is that there is knowing we are mortal on an intellectual level, and feeling it in your gut. we know that on an abstract level someday we will die. but waking up with a feeling in your chest like your soul just got a case of vertigo is an experience i wouldnt wish on anybody, but that i am personally grateful for.