By Barbara Joyce-Hawryluk
The phone trembled against my ear. “Can’t breathe…can’t breathe…water…need water.”
“Do as I say, ma’am, and you’ll be okay. Don’t drink anything. Get your prescription bottle, lie on the floor near the front door, and don’t move. Paramedics are on the way. I’ll be with you until they get there.” It was the 9-1-1 operator’s voice — driftwood in a raging sea.
With one tremored swipe, the Cephalosporin bottle was off the counter and in hand as I slid down onto the mat in the front foyer. My lungs, snared in anaphylaxis, sucked wisps of breath through swelling lips while thoughts dove deep through darkness to find a familiar light, one that had prepared me for a moment like this.
It happened more than two decades ago, and while the circumstances were not nearly as dire, it brought my life to a full and unwanted stop.
Antibiotics hadn’t cleared up what was thought to be a bladder infection. Urgency and frequency were sending me to the toilet every 20 minutes, bone and muscle consumed in throbbing ache.
Eventually I ended up in the hospital, sleep deprived half-thoughts winnowing the doctor’s words. “Chronic pain and fatigue. Mental confusion. Interstitial cystitis, fibromyalgia, and irritable bowel disease.”
“This can’t be happening!” My voice, clenched in a fist of denial, struck back after he’d finished shredding my future into useless strips. “I have kids and a job. I’m running my first marathon next month.”
What followed was a stretch of treatment and surgeries including drug therapy via catheter where I received a veterinary medicine used to treat osteoarthritis in horses. That’s right, Secretariat and I shopped the same pharmacy. Eventually, my nightly trysts with the toilet decreased from double to single digits. Still, the restorative NREM and REM sleep had abandoned me, eclipsed by auditory hallucinations looping inside my head like a Son of Sam message, directing me to take my life so my family could get on with theirs. My brain, hijacked by pain and insomnia, was steering me toward the off-ramp until my doctor, reading the signs, insisted I break my no drugs policy. “Just until you get enough sleep to think clearly,” he said.
A friend who’d survived breast cancer offered this – “I know you feel like you and your family have been thrown into a blender. But you’ll get through this and come away better for it.” She was right. Work and running were put on hold, expectations and responsibilities altered, coping strategies researched. Sounds straightforward, right? It wasn’t. Blenders have blades.
Two years later I laced up my running shoes. “One house, that’s all,” I told myself. “And it doesn’t have to be fast or look pretty.” The 60-meter hobble/run took me to the end of my neighbor’s yard where I celebrated a new bar for success. Over time, the effort became less leaden. With one house conquered, I upped the distance to two houses, then three, then four, until a year later I completed a five-kilometer run. There were setbacks. Fibromyalgia is a fickle running mate and short wallowing sessions became part of the training. A decade beyond that I completed my first half-marathon. And then ran three more, giving each of my children a finisher’s medal along with a schmaltzy stay-focused-and-disciplined-and-you-can-do-it spiel.
“Still with me?” It was the 9-1-1 operator. “Paramedics aren’t far away.”
“Yes…I’m here,” I wheezed. Drawing breath was like sucking from a straw with a hole on the side. “How far?”
“I can’t say for sure but not long now.”
Not reassuring. Not when your metric for life expectancy is measured in minutes. I was close to passing out, the foyer in a misty spin, head buzzing like a cage filled with angry flies.
God, how I wanted to run. Pounding pavement, my drug of choice, was calling me as stress hormones coiled like a rattlesnake inside a body fighting for survival. The operator must have read my mind. “I know you’re scared but if you stay still and take slow, shallow breaths along with me, you’ll be all right.”
I nodded as if she could see me. With throat damming up and hungry lungs hoarding precious little oxygen, speech would have to wait. My body shuddered against the hardwood floor. So hot. So cold. So scared.
One breath at a time. Just like one house at a time. Don’t think beyond that. Don’t feel. Cry later.
I heard it first, a wail in the distance. Then I saw it, a white snowbank on the corner of the cul-de-sac bleeding the most exquisite shade of red. Not one, but two ambulances with lights flashing as they rounded the corner. Four rescuers. One wrapping me in a warm blanket while checking the rash across my neck and chest. Another one, holding my quivering arm so her partner could insert an IV line, and a fourth offering reassurance.
“You’re having an allergic reaction to the antibiotics you took earlier. The IV is pushing epinephrine into your bloodstream to get you breathing properly again. The shaking will probably get worse before it gets better. That’s normal and nothing to worry about.”
As medication opened my throat and lungs, it also loosened my tongue, prompting a reflex for unfiltered chatter when I’m anxious or nervous. Crazy-scared had just been washed away with a “kidding — not yet” from the grim reaper, and then cranked-up with a double dose of epinephrine. “I know you from somewhere,” I said to the paramedic holding my hand.
A smile played on his lips. “Well, if this is how you spend your Saturday nights, then maybe we have met before.”
I prattled on, words gushing inside a riptide of tears and laughter. Terror, relief, gratitude — raging and finally ebbing into a slow and quiet pull of one breath deeply into my lungs. And then another. And then another.
“Thank you,” I whispered.
Barbara Joyce-Hawryluk, MSW, is an award-winning crime fiction and creative non-fiction author. She lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada with her husband, a psychologist, and their yellow Labrador retriever. When she’s not writing or reading, she can be found running with her children and grandchildren and challenging herself in distance races.