But the nightmares go back farther than those tense days in August. They go back to May – a remarkably short period of time, really – to the morning when I passed out on the cold tiles of the bathroom floor in my dormitory building.
My period had been acting strangely for a couple of months at that point. I chalked it up to stress, hormones, other vague but convenient words. In February it had been heavy, March had seen a strange “double period,” but in April it seemed perfectly normal. In May, I started hemorrhaging.
Graduation was three weeks from my grasp. I had turned in my senior honors project, a novella, and awaited its defense; I had a big research paper due for an art history class; the threat of mathematics loomed over me in a statistics class; only in Renaissance art history could I relax with the feeling I had come home. It was a busy weekend. I joined a potluck for the French Club, watched my roommate present her honors thesis, even went out dancing for a friend’s birthday. Meanwhile, I was hemorrhaging.
My roommate was dubious, but I consulted the Internet. “Some women have bled through airplane seats on transcontinental flights,” I informed us both. “That’s never happened to me. I’m sure it’s just a crazy period. A fluke.”
“Are you sure?”
I stopped hemorrhaging just in time to go out dancing, and so I was sure enough. I was sure through the following day, when I bid my roommate good-bye (she was living on campus part-time that term) and settled in for a relaxing evening. Just after I laid down, I felt the bleeding begin again. Up I hurried to the bathroom six or seven times that night – and in the morning, feeling strange and woozy, I called my mom and told her that my strange period behavior was persisting. While she arranged for me to see a gynecologist that day in Appleton, where I went to school, I revisited my new haunt, the bathroom, and passed out, doing near-fatal damage to my glasses.
Somehow I wavered my way back to my room. It was dark on the third floor and seemed eerily empty – no stampede of girls rushing out to get to class on time, no open doors, no music playing. I crawled back into my bed and called my mom. “I passed out.” It was the blood loss, we both knew. After a few more phone calls, the Dean of Students arrived with Security to take me to the ER.
It was a warm and beautiful morning. I felt the strangeness of creeping down the stairs in my pajama bottoms, Birkenstocks and a black blazer. They had pulled a Security vehicle up in front of the dorm and I clambered gratefully into the back seat. We drove to the hospital with the security officer and the dean in the front, chatting about pleasantries, the weather, landscaping, the route to the hospital. The security guy produced a wheelchair for me – my first ride in one; I was quite pleased at that point – and they took me inside.
I had never been in an emergency room before. I suppose, if I had bothered to imagine anything, I would have imagined a starched and gleaming place like the television series “ER” or “Grey’s Anatomy,” with doctors trotting around in neat scrubs and acting out their personal dramas.
Real ERs are not like that. The starched walls are grim testimony to how many times they’ve been cleaned; there is rubber and metal everywhere; fluorescent lights. And everything takes three times longer than you ever imagine it can. I was taken into a triage room so that a nurse could interrogate me for my name, address, insurance and what had happened to me.
“Could I have a drink of water?” I asked.
She looked at me and explained with somewhat forced patience that, now that I was in the ER, she couldn’t give me any “fluids” until I’d been examined. “We don’t want to change your condition,” or some nonsense.
I was horribly dehydrated from losing so much blood. “If I don’t have water, I think I’m going to pass out.”
“I’m sorry. Just hang in there.” She picked up her clipboard to ask more questions.
And I promptly passed out.
I returned from a glowing place to being shaken awake by the nurse. No more questions were asked. Down a corridor we rolled, to my great satisfaction, although I fainted again and came to as I was being heaved onto a hospital bed.
“She passed out on me,” I heard the nurse saying.
That’s what you get for not giving me water, I thought with grim pleasure. I was at the same time disappointed to have returned to the gray and ugly ER, when in my delirious state I had seemed to be floating somewhere over a waterfall where angelic beings were creating the loveliest music. I hadn’t quite been able to join them when I was rolled into bed and outfitted with oxygen and an IV.
The dean joined me a few minutes later and remained with me until her place was taken by a friend of my parents’, whom my mom had asked to come in while she frantically drove down from the northern part of the state. We were treated to the most unpleasant doctor and leering assistant it has been my misfortune to encounter, but managed to send them away by telling them of my appointment with an actual gynecologist later in the day. Time passed. I contemplated the cell phone on my stomach and how I might call my friends and tell them what had happened to me. I didn’t want to talk to anyone except my mom. I asked the family friend questions about her children. I was scared.
They were just wheeling me up to the tranquility of the OB/GYN department when my mom arrived. Just this small dark-haired woman in the doorway and I felt a wrenching of deep, deep relief in my chest. We have always been close, but I have never been so glad to see her. I clung to her hand.
She remained with me during the doctor’s exam and the ultrasound that revealed nothing of the big tumor that sat like a fist in my uterus. Dr. A was convinced that it was simply hormones acting up, as hormones will. He would give me blood transfusions overnight and put me on the pill. My hemoglobin had plummeted to 7. A number around 13 is more normal; at 5 you go into shock. But not to worry, said Dr. A. “Just eat like a horse, and you’ll be up and about in no time. You’re young. You’ll spring back.”
They wheeled me down to a hospital room and I sank with gratitude into bed while Mom called people to inform them of my condition. I tried not to listen to her saying, “Her face is as white as the sheets.”
She came and sat by me. We ate Greek take-out for dinner. The nurses administered my blood transfusions. In the morning, I prayed for a divine intercession that would send me home to a place where I felt safe if I began hemorrhaging again.
Dr. A told me I would be up and running laps in no time, but for the next two weeks at home, I took three hour naps – one in the morning, one in the evening. At night I didn’t sleep; I was caught still in the terror of that night where I had walked back and forth to the bathroom, I was perpetually on an indrawn breath that I could not let out. Finally my family doctor prescribed sleeping pills which, later in the summer, became the anti-depression drug paroxetine (or paxil).
I returned to school, defended my honors project, graduated summa cum laude. I went home. My energy remained low. I slept for hours at night, even after I went off the sleeping pills. In early July, I flew out to Flagstaff to meet my sister and her husband, who had driven over from San Diego to help me find an apartment. I fell in love with the clear air of Flagstaff and the striking beauty of Mount Humphreys. I imagined that this would be the place where I spent the next two years of my life, against the backdrop of this mountain, within spitting distance of the Grand Canyon, high above the arid desert of Phoenix. I was ready for my new life to begin.
Even in July, I was more tired than I would have been ordinarily. My parents and I went up to the North Shore of Minnesota and I slept in a grand lodge beside Lake Superior. Perhaps it is appropriate to say that, at this time, I began a love affair with my bed. As a kid I was never crazy about sleeping (I had playing to do!), and even as a teenager I didn’t sleep in. In the last years, I have learned to love my bed and my precious sleeping time.
I continued to see my family doctor regularly over the summer. I saw a gynecologist in early July, three weeks before I was diagnosed. Everyone believed me to be well.
And that is why, three days after my 23rd birthday, I had my car packed. That is why I was ready to go. And the world split open beneath my feet.