Caring for the Needy: On Ailments and Adulthood

(Those with queasy tummies: turn back now. You’ve been warned.)

I have the stomach of a Victorian lady.

Assuredly, the rest of me resembles nothing of that sexually repressed, hoop-skirt bonanza, but when it comes to ailments i’m downright dainty. At least once a week i’m pumping the vending machine for a ginger ale or, better yet, sending J down to the Walgreens for more advil. I don’t get colds. I get pneumonia. For two months.

And i don’t do sick pretty, even though i do it damn often.

Which is why, last Thursday night, i was strapped onto a stretcher and loaded into an ambulance, blue puke bag in hand.

Even for me, this was a first.

The illness had begun innocuously enough. But by the end of hour one of tummy cramps and heaving i was laying belly-up on the floor of the second floor bathroom wishing for a swift death, my mom on speaker pleading with me to call the EMTs.

“Nooooo,” i groaned, a flush in the stall next to me. “I’ll be fiiiiinnneeee.” It was the needles. I knew they’d hook me into an IV and i’d be better within hours (at least, not puking anymore) but … the needles. I’d take my arduous death on yellowing, tiled floors in a public bathroom before needles.

“Hey – uh, are you okay?” a chipping pedicure in blue flipflops asked outside my stall fortress of woe. “You know what, i’ll go get you a glass of water,” she asserted before i could protest.

Two minutes later i fumbled with the latch and a tremendously sweet hall mate prodded a mug my way. “Thanks,” i whispered, taking a sip out of courtesy. I knew it wouldn’t be in me more than five minutes, but i was feeling horribly lonely and disgusting and here was someone unafraid to offer help. The least i could do was take it.

That’s what sucks the most about adulthood, i’ve found: being sick and alone. I never want my mom there more than when i have to go buy medicine myself or i’m trying to arrange my pillows so that i can watch Netflix without neck cramps. Mom was on the phone with me, of course, but all i could do was curl up in a ball in the handicap stall and pretend she was stroking my hair.

Wouldn’t dream of asking anyone else to do that. Seriously, gross.

Kind Hallmate left, assuring me i could knock if i needed anything. Instead i’d dragged myself along the wall of the corridor back to my room, pulling of pajamas covered in sick. I just need a shower, I thought. That’ll make me feel better.

“A shower?! No, honey, you need to call the police and have them take you to the ER.” Mom’s tone was getting thinner. She was on speaker now, because i didn’t have the strength to hold the phone to my ear. “And call a friend. You don’t have to do this alone.”

So i caved and called the emergency line, voice crackling with a swollen trachea pleading for help.

I managed to change clothes and then was limp-running back to the bathroom. Too late. I’d lost all strength in my legs and was sprawled on the floor, heaving and heaving.

The door to the stairs opened, EMT in sight.

“Oh,” she said. “Must be you.”

I nodded, then tried to puke. If i hadn’t been assured i was facing armageddon, i would have peed myself laughing.

Her nose wrinkled, but then she gently took my pulse and asked me how i felt. “Like shit,” i cackle-hacked. More EMTs started coming, including my own angel: Tracy, who was an EMT and lived one hall over. She wasn’t on duty but she’d heard the call, so she walked over. She’s considerate and compassionate like that.

When i called the police i’d also called Austin – amazing, fearless, dependable Austin. She loved me even after sharing a room with me for three years, so i knew she’d see me through tonight. Barreling through the double doors in sunflower yellow, i vaguely saw her pulling her hair down before she was pulling my hair back into a ponytail.

Talk about clothing the naked putrid and pathetic.

“You’re gonna be okay, sweetie,” she propped me up off the floor. That’s Austin: diving into the fray because there is a practical need she can fix.

Everything after that is blurry, but i remember Austin coaxing me to say yes to the hospital, and Tracy riding third in the ambulance with me. Tracy stayed, even when i was hurling and hurling and squeezing her fingers purple over the IV. Austin, who’d been handling the calls to both Jonathan and my mom, was finally let back to see me in the ER, after they’d given me enough meds to kill a horse.

Angels, i tell you.

When i was finally breathing normal we cracked jokes about the helluva toast this would make at the wedding. I thanked them and thanked them and thanked them, but i still cannot thank them enough. Tracy hitched a ride back to school with the ambulance, but only after ensuring i had a spare pair of hospital pants.

Around 4 AM, i told Austin to go home. The nurses tried to send me too, but then i puked in the lobby (charming) and asked to stay. At last, at last, i crashed into a dreams about 19th-century London, curled under three hospital blankets.

I woke up again at 6:30, IV out and alone in my room. I’d been so lucky to have a bed at all, and even luckier to have a room. The room was part storage, the walls stacked six-deep with crutches in plastic packaging.

And there, alone in hospital pants and shirt and having survived hell the night before, i finally started to ugly-cry. I couldn’t stop. As panicked as i’d been the night before, i hadn’t cried. I’d known it was the line of no return, the hysteria that plagued the ladies of the Victorian era from which my tummy was taken.

But man, i was bawling. Couldn’t stop. It wasn’t the pain, or the loneliness, or even the fear that thirty crutches might fall from the wall skewering me at any moment.

It was a release, and it was gratitude. When i’d been moaning and dying (ok, not dying) in the handicap stall, Kind Hallmate stopped in. Tracy came to the second floor just because she was around, not because she was on EMT duty. Austin came because i called.

While i’d been wallowing in self-pity over my lonely state as a twenty-something, people surrounded me. So that morning i just cried and cried, no moisture in me but somehow walloping out sobs, the shock washing off and the gratitude settling in.

By the time my auntie came to get me, i had run out of water. It would be a solid few days of bed rest and cheesy rom-coms, but my friends brought me snacks and my auntie took incredible Saltine-cracker care of me.

I was thankful, am thankful, that adulthood didn’t have to be as forlorn as i thought.

On Honey and Vinegar.

Traveling is, inherently, stressful. Traveling internationally through airports can be extremely stressful. Amidst the endless queues for security and clamped-tight seats in economy, tension can run high.

Which is why i always try to be as polite, smiley, and generally considerate when in international terminals. It’s a good rule to have in life, but by virtue of being human, i’m not always the most adept at obeying good rules. I do find the extra compassion when in pressurized places, though, makes the extra effort worth the reward.

Abby and i had arrived, at last, in Amsterdam. Waiting in line for customs, i saw what i thought was a spot open up in the line adjacent to us – so i scurried over to snag it and keep people moving. From behind me came a snappish English voice. “We queue in Europe. Apparently, you don’t.”

I turned, bewildered, to see an older man flushed with anger. “Sorry,” i replied, “i thought you were in the other line!” I turned and went to the back of the other line, rolling my eyes at Abby and trying to play it cool. It had been an honest mistake. There’s so much shuffling and lining up in airports, it’s easy to get cut off or unintentionally step on toes (metaphorically and non-metaphorically). And the last thing i needed was some guy to be condescending to me, presumably because i was not European and therefore (apparently) of some lesser status than he.

We got through customs just fine, and our new friend passed through at precisely the same time. After tucking my passport back into my rucksack, i smiled and waved at him. He blushed. “Sorry – i – just was falling behind. I – uh…” I just waved it away, my jaw fixed in a (admittedly somewhat passive-aggressive) smile. “Well, have a good holiday, anyway,” he spluttered as we turned to go. I said thank you, and walked off.

Easily, i could have fallen apart and wept on the spot. I was tired, no one likes being yelled at , and i was really preoccupied with trying to read maps in Dutch. Or, i could have been snappish and rude and dished it right back to him. Maybe i wanted to show him how nasty his remark was by being overly kind. Maybe i was a little peeved at the Euro-elitist attitude and trying to wield my Southern American hospitality to prove a point. Maybe that doesn’t make me any better in my thinking. And maybe he’d been just as confused and wanted to channel his own frustrations at someone else.

But, at the end of the day, he clearly regretted being rude to a confused foreigner. And i felt satisfied that i resisted the urge to snap back. I learned to double-check the line’s mobility, and i hope he learned not to jump to conclusions by being mean. Mostly, though, it just was a lesson in reiterating one of my mother’s favorite phrases: you attract more flies with honey than vinegar.

Being kind, especially under stress, can really can make an enormous difference.

in other news: we’re safe and sound in amsterdam and having a rollicking good time! be sure to stay tuned for more, hopefully more uplifting posts in the next few days!

current jam: the sounds of an amsterdam street.

best thing: cheese!