Wednesday, April 16, 2008

My Great Strep Throat Scare

I've had a sore throat for a while. The last two days it got scary-sore with lumps under my jaw and canker sores and a puffy tongue. No coughing, no sneezing, just pain and dry mouth and more pain. "Huh," I thought. "What kind of deal is this?"

Then, Monday, I merely mentioned not feeling good to the guy at the desk in my apartment building, run by DESC, the Downtown Emergency Service Center of Seattle, and he, Alex, said, A LOT OF THE STAFF HAVE HAD STREP THROAT LATELY.

"Huh," I thought. So far as I know I've never had strep throat. As always, that meant a trip to the Wikipedia entry. I HAD ALMOST ALL THE SYMPTOMS.

OK, I don't know what tender cervical lymphadenopathy is, but I'm going to guess I don't have it. And I'm not having hives. But sudden and severe sore throat: check. Difficulty swallowing: check. Fever: check. Nausea: check.

[Above Right: Not my mouth. Generic strep-throat-having mouth.]


Then I found out that all that was unlikely if you just got antibiotics. So I procrastinated until almost 3 PM, and then went to the Pioneer Square Clinic. They said I was too late. So I went to the office, fed Mr. Friskies Receptacle, alias Snappy J. Furbutt, alias Vendor 007, and then went up to Harborview ER.

It was my first time in the new remodeled Harborview ER. The chairs are nicer. There are more intake people I think, same number of triage nurses. I couldn't find a water fountain or a public phone of any kind, but maybe I didn't look hard enough.

During registration I was asked if all my old information was still current. I tried to say yes, all of it, so she'd move on, but the woman behind the desk had to ask about each item individually. When she asked if my emergency contacts were the same, I should have said yes, they were the same. Instead, I voiced the fact that one of my emergency contacts was now dead.

Had I kept my big mouth shut, Elizabeth would still be an emergency contact. What's the harm of that? So, in the event of my death, the hospital would try to call her at the number I gave them before. That number no longer works, or belongs to someone else. So the hospital would go on down the line. What's wrong with that?

Elizabeth was struck from my contacts. When I got to see the triage nurse ten minutes later and was running down my symptoms I admitted I should've come in earlier, and matter-of-factly gave the knee-jerk customary excuse, "but I've been depressed", and as soon as I said that I immediately remembered what all I had to be depressed about and collapsed sobbing. Then the nice triage nurse asked what was wrong, and I told her. My daughter can't be contacted in the event of an emergency. Ever.

The triage nurse was very supportive. It was probably a relief to her that I knew why I was upset and had such a solid reason. I imagine she sees a lot of upset that isn't exactly plugged in anywhere, in the course of doing her job.

I was told to wait in the waiting area. I sat down near a beautiful woman who looked and sounded Iranian, so she was probably from Michigan. She was talking on a cell phone to a friend. She was about ten minutes into the conversation when she tried to estimate for her friend when she'd be done at the ER. "Well, I haven't seen anyone yet. I've been waiting her for, let's see... two hours. The clinic work will take at least an hour... "

TWO HOURS? And there were at least 20 other people there. How long had some of THEM been waiting? Half an hour later a fragment of a conversation told me that one guy had been there EIGHT HOURS.

I thought, oh no, all I've got is a stupid sore throat. They're doing triage. They won't see me until December 2012! I'll die of thirst before then!

A security guard came around and told someone (who happened to be a Real Change vendor, small world) who was nodding off that no sleeping was allowed. You can be made to wait 8 hours, but don't nap.

I prepared to cut and run. I was just about ready to go back to registration and tell them to never mind, when a burly man came out and shouted my name. I had only waited 1 hour! Strep throat IS serious! O MY GOD!

The burly guy introduced himself as Dave, "one of the people in ER that takes care of patients," and said he would be taking care of me. He took my blood pressure, read my oxygen content, and my temperature, asking the usual questions. We talked about surgeries I've had, so he found out I was an abuse survivor. I told him I had considerable allergies to airborne particulates. He then shined a light up my nostrils and said, yep, you've got some serious allergies there. "You can tell from just looking up my nose?" I'd never heard of that. But he said it's true. Having allergies changes the way the inside of your nose looks. I told him that was really cool. He admitted he really got a kick out of being able to do that. I liked Dave.

He told me he had to take a throat sample with a swab and run it through a strep testing dealy. There was a wait while the strep testing dealy was found. Then Dave showed up with a swab in his right hand and a tongue depressor in his left, saying "open wide." He put the tongue depressor down on my tongue, and I immediately gagged, and he pulled away, and said, "I need you to help me with this." I told him I was sorry, I just have the world's strongest gag reflex. I'd try again.

He tried a bunch of times. Every time the same thing happened. As soon as the tongue depressor pressed down my tongue, without him doing anything with the swab, I had a violent, involuntary, gag reflex. I felt like he himself was trying to climb down into my throat. I was gagging up a whole damn doctor each time.

Finally he gave up on the tongue depressor. He had me tilt my head way back, close my eyes, open wide and stick my tongue out and down as far as I could, and then ran the swab in and out my throat quickly.

I had the Mother of All Gag Reflexes, if you don't count the times I've gagged so much Ive actually thrown up at home trying to take pills that were too big. But it worked. Dave had got his sample and he went off to the strep testing dealy, leaving me in my chair to recover.

Something about the whole situation, probably the gagging coupled with the ultimate success, the survival, triggered the worst "panic attack" I've had years. Some of the things that get called panic attacks aren't that at all. They're violent releases of pent up anxiety.

Only people who have Chronic PTSD know that it's possible to feel relief so strongly that it can overwhelm you, hurt physically, and leave you shuddering.

Dave came back and told me the Good News and the Bad News. The Good News, I don't have strep throat, so I won't have to worry about heart tissue damage, kidney failure, etc. The bad news, I don't have strep throat, so what I have is viral (explaining the canker sores) so even though the sore throat is just as bad as it would be if I had strep throat, antibiotics won't fix it. My immune system is on its own.

Then he arranged for me to buy a $6.35 bottle of OTC oral anesthetic spray with my own money at the hospital pharmacy. That stuff is nice. It's cherry flavored, and it numbs you right up. I'm going to buy a case of it.

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