Its 5 am and I’m standing outside my door smoking a cigarette. My hospital band is still wrapped around my wrist and my inner elbows ache from the IVs.
I thought I was going to die tonight.
No, seriously, I did.
No it wasn’t because I’m Bipolar or some cliche, halfhearted suicide attempt. With every inch of my being I thought I was having a heart attack. I couldn’t breathe and it felt like an elephant had settled in for a nap on my chest.
I have an irregular heartbeat so minor episodes are old hat to me. I had never felt anything like this though. I despise hospitals so when I allowed my husband to call an ambulance, he did it without delay. He knew it was a serious.
The ambulance and fire truck pulled in our driveway with their sirens blaring. My only thought: “God, make them turn those off. They will wake the boys.”
Everything moved quickly as the paramedics hooked me up with wires in every direction, they seemed determined to find out the cause of the crisis. Then they asked the question: “Do you have any existing medical conditions?”
I froze. Even in my panic, I hesitated to reveal my Bipolar diagnosis. I did though and gave them a list of my medications. For some reason I felt I had to quantify my condition with, “and no, I’m not crazy”. Apparently the paramedic found humor in what I’d said.
“Oh honey aren’t we all a little Bipolar sometimes,” she said. “No” was the only thought I could muster but my lips would not open to utter the response. She disappeared to the front while another paramedic continued to get my vitals and medical history. I could tell she really had no interest in learning anything more from me.
She was sure I was crazy or disturbed.
I began to panic as I looked down at my hands and found them some strange shade of purple marble. She flatly stated, “You’re hyperventilating. If you don’t stop, you will pass out and your body will correct itself.”
She offered no instructions on how to stop, just a nonchalant statement implying I had better fix it or else. Even after I told her my lips, face, knees and fingers were tingling or had all together gone numb, she had nothing to say other than to ask me my social security number and date of birth.
Just before arriving at the hospital, I could hear her radio ahead that they had a 37 year old bipolar female experiencing chest pains. Was it necessary to include the Bipolar? What did that have to do with the situation at hand?
I grew up with a stepfather who was a physician and I know when you bring someone in by ambulance with shortness of breath, numbness and chest pains, you evaluate them quickly. I was simply parked in the hall while the icy paramedic and on duty nurse had a casual conversation about an upcoming baby shower.
I had been labeled. My symptoms no longer mattered, just my existing diagnosis.
When the doctor and nurse finally appeared in my room, they asked me what my symptoms were. They didn’t ask for any existing medical conditions. They had already been given the heads up. The doctor told me they would run some tests to look for a medical cause for my symptoms. If they couldn’t find one then they would assume it was JUST anxiety. (Because that’s not a medical thing, right?)
They jammed an IV in my arm and sent me off to the bathroom with a specimen cup. They didn’t bother to even check my pulse. They had already diagnosed my problem. I returned to the room where my husband and I waited and waited and waited for someone to come and begin the tests. Finally they came to draw some blood, took an EKG and a chest X-ray. At this point, I had been at the hospital for more than an hour.
I began to experience my symptoms all over again as I started to process what was happening to me. I was being disregarded. I was treated like a child who pleaded that their stomach hurt on the day of a big exam.
My husband could see the pain and helplessness I felt as I tried to voice my concerns to them again. He knew I had reached the end of my ability to communicate. He picked up immediately where I had left off. It was a valiant effort but his words fell on deaf ears.
I was furious. I was embarrassed. I was humiliated. I was labeled and I was ready to leave. My husband begged me to be still and brush aside what the doctor, nurse and paramedics thought. It didn’t matter, he said. But it mattered to me, and I still can’t pinpoint why it mattered so much.
By hour three, I lost my patience. I argued with my husband until I convinced him to go and tell the nurse I wanted to leave. The nurse insisted the doctor would be in shortly with my results as he half looked over his shoulder with his feet propped up at the nurses’ station. Sure enough, as I was removing the wires and sticky pieces from my body and had moved on to my IV, the doctor appeared with a prescription for anxiety medication and discharge paperwork.
He said my blood tests, X-ray and EKG were all fine and, because he had ruled out everything else, it had to be “just” stress and anxiety.
Its taken me almost an hour to get my thoughts on paper, so to speak. It’s 5:58 am and I’m left feeling like a piece of gum that you curse at as you drag the sole of your shoe along the ground trying discard it.
I have never experienced a serious anxiety attack before today. I hope I never do again. But if I do, I doubt I will disclose my albatross – my Bipolar disorder.