When COVID Kicked Me Out of the Hospital
Headache hospital camp ran on a tight schedule. Each day began at six a.m. with syringes of medication, then the first small pouch of clear liquid appeared on the metal tree beside my bed and squirmed slowly through my I.V. tube. The team of doctors visited at eight while I was still nauseated, then other medications came at nine, another round of the strong stuff at two, a visit from the N.P. at three-thirty, blood thinners at eight-thirty, and a third infusion sent me off to sleep at ten. But like any good camp, there was free time and many options for recreation, including eating, napping, sitting, and whatever else I could do while attached to a bag of saline. I read the Harry Potter books mostly, because the action-packed plot lines distracted me from both the drug side effects and the foggy depression that accompanied my chronic pain like an obnoxious chaperone.
I’d spent seven months dreaming about these inpatient infusions, but it felt like seven years. I tried one failed treatment after another for my severe, unremitting migraines while I scrambled to get an appointment with the specialty clinic. When the pain lasted for days or woke me up at night, trips to the emergency room were my only recourse, and one such E.R. visit became a two-week-long hospital stay. After finally going to the specialty clinic and getting approved for inpatient treatments, time had slowed to a crawl punctuated only by vertigo spells and migraine flares. So the night before my headache camp began, I packed my books, pajamas, and high hopes into a duffle. I checked in at the desk the next morning with the most anticipation I could muster, nervous about being back in a hospital but also eager to start a week I knew I wouldn’t forget. It was early March, 2020.
Some doctors belittle chronic pain patients, labeling them drug-crazed lunatics or attention seekers, and this taught me to watch my words as I worked my way through the American medical system. But by midweek at hospital camp, I was responding well to the infusions and felt buoyed by some unexpected optimism. When the N.P. came in for her scheduled visit, I let slip that I was feeling better, then immediately kicked myself and prayed she wouldn’t write that down for the doctors to read. I cursed my big mouth and feared I had just earned a one-way ticket out of the remaining treatments.
“Don’t worry,” she said, “I know it’s complicated.”
I let out a breath. She was on my side.
The next day went according to schedule, and I was comforted by the simple rhythm of progress. So I was surprised when my new buddy, the N.P., came to the door that evening. This was during free time–my blood thinner wasn’t due for another couple of hours–and she had already made her afternoon rounds. I figured this unscheduled visit was her saying good night before clocking out, a friendly gesture, so I happily waved her in and set Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire on the side table. This book is my favorite of the series because Harry comes face-to-face with many difficult realities. Pain. Fear. Uncertainty. Death. How a person handles such hard things says a lot about them.
Instead of saying good night, the N.P. sat down across from me and asked, “Have you heard of the coronavirus?”
I had heard of it, though we both knew I’d been too preoccupied with my own health to follow the news very much, so she correctly assumed I hadn’t heard about something called “community spread”–two cases of the virus had been reported in the San Francisco Bay Area, and no one knew how it got here. She wore a stern frown as she told me about it, a frown that made me feel like I was in deep trouble for breaking an obscure rule.
The N.P. told me I had the option to end my treatment and leave the hospital immediately. As her words clattered in my ears, all the days of the past seven months rushed through my head so quickly that they blurred into each other, like a flip book. I saw myself walking backward as the pages turned, losing more and more of the life I once knew as time moved forward. This week was supposed to be the end of that story, my chance to start fresh. So I refused her offer. I chose to stay.
But my resolve wavered and my suspicions grew when the N.P. pleaded with me to reconsider. I was perplexed by her response, wondering why she was so concerned about two sick people in a region where millions lived. I asked her what was really going on, searching out what could justify such a fuss, but her frown only grew longer and she said again, I had the option to leave the hospital immediately. This wasn’t a chat between friends, I realized. This was a missive sent from behind the stone-cold wall of medical secrecy. I also realized this “option” to leave the hospital was the only option I had. It wasn’t a multiple-choice question.
But then the N.P.’s inscrutable face softened for a moment, and she said, “Staying is not worth the risk. Trust me.”
I left headache camp that night in a wheelchair. The hospital safety policy forbade me from using my own two feet, so I held the familiar feeling of powerlessness in my lap as an aid pushed me down the hall. The remaining infusions that I had paid for with patience and pain were now abandoned, never to drip through my veins. I worried that I needed to finish all of the treatments to get lasting results, meaning this week and the seven months leading up to it were a waste, all because of this coronavirus.
But as I was wheeled toward the elevator, I passed a hospital room door covered with a plastic sheet. A few nurses huddled outside it in the hallway, wearing isolation suits. The elevator opened with a ding, and I was spirited away into a world balanced on the edge of pain, fear, uncertainty, and death.