I woke on the morning of December 15 feeling hot, sweaty and nauseous. The next thought that crossed my mind was that I had an assessment booked in with a student on Skype at 9:00am. As I headed for the bathroom, I grabbed the phone – I had to call work. I called my sister-in-law Karen, who happened to be my colleague, to let her know I was sick and couldn’t work. Karen told me I sounded terrible.
I sat on the toilet vomiting uncontrollably. I was covered in sweat. I told my daughter Katie to call Steve and ask him to come home from work. I felt really bad. I was almost delirious. Any movement would cause me to vomit again.
By the time Steve got home I had made my way back to bed. I could no longer sit up. Steve rang the neurologist on call at the hospital to see if he had any advice. He said in view of a normal CT the day before, the only concern was dehydration. Steve went down the street to buy Gatorade. I just couldn’t drink it. I really can’t explain quite how I was feeling. I couldn’t sit up, moving made my head spin and caused me to vomit. I had sweat beading off me and I was starting to become disoriented.
Steve called the ambulance. As a doctor himself, this was a sign that he was starting to really worry. Steve was arguing on the phone with the ambulance. They were having a particularly busy day and suggested Steve drive me in the car. He explained that he was unable to get me to the car.
Several phone calls and a few hours later, the ambulance arrived. By the time they arrived I had stopped vomiting. My jaw had started to lock. I was asked several times how I felt and all I could come up with was ‘weird’.
Steve wanted to meet me at the hospital. He rang my sister Ali and asked her if she could come and look after the kids for us. She lived several hours away. In the short time we had been in Canberra, Steve had made 1 friend, the only contact we had in town. He called Andrew who was not home, but arranged for his wife Jane to look after the kids until Ali arrived. The kids and I had never met her – lucky she was a generous, beautiful, compassionate woman. She made the kids feel very comfortable.
The ambulance ride on my own was very scary. They kept asking how I felt. I couldn’t explain – I just knew I wasn’t right. My arms and legs started to twitch – what was happening? Although I was getting scared, I just thought I was sick and would be home in a week or so.
As I arrived at the hospital, I was again asked how I felt. I was left alone on a bed in the hall of the emergency department. My body started twitching more violently. I was now rolling around on the bed twitching like a cockroach after being sprayed with Mortein. My jaw was locking tighter by the minute. I was now feeling quite distressed.
Steve eventually arrived. What a relief to see him. Nothing was happening in the way of testing/treatment, and my condition was fast deteriorating. Steve started jumping up and down. Finally I was seen by a doctor. At first he thought I had tetanus because of the combination of my locked jaw and grazes from my fall. So again we waited, we needed to be seen by an infectious disease consultant.
A beautiful English registrar finally put in an IV. I was then pushed back into the hallway where I spent another couple of hours.
I was starting to get really scared. At that point I was still able to mumble words through my clenched jaw. I remember thinking about my 95 year old Gran who was living in a nursing home, and the impact that was having on my Mum’s life. When Mum was too busy to visit Gran she was overcome with guilt. Special occasions were arranged around being able to fit in a visit to the nursing home. I didn’t want that for Steve and the kids. They are all sensitive and compassionate – and they would turn down social events if they felt they hadn’t seen me enough that week. I made Steve promise me that if I got any worse, he would let me die – it was a strange thought because I still assumed I would be fine.
I was eventually transferred to a bed in the Emergency Department. The staff still had no idea what was going on. Their next thought was Meningitis. They needed to do a lumbar puncture and I was told that I had to be still. Nobody told my nervous system that! It continued to cause my body to spasm. It turned out I did not have Meningitis.
I spasmed so violently that my body rolled over so far, I ripped the IV out of my arm. The nurse caught me just before I fell off the bed. Shortly after, I lost control of my bladder. OK, so now I had everyone’s attention.
For the next couple of hours, I was surrounded by several doctors. I was asked lots of questions, again and again. I was asked where I was, what year it was, asked to count backwards in 7’s from 100. The strength in my arms and legs was also tested again and again. At first my right side was weakened. Then my left side became weak. I had everyone very confused. I remember the serious look on the face of the ED head doctor. I was still joking away and said to her, “If you could find something simple with a quick recovery, that would be great.” The look on her face had me concerned.
Then I had a contrast CT scan. At first they didn’t find anything. It was later reviewed by a neurosurgeon, who thought he could see an artery dissection (a tear in an artery in my neck).
At this stage I kept asking Steve what was going on. I don’t remember him telling me anything (I’m not sure if he knew anything himself.) I remember him calling my Mum and Dad from my bedside. He told them he didn’t know what was happening, but they should come down. I was getting worse.
It was about 11:00pm by now. I was sent for an MRI. The radiology staff asked me to move onto a small bed that would fit in the MRI machine. As I stood, my legs collapsed – that was the last time I was on my feet. The MRI was by far the most frightening and distressing thing that happened to me that night. It was late, I was getting tired and I had no real control of my body. I was told the scan would take 45 minutes and I needed to stay still. They had given me an emergency stop button in case I needed them during the scan. Trying to stay still was traumatic. Twice I panicked and hit the switch. Both times they convinced me to continue.
From there I was transferred to the resuscitation area of the Intensive Care Unit. I still had no real idea what was going on but I knew I couldn’t move and I couldn’t talk properly. I didn’t sleep well at all. I felt like I couldn’t breathe properly either. My nurse managed to realise that I was worried about my breathing. She said my vitals were fine so not to worry. My concern was that she might not know my jaw was locked. I was worried if they needed to intubate me in a hurry, they wouldn’t be able to open my jaw.
Steve slept in a chair by my bed. The night seemed to last forever and I really wanted his words of encouragement.
Although I knew I was sick, I never imagined it would be anything fatal or serious. It turns out I was WRONG.