It’s been said that the terminally ill can hear music just before slipping away. I’ve always imagined these souls listening to angels strumming their harps. I never thought it might be “Hey Jealousy” by the Gin Blossoms. But that’s what I heard as I lay in my hospital bed last month while battling a serious strep infection.
Not that some of the lyrics weren’t fitting:
Tell me do you think it’d be all right
If I could just crash here tonight
You can see I'm in no shape for driving
And anyway I've got no place to go…
I was indeed crashing—at least in the medical sense. I had a temperature of 103 degrees, my heart rate was tachycardic (130 beats per minute as opposed to a normal 60-100), and my white blood cell count was through the roof. Doctors feared I might succumb to toxic shock. My room became an isolation unit, in which medical staff and visitors all had to don hazmat gowns and gloves before entering (my isolation ended when I tested negative for the lethal bacteria Clostridium difficile).
But the Gin Blossoms? It was unclear to me if hearing the strains of this ’90s rock song meant I was heading to heaven or hell.
Then came the knock on the door. No, it was not the Angel of Death but rather Ryan Leo, a guitarist and vocalist affiliated with Musicians On Call, a volunteer group whose mission, according to its website, is “bringing music to those who need it most.” Ryan decided to keep his ’90s theme going and performed “Slide” by the Goo Goo Dolls. It’s a catchy tune despite the lyrics dealing with a teenager who becomes pregnant and is weighing her options (I sure hope he doesn’t play this song in the maternity ward). It reminded me of the ’90s, a time when I felt physically unstoppable. But here I was today, stopped in my tracks, wondering how it came to this.
On a warm Saturday afternoon, our family had gone to see a professor friend at Georgetown University. We were sitting on a patio, where it had become particularly buggy. I waved off a few insects but noticed a moment later I’d been bitten on my inner right bicep. The bite swelled and a few hours later my temperature shot up. I had chills and aches—even my scalp and teeth hurt. The next day I finally checked into the emergency room.
The doctors decided to keep me overnight for observation—the first time I’d ever been hospitalized. Twelve hours later it became apparent the bite had aggravated a strep infection, causing cellulitis. An attending physician, making her morning rounds, noticed the arm swelling up and asked, “So, no one has prescribed for you antibiotics?” No one had. The E.R. doctors were not convinced the bite would lead to a larger infection and were not inclined to treat me with an antibiotic, lest it do more harm than good or I develop a resistance to the medication. The infectious diseases doctor who dropped by later was not pleased. He shook his head, saying, “I don’t like it.” So he prescribed more antibiotics and scheduled my arm for a CT-scan. Despite being scheduled in the morning, it did not take place until 8:30 p.m. (one of the machines was apparently broken).
Surgeons came to visit (after I requested a surgical consult). They were much more hands-on and struck me as supremely confident. They all reassured me I did not need surgery. But I was advised to keep my arm elevated—the first time anyone offered this advice since my arrival 24 hours ago.
And so began my humbling week in the hospital, an experience that reminded me of both a prison and hotel. On the one hand, you rarely get a chance to shower or shave—you’re stuck recovering in bed. Your room becomes a cell. The television has a limited number of channels, one of which played Law and Order on a loop, so every time I channel-surfed, I’d keep coming across rapper-actor Ice-T. Predictably, the food was bland as, well, hospital food. On the tray I found a packet of the salt substitute Dash. They still make Dash? And you obviously can’t leave the floor since that would trigger a manhunt. (To be honest, I wasn’t nearly mobile enough to make a break for it. As it turns out, the reason patients move so slow is not because they are weak, but rather because they’re attached to IVs and chest telemetries. My own telemetry sensors kept falling off—this resulted in calls alerting my nurse that I was flatlining.)