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Dakota Antelman

Guest Posts, healing, Illness

I Got Sick

September 3, 2020
sick

By Dakota Antelman

I had a favorite phrase when I was young.

“My body hates me.”

I did, after all, spend quite a bit of time in hospitals.

First, there was the epilepsy. I underwent four EEG monitoring procedures on my brain where doctors glued dozens of electrodes to my scalp. Each time, they’d send me home wearing an electric ponytail of wires that slid down my back and into a string bag carrying a shoebox sized computer. My mother hovered through it all, staying close, playing the Brandi Carslile music she loved when we drove to and from the neurology clinic.

The doctors didn’t like what they saw on any of those EEGs. So, they diagnosed me with a mild form of epilepsy and prescribed me Depakote, an anti-seizure drug. A month later, my body exploded in hives in an anaphylactic response to the medication. I switched drugs. The seizures were well controlled with minimal side effects from then on.

“But it’s worth keeping an eye on,” my neurologist said.

Then there was the Marfan Syndrome workup. My mom said I looked too tall and was worried that my pre-teen propencity for spraining my gangly ankles or jamming my fingers while wrestling with my brother could actually be the result of a connective tissue issue. Both those symptoms, she read, were common of Marfan patients.

Her fears proved unfounded. But all that did snowball into a series of EKG monitoring procedures that, in turn, led to ultrasounds examining my cardiovascular structure. Those found that I had grown up with an artery wrapped around the wrong side of my heart. It wasn’t necessarily dangerous.

“But it’s worth keeping an eye on,” the cardiologist said.

Around the same time, doctors identified a curve in my spine. They diagnosed me with scoliosis and fitted me with a custom plastic brace. For two years, I slept in a clamshell contraption that encased my entire torso and pressed a metal bar into the space just below my collarbone.

Every night, I stood dejected in front of my mother or father to be ratcheted into the brace by the three velcro straps on my back. Each morning, I woke with deep gouges in my flesh from the seams of my undershirts.

I would dress for school drenched in the sweat I’d formed under unbreathable plastic skin.

“But at least that got better,” my orthopedist said.

As I finally tossed the brace to the trash, though, my dentist referred me to an orthodontist who, in turn, referred me to an orthodontic surgeon. She told me my conflicting crossbite and underbite were so severe I would need major surgery to correct them. At my parents’ suggestion, I took a year off of school before college to let doctors chisel my jaw loose from my skull and pin it back in place with 42 titanium screws and plates.

Finally, in tandem with all of that, my mental health collapsed in my senior year of high school. Lifelong anxiety crippled my studies and depression led me to the brink of suicide. I spent a week in a locked inpatient psychiatric hospital where I befriended everyone from a 71-year-old heroin addict to a girl my age who could not speak and who tried to kill herself twice during the week I knew her.

The boy with scoliosis, a misaligned jaw, epilepsy, depression and anxiety, I learned to love the hospital waiting room for its absence of blood draw needles and antibiotics that made my stomach churn. I began to think I looked cutest in hospital gowns.

But, looking back, it doesn’t even feel like those days lost to the warp of hospital time were even mine to begin with. The world gave me those ailments. My mom got me to the hospital. And the doctors ruled my days when I was there.

Thus, for all my nights spent hearing the beeping white noise of blood oxygen monitors and the sounds of nurses’ clogs in the hallways, it doesn’t feel like I ever got sick until the eve of my 20th birthday.

***

I went to the doctor just two days after Christmas in 2019. I had been sick with a brutal sore throat since finishing my first semester at college 13 days earlier. My neck also ached. My lymph nodes were swollen.

An urgent care doctor at my primary care clinic gagged me with a strep test. She shoved a flu test up my nose and sent me upstairs for bloodwork.

I didn’t have the flu. And I had dodged mono despite several of my friends coming down with that in the previous months. Most of my hormones were normal and the strep test that came back positive didn’t worry the doctor too much. She assigned a single course of antibiotics.

The grape sized white lump on my testicle, though, did worry her.

“That’s something,” she said.

She ordered an ultrasound that came back inconclusive. She referred me to a urologist.

I scheduled the appointment but, in a matter of days, realized I could not wait for it to come. The growth quadrupled in size after the ultrasound. It hurt to walk. I was scared. My dad nearly died of testicular cancer in his 20s, after all. The stuff was in my DNA.

So I checked myself into the ER the same afternoon I moved back into college for my spring semester. After a half dozen doctors examined and interrogated me about my medical history, one eventually came into my room and told me they would conduct an emergency operation to remove and analyze the top part of the still unidentified mass. They couldn’t name it, but it looked bad.

***

A nurse later told me that the acidic nature of the growth had neutralized the numbing cream and injections the surgeon tried to administer.

I felt everything.

Now, my throat hurt from the hot heavy gasps I took as the knife cut into my skin.

The side of my hand showed red, bearing an almost cartoonish bite mark from where I had clamped down to avoid cursing in a pediatric ward.

And I felt the dry salt of sweat clinging to my face and chest after erupting forth when I tightened my muscles in pain.

I collapsed into the arms of my roommate who had been waiting outside the ER doors. I was exhausted. I felt violated.

***

I wrote part of this essay the night before the follow up appointment after that ER visit. I didn’t know what the biopsy found. I didn’t know if I would soon be in an operating room under bright light waiting for an additional surgery.

I know the answers to those questions now. I still don’t want to include them. Although I will say I’m better now and free of any cancer.

I leave this story incomplete because this is not the story of a cancer scare. And this is not a trauma memoir. This is a testament, a macabre note to self about the ways these moments somehow felt grimly empowering.

Throughout my childhood, I went to the hospital when my mother told me to, or when my primary care physician found a problem during my annual physical.

This time, though, I needed no prodding. It was my gut instinct and my pain that made me peel my body off my dorm room floor and say, “I’m going to the ER.”

Throughout my childhood, my mother drove me to the hospital regardless of who I saw there. She loved me. She wanted to take care of me. And I’m grateful for it all. But, with few exceptions, she was the one always transporting my body from my safe home to the unfamiliar hospital. That meant she was the one effectively submitting my body to the often-invasive work of these doctors.

This time, though, I did the transportation. I walked down my stairs. I hobbled down the cracked streets of Chinatown, dodging puddles and waiting for walk signs. I stared confident mature daggers at building numbers and marquee style signs reading “Main Entrance” and “Emergency Room.”

I walked into that building. I placed myself before the triage nurse. And I said “I need help. Do whatever you must.”

Throughout my childhood I knew that the body named “Dakota” was often sick. I knew when that body hurt, and when that body’s brain spun with anxiety over needles, thus passing out and scaring nurses. I knew that body hated hospitals with every bent bone, misfiring neuron and deformed artery it possessed. But I never did feel like I was sick.

When I was with all those doctors, I didn’t have to look inward and articulate what I felt. I didn’t have to interact while they verbally or physically invaded my sick body. My mom, or my primary care physician’s referral did all of that for me.

Thus, the true agony of these years was not the pain, the surgical rehab, the discomfort of the back brace, or the confusion of waking up after passing out. It was, instead, internalized automatic dissociation. My body wasn’t mine when I laid on those tables. It was a slab of diseased nonverbal meat being cleaned and purified to be fit for the normal human world.

This time though, I didn’t feel that way. I got myself to that hospital. I articulated my pain and asked for help to relieve it. That meant that, as doctors worked on me, I was the one asking, “What are you putting in my IV?” I was the one saying, “I have a low pain tolerance, I will probably pass out.” And I was the one guessing “What’s next?”

Self-advocacy forced me to come back into my own body that day in the ER.

And that independence wiped the phrase “My body hates me” from my lexicon. My body alone didn’t get sick. No, my body and I were one.

I got sick.

Then I got help.

Then I stepped into the hospital vestibule. The door didn’t open, so I waved defiantly at the black box atop the metal door frame, a sick boy stumbling out of that hospital with unfamiliar association and confidence.

Now, the motion sensor saw me. And the door opened.

Dakota Antelman is a young freelance writer from Massachusetts with experience in traditional AP style journalism and personal essay/column writing. His essays have been published in a variety of outlets including the non-profit, Let Grow.

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