Oh, the life of a biohazard. Who knew there were so many twists and turns — or that it could be so downright lonely?
Last week, I had the chance to see what it was like to be a real-life human biohazard. I suppose the “glass is always half full” part of me could tell you it was an interesting and insightful adventure.
But that wouldn’t be completely honest. It was actually quite horrible and, at several moments, something out of one of my worst nightmares.
My complete immersion into the world of the biohazard began Monday evening, when the hospital consortium decided that it would be prudent to move me from the room in which I’d been admitted to one of the two isolation rooms on the floor. After all, I’d been examined by three teams of doctors so far, and no one yet had a clue as to the cause of the big, shiny black, swollen sore in my groin and the one on my left leg, both ringed in an angry red.
For the next five days, every person who entered my room first had to suit up in a yellow gown, slip on rubber gloves and don a mask. Food services wasn’t even allowed in my room at all, so often times, they’d set my tray outside my door, where it sat until the next person to enter my room came by, noticed it, and brought it in.
Once, when I heard the squeak of the food service cart wheels passing by my room, then the thunk of my tray, I waited a minute, then gingerly opened the door to grab my food. The alarm sounded and some member of the medical staff chastised me. I jerked my head back into the room like a scared rabbit.
The alarm sounded even if the door was open just a couple of inches, warning anyone who came in that I was in Isolation and to take the proper precautions. The same air was recirculated in my room the entire five days until Friday morning, it triggered a migraine so severe I vomited.
I’d tried to tell the nurse that I felt it coming on, but there weren’t any Orders by my Doctors for Fioricet, my migraine med. That meant she had to call for the Order, wait for the Doc to give the Order, wait for the Pharmacy to fill the order, then bring it to me. By then, it was much, much too late. I’d have never been able to keep the tablets down, so instead, she shot a healthy dose of an anti-nausea drug into my IV, waited for the vomiting to stop, then had me swallow the pills.
No fresh air. No flowers or plants allowed. No balloons, either. My cousin Christine came to visit me one afternoon with a bright, cheery yellow balloon (my favorite color) with a huge smiley face on it. It never made it through my door. Someone from Administration snatched it, told her it wasn’t allowed, and that he’d hold onto it until she was clear of my room.
“Nevermind,” Christine said. “That totally defeats the purpose.” Then she paused and said, “Just give it to the next little kid who walks by.”
But the culmination of the week — the Big Kahuna — was the afternoon that my bff Anita Griglio Kelly brought me a ham and swiss from Panera. I could only eat half. After all, how many calories do you burn sitting in a hospital bed? So, I asked the Nurse Assistant if there was a refrigerator available where I could save the other half for dinner.
“Sure,” she said, like it was something she did all the time. She returned to the room a few minutes later with a clear bag imprinted with the big orange Biohazard stamp. That was the turning point, the moment that I realized I was indeed the Biohazard everyone feared.
Thank God I wasn’t alone. Had I been by myself, I’m sure this realization would have triggered a series of virtually unstoppable, wracking sobs. Luckily, Anita was still there. She and I took one look at each other, waited for the nurse to finish bagging up the rest of my sandwich, then, once she was gone, burst into laughter. We couldn’t stop.
I looked at Anita, who was, of course, wearing a mask, which rubbed against the bridge of her nose as she laughed, chafing it. Still, she couldn’t stop. Neither could I, even though my groin, where one of the swabbed biopsies had been taken, was killing me. Laughter is very healthy and a great release. Thank God for this amazing tool of the human spirit.
The guesses of what it was that I “had” ranged from MRSA to Shingles (which spreads as an airborne disease and was the primary reason for my Isolation), a severe reaction to the highly-toxic chemo regimen I’m on, to the unknown — and utter and complete bafflement of the teams of docs who were working their hardest to figure it out.
There was great irony when the dermatologist and his team — who were finally called in on Thursday — saw it for what it really was: An infection in an ingrown hair that had gotten wildly out of control in a patient (that would be me) who has a severely compromised immune system. Five days in Isolation and I’d never been contagious in the first place.
Of course, in defense and to the credit of the docs who saw me earlier in the week, they’d never seen an ingrown hair infection pop up in several areas of a patient’s body at the same time. How this happened is something I’ll explain in Part III of this series. And, of course, though I loathed Isolation, I’d truly do it again if it meant keeping others from contracting something contagious I was carrying, or vice-versa.
But perhaps even more ironic and worthy of a blog post on the value of our God-given intuition and “gut feelings,” is that I had repeatedly told anyone who would listen that the first symptom I’d noticed had been an ingrown hair in my groin area…
Copyright 2011, Amy Rauch Neilson