I’m back. Or, at least, getting there.
I thank you for your patience, readers of this column, as I took the past month off from writing as part of my unexpected medical leave. As you may have heard, in the beginning of January I came down with bacterial meningitis.
So what happened? After a difficult evening of the 30th with a bad headache and nausea, it became clear in the morning something was more seriously wrong when I became incoherent. After calling my primary care doctor who advised a trip to the ER, my wife Yohanna called the paramedics. Soon my bedroom was filled with firefighters and EMTs assessing my condition, asking me questions (testing my incoherence) and finally strapping me to a gurney to take me to the hospital.
This is where I experienced one way our bodies have a built-in coping mechanism…I don’t remember anything for the next 24 hours. I remember being strapped to the gurney and the cold air as I was carried out my front door. The next think I know it was the next day, and I was at Overlake Hospital in Bellevue in the ICU. (As it turns out there were no ICU beds in Olympia or Tacoma.)
The details were filled in by Yohanna: The initial trip to Providence St. Peter’s Hospital. CT scan and spinal tap to diagnose the meningitis. Being restrained since I kept trying to get up. My kids being brought into the ER for preventative injections. Transfer to Overlake via ambulance and being watched the entire night to make sure nothing else happened. Quite nerve-wracking, and I’m glad I don’t remember.
In total I spent about two and half days in the ICU, and two and a half days in a regular hospital room. After admission on Monday I was discharged on Friday, and was able to continue to recoup at home. Hospitals are hard places to get well-you are constantly being poked and prodded, checked and rechecked, and the number of tubes and wires can impede your rest. It was good to come home, but my treatment continued–I had a midline put in at the hospital and I had to infuse myself with antibiotics twice a day for a week and a half more (two weeks total, including the time in the hospital). And now, a month since I entered the hospital, I’m feeling better, though admittedly, not 100%.
Over the past month, mindful of my energy level, I started to come back to work and resume some of my duties. This is where I needed to learn patience. Recovery can be a long process, even when the initial illness has passed. For something that is such a shock to the system, it may take a while for the body to bounce back. I was taking some heavy duty antibiotics, and even the hospital stay can do a number on you. (My doctor at the hospital said that his rule of thumb is for each day a person spends in the hospital–for any reason–it is a week to recover.) My sister had a friend who had meningitis, and she said that it took her several weeks to get back to normal. And this is where I am now–my energy still wanes some, and I’ll still get the occasional headache, but every day I feel a bit stronger. (I feel strong enough to attend a conference back east next week which I have been looking forward to for some time.)
Events like these–illnesses that without warning suddenly appear–are causes for reflection, for opportunities to cultivate gratitude and a renewed sense of life. Yet like recovery from illness, this reflective part is also sometimes long and difficult. But I do recall one snapshot from my time in the ICU.
In each hospital room there is a board on which the nurse for that shift will write his or her name, along with the name of the patient, doctor and any other notes. I was struck by these short notes about my condition:
- Awake and calm
- Vitals stable
These were the “goals,” these were the good signs. What made the sign so interesting to me is that these words describe what it is we perhaps all aspire to. Whatever we attempt, whatever course we chart in life, whatever undertaking we commit to, we ultimately want to get to a place where we are awake, calm and stable. We hope to get to a place where we are grounded, rooted and able to take in all that surrounds us.
The mussar tradition, the school of Jewish thought which stresses character traits and their development, speaks of the trait of equanimity, or in Hebrew, menuhat ha-nefesh, or “calmness of the soul.” We are taught that in developing this trait we must “rise above events that are inconsequential” (Heshbon Ha’nefesh, Rabbi Mendel of Satanov) and develop an inner resolve to face that which life presents to us. We can not always control what life throws at us, but we can control how we react to it. We must cultivate within ourselves the ability to be awake, calm and stable.
I met those goals in the hospital, and I hope to continue to meet them in life. I continue my recovery, and while I am anxious to get back, I need to be mindful of my energy level and abilities. I look forward to fully reintegrating into my rabbinic work and congregational life. Thank you again for your support, and I look forward to seeing you soon.