Lessons learned from the ER, Sleep No More, and loss

As I mentioned in my previous post, yesterday was my first day of intro to improv class in Chelsea. We covered the basics and did some cool icebreakers, and one of the end-of-the-lesson activities was to get on stage and pretend to be in an environment suggested by the audience. After someone yelled “emergency room,” I jumped onstage and started emulating the behavior patterns of a nurse. A classmate joined me onstage and feigned a severe leg injury. She tugged at my arm, and keeping a straight face, I eyed her up and down and continued “writing” on an imaginary clipboard. Moments later, I waved her over to the other end of the stage and she reluctantly limped away.

Once we were done with the scene, our classmates provided feedback on the short, non-verbal performance.

“What about the nurse?” the instructor asked. “Does she seem to think the patient’s situation is as serious as the patient thinks?”

“No,” chimed in one of my new classmates. “She comes across as very jaded, like she’s seen a lot and doesn’t think very much is pressing anymore.”

That was exactly the impression I’d been trying to give, as it encapsulated my admittedly minimal experiences with ER nurses. I’ve been to the ER a handful of times, and on each occasion, I’ve frantically tried to convince every medical professional I encounter that I’m in need of immediate attention. Because that’s what many of us believe when we haul ourselves over to the ER: If we’re not taken care of right away, the worst could happen.

That was my mentality almost exactly seven years ago this spring, when I was a 17-year-old high school senior certain I had appendicitis. I’d eaten something bad and begged my mom to take me to the local ER. At the time, my dad had cancer and was just days away from dying. Things were so uninspiring that we had a night nurse, who happily looked after my dad when my mom drove me to Dominican Hospital. I remember informing one of the ER nurses of what was going on at home, blaming my intense, sharp stomach pains on the stress of the impending death of my father.

“My dad died a couple of years ago,” she said, taking my vitals and showing a tad more humanity than the other nurses. “Sometimes I forget that, too. It’s like he went off on a long vacation and it’s just been a while since we’ve caught up.”

Is that how it’s going to feel for me? I wondered.

Seven years later, I wholeheartedly support the notion that it’s easy to think the deceased are just doing their own thing in another place. Nearly a decade has gone by and I’ve been busy and productive. Every once in a while, though, I wish my dad were here to help. That’s how I felt this morning at 4:30 a.m., when I cabbed over to a nearby ER for stomach pains, which I once again misidentified as appendicitis-related cramps. I’m Catholic, but when I pray, I don’t simply pray to God. I pray for my dad and late friend Jenny to help me through whatever I’m going through.

Sleep No More
Sleep No More

Last night, my roommate, her buddy Claudia, and I went to NYC’s Sleep No More, an interactive 6-story play that we’d been meaning to check out for a year. All of my theater friends recommended it, calling the show an “adult haunted house” of sorts. At 8:00 p.m., Jen and I headed down to the West Village for dinner. We decided on a swanky restaurant with a club vibe on 18th and 7th. We had to shout over each other to maintain conversation, but after a few drinks, my friends didn’t so much mind the yelling. I stuck to coffee and chose not to have any alcoholic beverages, as I was exhausted from voluntarily walking four miles earlier that day and uninterested in being buzzed at Sleep No More. I got a cheeseburger and fries but didn’t finish my meal, as it was too rich.

By eleven, we were at the “McKittrick Hotel,” which is a fake hotel associated with Sleep No More. We were ushered into the red bar room, which had a “Mad Men” feel, after being stripped of our purses and cell phones. Taking a look at the chandeliers, red cushioned ceiling, glittered drumset, and feathered candle holders, I told Jen I wanted to Instagram our Sleep No More experience. Then I remembered our phones were in the coat check room and we wouldn’t be able to retrieve them until the end of the night.

Moments later, one of the actors, who portrayed a deranged club host, brushed up against me and called Claudia’s group number. She had to start Sleep No More without us, but we’d anticipated this, having heard the performers try to separate people who come together.

“The experience is best done alone, and fortune favors the bold,” we were told. It’s a miracle Jen and I never got separated and we found Claudia within the first half hour. She definitely had the most independent experience of all of us, as one of the female actors approached her several times. You’re not allowed to talk throughout Sleep No More, and though I successfully managed to remain mostly silent for three hours (your throat feels awesome afterward), I did realize how limited it felt being unable to communicate through words. I instinctively say “sorry” when I bump into someone, and I found myself doing this at the beginning of Sleep No More. Toward the end, I stopped worrying about it, and it was quite liberating.

Sleep No More bar

At 2:00 a.m., the three of us were physically drained and dehydrated. We’d spent the past few hours charging up countless flights of stairs, chasing down actors, running through halls, and darting our heads around rooms in search of each other. We had planned on partying in the bar following the show, but were frankly too tired to do so after roaming the “hotel” like a chicken with its head cut off. Our play-given masks in hand, we marched to an empty Penn Station and took the subway home.

Jen and I got back to the upper east side around 3:00 a.m. and went to bed thirty minutes later. Almost immediately after I fell asleep, I was woken up by excruciating stomach pains around my navel. I assumed the worst: appendicitis. My colleague Caira had appendicitis a few years back, and she figured it out after having a dream of being punched right in the stomach. She went to class, hoping to take care of the issue later. When she crossed one leg over the other, however, she blacked out from the pain, and that’s how she realized she needed to seek medical help right away.

The pain in my stomach quickly intensified. Unsure of what to do, I hobbled over to the restroom, where I washed my hands just to keep myself occupied. Next thing I knew, my roommate was standing over me in the living room.

“Laura?” she said. “What happened?”

My eyes opened and I saw the light streaming from the restroom across the hall. I was sprawled across the hardwood floor in front of my roommate’s bedroom, covered in sweat and trembling like a Chihuahua.

“I think I have appendicitis,” I responded, gripping my abdomen.

“You’re sleepwalking again, aren’t you?” she asked, giggling. You see, I’ve been a major sleepwalker/talker/yeller/laugher/conversationalist since childhood. It runs in my family. My late grandfather used to fly out of bed regularly due to night terrors, and my dad talked so much in his sleep, my mother can now sleep through alarms because she needed to learn how to drown out loud noises and screams to ever get any rest during her 20-year marriage to my father. We’re loud sleepers, so it wouldn’t be too weird of me to frolic around the living room in an unconscious state. That wasn’t it, though.

“I’m not sleepwalking,” I said. “I woke up with stomach pains and need to go to the ER. How did I even get here?”

“I don’t know. I just heard a loud crash and there you were, laying on the ground in front of my room.”

I touched my face, which was bloody. I dashed over to the bathroom to find I had a black eye as well as some superficial cuts above my eyebrow and cheek. That was when I realized I’d passed out from the pain of stomach cramps and taken a fall as a result. What I’d probably done was try to get to her room to cry for help but only made it to the door before toppling over. I still don’t know how exactly I landed on the right side of my face, which is pretty banged up and makes me look like Chris Brown’s latest arm candy.

“I’m going to the ER,” I said, giving her a good laugh. “I have symptoms of appendicitis.”

“Laura, you don’t have appendicitis. Just get some rest. You’re dehydrated and tired from Sleep No More.”

“Well, I still have to make sure I don’t have any serious head injuries either,” I continued, “So I think I’m going to the nearest ER soon.”

“Fine,” she replied. “I suspect you’re OK, but if it gives you peace of mind, go.”

Like any normal person would do, I turned to the Twitterverse for some guidance and moral support, informing my followers (that is, those awake at nearly 4:00 a.m.) of what had gone down and that I was considering going to the doctor.

“Holy crap. Get to an ER right now,” one person advised.

“Go to the hospital!” my friend Kim said.

“It never hurts to see a doctor,” another girl added. “Better safe than sorry.”

I attempted falling back asleep, but when an hour passed and the pains failed to subside, I called an ER down the street.

“How may I help you?” a woman on the line said following one ring.

“Hi, is there currently a long wait for the ER?”

“It’s 4:26 a.m., make that 4:27. Nobody is here.”

I nodded and turned off the bathroom light, already determined to leave my apartment and get help STAT. “I’ll be right over. Thank you.”

Throwing on my undersized Air Force Academy top, Arizona sweater, and yoga pants, I got ready to take to the streets. On my walk down Second Avenue, I crossed paths with a group of four girls and two guys, all of which looked happy and spirited, as though they were just returning home from the greatest Saturday night ever. I wished I could say the same about my own night.

After hailing a cab, I got to the ER waiting room, which was just as empty as the woman over the phone had said. As soon as I recited my symptoms, a male nurse pulled me into triage, where he took my blood pressure, asked a couple of questions, and checked my blood sugar level. My vitals were fine, so they moved me from red clipboard status to green clipboard, calming my nerves slightly. I still couldn’t stop shaking, though, and it was unclear whether all the trembling was psychological or physiological.

A nurse brought me into a small hospital room, instructing me to put on a sheer hospital gown and give her a urine sample. I asked for directions to the restroom, which was all the way down the hall. On my way there, I walked past an unconscious man on a cot, who was out for all to see. By the bathroom was a little girl on a hospital bed, her father watching her as she slept.

Once I got back to the hospital room, the nurse said she was obligated to give me a pregnancy test. It was a challenge giving me the test, as she said my skin was soft and “had lotion all over it” (for the record, it didn’t, but OK…), bringing me back to my ER experience seven years earlier. I’d been required to take a pregnancy test back then as well, no less by a grouchy nurse who complained of having to wake up to see me.

This wasn’t the sympathetic nurse who’d lost her dad, but the lady with the sonogram. I didn’t particularly love taking the test this morning, so when it ended and she stepped out of the room, I leaped off the patient’s table and grabbed my iPhone. A couple other Twitter followers had sent their support and positive thoughts, further confirmation that Twitter is the internet love of my life. If only I’d been able to live tweet my appendicitis scare at 17. There’s nothing quite like feeling you’re being supported by a certain group of people. It doesn’t matter if you’re friends in real life or not. When you’re terrified, alone, sick, and anxious at the ER at 4:40 a.m., you’ll take warm fuzzies wherever you can get them. I also started Yelping the hospital, perplexed by user Jody W.’s unusual compliment:

“I never walked out feeling worse than when I walked in.” That was reassuring to read as I awaited my doctor.

Following the slew of hostile, somewhat incoherent cold nurses, all of which ironically resembled my own improv impersonation from earlier that day, a gorgeous tall Indian doctor stepped into the room, approaching me with curiosity rather than suspicion and sympathy as opposed to irritation. The nurses had reprimanded me for being worried and fearful whereas this guy just wanted me to find a way to relax and get better.

“What seems to be the issue?” he asked, prompting me to recite my symptoms for the fifth time that night. I told him about Sleep No More, which he said he was interested in seeing.

“How could a play make you dehydrated?” asked the nurse, who was feeling my stomach for an irritated appendix.

“It’s an interactive show that involves lots of running around and physical activity,” I said.

“I don’t get it. Why were you RUNNING at a play?” she asked, pressing harder on my lower right abdomen. That was when the doctor chimed in that he’d heard of Sleep No More and understood how it could make someone ill.

“Between you and me,” he said once the nurse had scurried out of the room. “I think you’re fine. I’ve seen appendicitis, and you don’t have the look of appendicitis. You’d be on your side, stiff as a board, writhing in pain. Your stomach would feel hard, but it’s soft. You’re just another healthy young person.”

“Thank God for that,” I replied, already planning my exit. He took some more of my vitals again, writing the numbers down on his left hand. I did my best not to laugh or make a dumb comment about it. More often than not, I love small talk with doctors, mostly because I’m usually so nervous about being in their presence I have to fill every gap in conversation, but at that hour and after a jam-packed day of moving around, I just didn’t have it in me to joke. I was spent.

“You should take some Motrin for your eye, but otherwise, your stomach bug should go away soon,” he said, guessing my poorly cooked cheeseburger was the culprit of all my suffering.

“Anything else I should do?” I asked as he made his way to the door.

“Just … try not to worry so much,” he said, asking whether I wanted to keep the door open or have him close it. I asked for him to keep it open.

If I had a nickel for every time a doctor has told me to stop freaking out about life, I’d have around a dollar. Seriously though, I’m going to make an honest effort to listen to him. I’m certain I wouldn’t have succumbed to the negative effects of food poisoning had I been well rested, less stressed, and calmer.

I’ve been especially vulnerable lately, and I’m certain that’s why this seemingly innocuous piece of meat was able to disrupt my health and work flow so much. My roommate had the same burger, so either I’m extra sensitive or was simply an easy target for bacteria. Either way, I never want to pass out like that or feel so sick again, so I’m making a conscious effort to take better care of myself. I eat pretty healthy, but I vow to snack more frequently, sleep more hours each night, take more vitamins, and continue saying no to too much alcohol. My life improved the moment I chose to cut down on social drinking, and the next step is to show my body a little more appreciation and TLC. It’s all I have.


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