Health Scare Turns a Pessimist Into a (Cautious) Optimist

White Puffy Clouds

It’s March 28th, the Thursday leading up to Easter weekend, and I’m at the Marietta Square to meet a friend for lunch. It’s officially been spring for a little over a week now and it’s absolutely gorgeous outside. The sky is full of white puffy clouds and the temperature is hovering right around 75 degrees. I park a couple of blocks from the restaurant but don’t mind at all because it means I get to enjoy the walk over from my car while getting some much-needed fresh air.

I’ve never been to Stockyard Burgers & Bones before, so I’m excited to try one of their burgers with a side of fries. I looked at the menu ahead of time and their “Dirty South” burger was calling my name. It’s topped with smoked gouda mac & cheese, bacon, and BBQ sauce. It sounds so good to me despite the fact that I’m lactose intolerant and might regret my decision later. On most days my inability to digest dairy products wouldn’t be enough of a deterrent to keep me from enjoying cheese because I love it so much. But, today is different.

Even though I really want that particular burger I decide to go with something a little more mild, something that will be a little easier on my stomach since this would be the first red meat I’ve had in weeks. I decide it’s probably not a good idea to eat a burger, along with all of that cheese, this soon after my procedure.

My primary care doctor has been on me about getting a colonoscopy since I turned 45. So, on March 21st, exactly one week earlier, I finally did it. The procedure was uneventful and I had been eating a normal diet for the past 4-5 days, but the thought of eating that cheeseburger made me nervous and my stomach was literally churning.

As I walk in the restaurant, I look around for my friend, but don’t see him. I’m about ten minutes early. So, I tell the hostess that I’m meeting someone, and that it will just be the two of us. She shows me to the table and tells me the server will be right over to take my drink order. It smells amazing in there and I’m pretty sure the guy at the table next to me was eating the Dirty South burger. It looks amazing! As I’m waiting for my friend, perusing the menu, I suddenly realize that my upset stomach has nothing to do with my nerves. I needed to get to the bathroom, quickly.

I Hate to Run, But…

I’ll spare you the details but let’s just say my lunch plans are officially over. At this point I’m no longer considering what I’m going to eat, I’m considering which hospital to go to. When I come out of the restroom my friend is now sitting at the table and I can only imagine what I must look like when I sit down in the booth across from him. I apologize and tell him that I need to reschedule. At this point, I’m anxious and shaking and probably look like I’ve seen a ghost. I couldn’t just leave without giving some explanation. I don’t want to completely freak him out, but I’m also pretty sure he doesn’t want to hear the bloody details, literally.

As I leave the restaurant, I call my wife and tell her that something’s not right but that I’m not sure what to do. It’s in moments like these that I’m especially thankful for her. When chaos unfolds, she’s always cool, calm, and collected. Me, on the other hand, I’m taking deep breaths and trying not to lose it. She talks me through the options and we decide that I need to call my G.I. doctor as we both make our way to the emergency room.

Within minutes from the time I arrived at the ER, I am in a room and my blood is drawn. Shortly after that, my wife arrives and the staff almost immediately wheel me back for my CT scan to try and locate the source of the bleeding. Within three hours the doctor on call is discussing the results from my blood work and CT scan and is sending me home. That is unheard of, right? Don’t get me wrong, staying the night at the hospital wasn’t on my list of things I wanted to do, but going home so quickly was also a little unsettling given my circumstances. My wife and I got home, called and texted everyone to let them know I was ok, and then went straight to bed. We had a busy weekend ahead.

I’m currently the music director for a church and as you can imagine, Easter weekend is kind of a big deal. In addition to our usual Sunday service, we’re also having a Good Friday service. Crowds are always bigger that weekend because whether you’re religious or not, you’ve probably got plans to be with family. So, I wake up Friday morning with the events of the weekend on my mind but also conscious of the fact that I was just at the ER the night before. Even though I got a decent night’s sleep I feel really tired already and I’m not looking forward to the busyness of the next few days.

The Pessimist In Me Saw It Coming

People who know me well know that I can be a bit of a pessimist. As much as I hate it, on most days I’m a glass-half-empty kind of guy. My wife lovingly calls me her Charlie Brown. I’m working on becoming more optimistic and I’ve grown in that area but given my bent towards pessimism, the thought had already crossed my mind that the short ER visit on Thursday night was only the beginning of something more going on. It had been way too easy.

Unfortunately, I was right. Things took a turn for the worse on Friday morning and for as easy as Thursday’s visit was, the next three days would be equally as awful. It’s one thing to see some blood after going to the bathroom. It’s a completely different situation when your hemoglobin drops from 15.6 to 7.8 in less than 24 hours. That’s a lot of blood. When you lose that much blood, having a transfusion becomes necessary and other things also start to become cause for concern.

Since I haven’t spent much time in hospitals to this point in my life, almost everything about this experience is new to me. I’ve got a pulse oximeter on my index finger at all times, along with the arm cuff that’s regularly turning on to check my blood pressure. I’ve got electrodes taped all over my hairy chest and abdomen which, by the way, is SO MUCH fun to have ripped off every time they decide to change their locations. I’ve got IV ports in each arm and will have others added throughout the weekend. I have so many wires and tubes attached to me that moving around in the bed is nearly impossible, not to mention having to get up to go to the toilet way too frequently.

Over the course of the weekend, I will have another CT scan with contrast dye, and I’ll drink another God-awful amount of that drink again in preparation for my second colonoscopy, during which they’ll attempt to stop the bleeding. I’ll fight with tubes and cords as I climb in and out of the bed to the toilet, I’ll receive my first blood transfusion, and I’ll get no sleep. I’ve never been this exhausted or scared in my life.

Sunday comes and I finally get word that I’ll be discharged this afternoon. My wife and my daughters are there with me and I cannot wait to go home. My doctors are confident the bleeding has stopped, my hemoglobin is trending in the right direction, my vitals all look normal, and they’re saying I’m going to be ok. At this point, I’m so out of it that all I can think about is getting home and climbing into my own bed to sleep. I want so badly to be freed from all of the machines and constant noise. I need rest.

Catharsis

It’s the day after getting home and I’ve already got a follow-up appointment with my G.I. doctor. She reviews the results from my latest bloodwork and says it will be a month or more before my hemoglobin is back to where it was before and probably 6 weeks or more before I’m feeling normal again. Even though I received two units of blood, my body was going to be working hard to get back to homeostasis.

For the next couple of weeks, my diet will consist of mainly scrambled eggs, applesauce, and bone broth. I’ll also have the occasional piece of toast with a little almond butter, but I’m definitely not eating a Dirty South burger anytime soon. I’ve also given up coffee and have switched over to drinking tea. At this point, I have very little appetite and a lot of anxiety about going to the bathroom.

I haven’t gone back to work just yet so I’m spending my days in my home office trying to get caught up on missed work. As I sit at my computer, responding to emails on Wednesday morning, I suddenly feel overwhelmed by emotions and start crying. The weird thing is, I’m not thinking about details from the past week or anything in particular, I’m just overcome and can’t control it. Later that day, I talked to my wife about it, and she helped me process what was going on.

She reminds me that I’ve been through a lot, not just physically, but emotionally and mentally too. Not only is it going to take my body a while to recover from this physically, but it’s going to take me some time to process the emotions an experience like this triggers. It’s like the emotional pressure valve in my body reached its max psi, warning me that I need to deal with this shit before it gets worse.

This Easter Was Different

This experience has made me acutely aware of my mortality. I realize that I’m more than halfway through my life, which saddens me because I see how much I’ve taken for granted and I feel the weight of the regrets I carry. But this awareness also helped to bring a new perspective.

I’m also overwhelmed by how good my life is and how much I have to be thankful for. Things could have gone very differently at the hospital, but they didn’t. I still have half a lifetime to change. I can choose to be more present, pay more attention to the people I’ve taken for granted, and let my regrets from the past motivate my future growth.

I’m married to an incredible woman who loves me far more than I deserve. We have 3 teenage daughters who are healthy and thriving, and still like being around us (on most days.) I work with people who care deeply about me and want what’s best for me and my family. My life is good and I still have the second half of it to live.

My Easter weekend did not go according to plan but the outcome was far better than I could have imagined. I emerged from this ordeal not just with a healed body, but with a renewed spirit and a profound appreciation for the blessings in my life.

4 thoughts on “Health Scare Turns a Pessimist Into a (Cautious) Optimist”

  1. Gregg Raybuck

    Josh,
    Thank you for sharing this very personal experience. Being human and a male we feel we have to be strong, brave and sometimes invincible. All of a sudden life happens and we become introspective and realize it’s time to measure the things that are really important. You touched on those very accurately. Take the time to heal completely, and know there will be highs and lows. The good news is you got this! We learned a lot about who you are and what a fantastic family you have. Your foundation is solid and I’m confident you’ll look back on this part of the journey and know you can deal with anything life throws at you. Get well and wishing you the best in your continuing life journey! Bless you all!

    1. Aww, thanks so much, Gregg! I appreciate your kind words of encouragement. And you’re exactly right, we get some birthdays behind us, more life happens, and we become more introspective. I’m learning to live more in the present, appreciating life and all of the blessings I have! I hope you and your family are doing well! (And by the way, I really miss having Alex as a neighbor.)

  2. Kristina Twitty

    My gracious, Josh! Praying that you have no relapse of that kind of scare. Grateful to hear you’re doing OK based on this post

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