The weekend before spring break, 2018. I was a freshman in college, just beginning to stabilize tenuous new friendships I had been grasping at all year. Finding my place, dating a new guy, and about to go on a trip to Florida with a group of people that I felt were much too cool to be hanging out with me. The Friday night I began to die, I was supposed to go to a house party.
It began where it ended—with pain in my rectum. As a frequent possessor of hemorrhoids since I was 15, I assumed them to be the culprits and tried to ignore the pain. But over the course of that Friday, the pain intensified to the point that I ended up lying alone in my dormitory-issued twin bed, unable to sit, stand, or walk without tears. I called my mother, a physician’s assistant, who drove the hour drive from my hometown to take me to the ER.
At the ER, my mom gave me a narcotic to aid my pain, but it may as well have been candy for all it helped me. The nurses told me, without so much as an exam, that I had hemorrhoids, and to take a bath. They sent me home. On the way back to my grandmother’s home (where I would spend the rest of my journey) I desperately needed to use the restroom, and stopped at a gas station. After using the restroom, which I could only do with my mother carrying me inside, I promptly fainted in the parking lot. Talk about undignified. We figured out pretty quickly that I needed to see a colorectal specialist, because whatever was happening was more than just hemorrhoids. But if you recall, this was a Friday. I had a long weekend to endure.
I spent Saturday and Sunday in agony. I can’t express in words how painful those two days were. And I will spare you my feeble attempts. What I can say is that I thought, more than once, that death would be preferable.
Here my immense privilege comes into play. My mother was in the medical profession and knew a doctor personally who was willing to see me, first thing Monday morning. When I arrived, she performed the most painful rectal examination of my life (and I’ve had a lot of painful rectal examinations since), and declared that I had a perineal abscess. She put me on antibiotics and sent me home.
But the antibiotics were too little too late at that point. I went to sleep that night screaming into my pillow, and clawing at my own skin, and my parents decided to take me to the emergency room. The rest is a blur. I remember being wheeled around, in and out of consciousness. When I woke up, my parents, tears in their eyes, told me I had gone into septic shock, and had to have an emergency operation to remove not one, but two abscesses. If I had not gone to that specialist to start those antibiotics, or gone to the ER exactly when I did, I would have been dead at 19. (Sepsis and Septic Shock)
The fallout of my sepsis experience has been ongoing and painful. I had to have multiple surgeries after the initial abscess removal, and my body was so weakened by the sepsis that it took me almost 6 months to heal enough that I could be operated on. I used a wheelchair for a few months, and had to drop several courses and finish out the semester part-time. Those months were the hardest of my life.
Today, I am 24. I’ve graduated college, have a good job, a loving family, and a wonderful partner. But I still struggle daily with the trauma from my sepsis experience. I was diagnosed with PTSD soon after my Big Incident (as I call it in my head), and see a therapist to this day. And I deal with colorectal and GI disorders that make it impossible for me to forget the pain that is scarred into me. Every twinge in my scar tissue, every drop of blood from that area, ignites a frenzy in my mind— “is it happening again? Will this time be like the last?” I have panic attacks at the drop of a hat.
But, even, with the pain, even with the fear, I am grateful every single day that I am alive. I can walk. I lived to see my 21st birthday.
What is important to me about sharing my story is that people know that it can happen to them, even if it seems unlikely. To this day, no one knows why I developed those abscesses. I was young, otherwise healthy. I had my whole life ahead of me. And in the blink of an eye, a two-day weekend, I could have been another number in an all-too prolific body count.
I hope that everyone who has been touched in some way by sepsis can find the peace they need. I hope I can find it for myself. And I hope that no one is dismissed and ignored like I was at that first emergency room, sent home to die without recourse. If I were just a little less connected, a little less loved, a little less assertive, I would be dead.