I’m an escape artist of sorts. I find myself in situations dangerously close to death, and manage to escape them.
The first time I escaped death I was too young to form any recollection of it. Since I was only two years old, I have to rely on the memories of both my parents. The problem is that opposing sides always tend to tell a different story. Over time, I have come to piece together snippets of moments in time and thread a somewhat believable story. The year was 1987 in Venezuela. My mother watched as my belly swelled, listened to my insufferable shrieks, and instinctively knew something had to be wrong. My father’s pseudo-knowledge of medicine acquired through years of hypochondria and anxiety, confirmed that something had to be wrong with their youngest child. Doctors suspected renal failure, later studies confirmed I had been born with a defect that had to be corrected through an operation.
The problem was my hemoglobin was so low, I could not be cleared for surgery. This is when my parents stopped being a team and waged war against each other. They battled over who had more knowledge, more instinct, and more rights to me. For weeks they took turns caring for me at the hospital in shifts. The situation grew worse and the doctors used that line they like to resort to when parents need to be pressured into making a decision “life or death”. So, one night, during my father’s shift, while my mother was at home resting and taking care of my siblings, my father planned a coup d’etat. “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”, he prayed for my protection and that any consequence for his action be paid solely by him. He crossed himself and called in the doctors. In a rushed clandestine late-night meeting he declared his right as parent. He demanded that I be issued enough blood transfusions to get me cleared for surgery, and asked that my mother not be informed. By the time my mother arrived the next morning, my hemoglobin was up and I was being prepped for surgery. The operation was a success and one ever spoke of it again.
The second time I escaped death was different because I was the one making decisions. I was 21 years old and had been married about a year, I was officially an adult any way you looked at it and my body was adjusting. Both to adulthood and life as a newlywed. One night- I felt a sudden pang in my right kidney. It’s the same one that’s always too tender during the long Miami summers, the same one that calls for attention when the heat index hits record highs. I grew up with fragile kidneys as a result of my birth defect and corrective surgery. So, while writhing in pain freaked my husband out, I was sure if I drank enough cranberry juice and water, it would be gone by the next day. I woke up the next morning and the pain had shifted completely to my left kidney and was wrapping around the side of my stomach. Being newlyweds who were only halfway employed putting ourselves through college during the worst recession this country had seen, we measured our next steps very carefully. Going to the nearest public urgent care seemed like a bit of an overreaction for me. I grew up in and out of hospitals, and I had mastered the art of holding out until the pain was at least an eight. But my husband insisted and I wanted to show him I would be an abiding wife. I waited three hours to be seen, wiggling and squirming trying to find relief for the pain; I was way too cold to even protest. I figured, if I tried I might die of hypothermia. By the time it was my turn to be triaged, I was just happy to be in a warmer room. The triage nurse asked all the regular questions, all of which are a blur now. All I remember is her touching my back and asking how much it hurt. Before I could answer, my knees became weak and gave out from the pain.
It took months before I received the Hepatitis C diagnosis. After much discussion with the leading hepatologist in the country at the time, it was determined that my only risk factor had been the blood transfusion from 1987. Doctors determined I had been carrying this virus for almost 20 years and were amazed that my liver hadn’t been damaged yet. Hep C is known in the medical community for being a silent killer because 50% of people with it are not aware they are infected. I was urged to act quickly and begin treatment to cure the virus before it began to corrode my liver. I underwent combination therapy of interferon and ribavirin, medicines so toxic effective, I had to sign waivers saying I would not get pregnant while taking them. However, the Hepatitis C was not what made me feel like I was facing death, it was the treatment and its side effects which came in waves. For months, I lost so much weight through no will of my own, my hair would fall out in clumps, and then I began experiencing severe depression and thoughts of dying. While I never actually contemplated committing suicide, I began mentally preparing for death. Death had never felt so close, but I was somehow serenely ready. I would prepare my husband by discussing my final wishes, which of course he considered to be irrational dinner conversation. Sometimes, the depression was so debilitating I couldn’t get out of bed; it was worse than the virus itself. My husband would come home from work to find me curled up in the fetal position, crying for no reason. I began experiencing fainting spells and migraines. When my heart started to feel attacked we all determined it was best to discontinue treatment early and hope the virus had been cured by then. Months later, I was declared cured.
The treatment was a success and no one ever spoke of it again.