When to Say No or at Least, No More

webpage photoMy spider bite and subsequent health related problems prompted me to get answers, so I went in to see my new doctor armed with a litany of information about getting to the bottom of my recurring and severe reactions to insect bites. In a nutshell, I told her I was no longer interested in taking antibiotics and steroids, being treated with a nebulizer, or spending countless hours in an emergency room. I’d done a bit of research and asked what she thought about me going to see someone who knows about malaria and bugs. She thought it was a good idea.
My sister had some major health issues as a kid. On the advice of our family doctor, my parents took her to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Without the expertise and skill sets of several doctors, my sister may have died. In our family, the good deeds performed at Mayo Clinic are revered as something akin to religious. When I settled on Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, I was certain I would have my health problems diagnosed and treated in short order.
By some sheer stroke of luck, I was scheduled for my first appointment with an internist a week after I made my initial call. Surely this was a good sign! Ron and I adjusted our schedules, then I packed my bags and headed off to Phoenix.
My first appointment went well. The internist admitted he’d never heard of the symptoms I’ve experienced, but he didn’t dismiss me as so many doctors have and believed the root cause might be from the malaria I had years ago. Within fifteen minutes of leaving his office, I had my itinerary to include labs, tests, X-rays, neuro-psych exam, meetings with an ophthalmologist, an allergist, an infectious disease doctor. If you have never experienced a trip to Mayo Clinic, throw your disdain for doctor appointments and crowded waiting rooms out the window. It is a well-oiled machine that rivals the organization and scheduling magic of a Carnival Cruise. Everyone was helpful, knowledgeable, and friendly. I not only felt like I was in good hands, I was in good hands. The doctors, nurses, technicians, and support staff are at the top of the food chain professionally, and they love what they do.
All was good until I met with the one person I thought would have answers—the infectious disease doctor. Instead, she had formed her own theories about my case before our meeting and was unable or unwilling to hear my responses to her questions. I left her office angry, confused, and disappointed. I’d already been told by three doctors that insect bites simply don’t bring on the problems I experience. In one case, just a few years ago, a doctor said my symptoms could not be brought on by a spider bite as I lay in his office unable to sit up while he prepared a steroid IV.
My final appointment that day was with the internist I had originally met with. When he asked how it went with the infectious disease doctor, I took a deep breath to keep from crying and told him she simply didn’t know a thing about malaria or insects in general. He was empathetic and continued with his report that included all my test results and notes from the doctors I had seen over the course of four days. In the end, I learned I am completely healthy. My heart and liver are functioning as they should. I have no allergies to speak of, my eyes, though not great, show no sign of disease, and my chest X-ray was clear. I should have left his office exhilarated, but no, I was still hell-bent on finding the cause of my health issues. I didn’t have answers to my questions about the long-term effects of malaria. Still angry, I called Ron and gave him the news, then I went back to the hotel and collapsed.
That night I stopped in at a little Mexican restaurant and ordered a delicious meal and a margarita to calm my nerves. It didn’t take long for me to realize what an ass I’d been. I was just given the best possible news anyone could receive regarding his or her health. I felt ashamed. I’d seen so many sick and dying people at Mayo who would have rejoiced at the diagnosis I had received. And when I thought about it, I did get my questions answered. At least some of them. I learned that whatever is behind these crazy symptoms, they are not whittling away at my brain, my lungs, or my kidneys. I learned that all the antibiotics and steroids I’ve taken over the years haven’t caused any kind of permanent damage, and that I will live through the next round of symptoms. Sitting there sipping my margarita, I decided I’d had enough—enough doctors, enough medication (unless absolutely necessary,) and enough worrying. It was simply time to be thankful.
After it was all over, I left Phoenix and made it as far as my mom’s house where I spent the night. The next morning I got up and went for a bike ride. Five miles from her house I hit a bump in the road. The crash left me full of scrapes and bruises. The following day, I was back home picking peaches when I was stung by a tarantula hawk. Now anyone who knows anything about these winged-devils knows the pain goes right to that place inside a person that makes her scream for mercy. As the pain subsided, I worried I’d end up down the rabbit hole again, but it didn’t happen. Apparently this is one bug that doesn’t throw my system out of whack.
You don’t have to be religious to see the kismet in all of this. After surrendering to my health issues, I was tested. First a bike crash and then the wretched sting of the tarantula hawk. I will no longer ask, “What else can happen to me?” As the last three weeks have proven, the story of Job can present itself if we invite it into our lives. I’ve made peace with what the internist dubbed a “medical anomaly.” Sometimes it’s enough to take stock in what we have and to be grateful for answered and unanswered questions.


Along Came a Spider and Sat Down beside Her

cobweb-morgentau-dew-dewdrop-53367From nursery rhymes to Emily Dickinson’s poem, The Spider Holds a Silver Ball, these eight-legged, silk-producing arachnids ignite wonder for the curious-minded and, in Charlotte’s case, bestow wisdom that stretches far beyond the barnyard. And why not? Their ability to spin glorious webs that catch droplets of morning dew make romantics swoon. But as Little Miss Muffet reminds us, they are also to be feared.
I’ve been a gardener my whole life. I blame it on genetics. My people were Irish and Bohemian farmers. Hearty Northern folk who held the seasons in their bones. I grew up in the 70’s in the suburbs of Milwaukee, where lawn care bordered on religious doctrine and dads fired up the grill in the backyard on Saturday night. In our backyard we had a garden that rivaled those found on hippie communes. It never occurred to me that we were the only family in the neighborhood who spent the summer planting, harvesting, canning, and pickling. My sisters and I were too busy weeding to notice most people just went to the grocery store. I was a scrawny kid who froze most of the year. If for no other reason, I loved working in the garden because it provided plenty of warm sunshine. My mom had a shelf in the bathroom of salves, sprays, and repellents for the bug bites and scratches. If I complained to her about spiders or any other creepy-crawlies, I don’t remember. That all changed after I was bit by a mosquito carrying the malaria parasite while living in Honduras.
I was sick with malaria for five years. What I didn’t realize at the time was that few US doctors have the training or knowledge to address the long-term effects. When the last fever passed eighteen years ago, I thanked God I had survived. Little did I know that it was the beginning of a long list of health anomalies I would encounter over the years.
Our orchard and garden demand our full attention right now. Along with the work, comes a host of insects that can do me in. Whether it’s the seemingly benign grass spider that builds its funnel-looking web among the squash leaves or the banded garden spider whose ladder-like web stretches along the tops of tomato plants, I know that as soon as I enter their domain, I’m fair game. No matter how careful I am, spiders seem to be attracted to whatever it is malaria left behind in my blood.
We finally planted our garden last Friday. It was a terribly windy day. Both Ron and I were exhausted by the time we finished. After a hot shower and some lunch, I was still tired and took a nap. I woke three hours later disoriented and experiencing muscle pain and chills. I immediately checked my body for bites. Sure enough, I counted three. I couldn’t focus my thoughts to make dinner and over the next twenty-four hours, things went from bad to worse. A red ring formed around one bite (perhaps the sign of either a tick carrying Lyme’s disease or a brown recluse) and thoughts of worthlessness consumed me.
Two days later, as I started to come out of it, Ron and I went for a walk through the desert where I was bitten again. Beyond the pain and exhaustion, my greatest fear is that the confusion will stick with me. I wonder if in a week, a month, or a year from now, I will pick up a book or sit down to write, and all I will see are individual words on a page that my brain can no longer link into sentences and paragraphs. I’m terrified I will lose the ability to make sense of the world through stories and my thoughts.
I woke up today feeling much better. My Little Miss Muffet fear of spiders has receded some as I sit here thrilled that I am able to write this. The seeds we planted last week are poking through the soil. Nature waits for no one, and I have work to do.