In 2007, I was a 27-year-old living the sweet life in Chicago, with an interesting job, fun hobbies, and a newish boyfriend I adored. Then I got a cold I couldn't shake.
I haven't always been the best advocate for my own body. I was a too-tall, pudgy child who felt completely out of control of the genetic lottery ticket she'd been given, so in retaliation I shut down. I ignored my body and hated it for not being tiny and cute like my friends' bodies. As I matured, I understood myself as amounting to little more than an unappealing object. I let my body know who was boss by getting piercings and tattoos. Not everyone who gets piercings and tattoos does it for this reason, but for me, it was an attempt at controlling my physical form in some capacity. I stayed up late. I developed a tough-as-nails persona. I wore lots of eyeliner. I had fun.
So when this cold came along and wouldn't leave, I reacted how I always did when my body behaved in a way I found unpalatable: I ignored it. I went to work, to dance classes, and out on dates, exhausted and miserable. I had to take breaks while walking to the train. Random parts of me hurt. I told no one. Since my body wasn't worth much to me, I figured it wasn't worth much to anyone else either.
When I started having trouble breathing, I called out of work and drove myself to the walk-in clinic I'd been treating as my doctor. It was mid-afternoon. I waited around a bit, wheezing on the uncomfortable chairs. When I finally got into an exam room, a nurse took my vitals and fetched the doctor immediately. The doctor put me in an ambulance. Once I was in, insisting I hang on to my purse, the EMTs requested I be sent to a closer hospital because "the patient is in respiratory distress." That was news to me.
I was checked into the hospital, and even as I rolled my eyes at how everyone was overreacting, secretly I was relieved: there was something wrong with me, and now, under someone else's watch, it would be fixed. I called my boyfriend and told him where I was but that he shouldn't worry, it was nothing. It was nothing.
The next day, I was placed in an induced coma so the doctors could keep me alive while they figured out what was wrong with me. My vitals were unstable. I didn't leave the hospital for almost a month. I had lung surgery. I was under for about 12 days, and I emerged dotted and crisscrossed with scars. I don't pretend to represent the legions of people who have been in a coma, but here are some of the insights, profound and ridiculous, that I got out of my time under.
Friends Are Geniuses.
My parents had to fly out from North Carolina to be with me while I was hospitalized, and my friends, incredibly thoughtfully, quickly scurried over to my apartment to clear out all my sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll paraphernalia. My parents were aware that I was a grown up, but no one wants to stumble upon the vibrator of their sick daughter. By the time they arrived, the place looked like it was inhabited by a Girl Scout.
Comas: Movies Versus Reality, Part One.
I don't remember being put into the coma, but I do have a lot of weird memories from being under. This may be because I was in a coma via medicine rather than trauma. That time period played out for me as one long rambling dream where I was at a hospital to visit my boyfriend, who I thought was in an accident. Weirdly, several details of my coma-vision version of the hospital were accurate: the lights above me, the fact that my boyfriend was wearing glasses (which he never does outside the house), the constant presence of nurses talking medical jargon. At one point, I became convinced that I was locked in a facility against my will and started plotting my escape. My main oppressor was a male nurse with hands made out of Jolly Ranchers, which in reality was probably the sticky surgical tape that was all over me, keeping all my monitors in place. It's fascinating what the mind will do to make sense out of confusion.