In 1995 I was a freshman in college. When I came home for Christmas break I had headaches for the entire break and slept a lot. I never knew something was wrong, I just thought I was a typical college student. After I went back to school, I quickly developed other symptoms, I lost my appetite, I had numbness in my face, I had no energy, extreme fatigue, I would be completely out of breath after walking up 5 steps. So I decided I needed to quit that semester.
My mother came to pick me up two weeks later. When she saw me she knew something was really wrong. I hadn’t really seen it yet because I was around all the same people everyday and they hadn’t seen any change. My skin was a pale shade of grey and I was exhausted. On the drive home it finally hit me that something was really wrong. It is a family tradition to sing songs in the car and after just singing one line I said, “Mom I can’t breathe.”
The next day I went to the doctor and got some blood tests done. What they were testing for really freaked me out. Two days later they called and said we had to go to the emergency room. I had to have a bone marrow aspiration. They took a hollow bore needle and twisted it into my hip bone, then took a syringe and with that sucked out the bone marrow. It was very painful. The process is similar to trying to suck silly puddy through a straw. It was Valentines Day 1996.
That night they called and said I had leukemia.
I went to the hospital that night. It was almost a relief to know what was wrong with me, but I still didn’t feel better. I just wanted to feel better. I spent the next month in the hospital getting chemo. I lost my hair, vomited a lot, these were new and frustrating things for me. I was on steroids, had surgery, more chemo and then, finally, I got to go home.
My parents were taking turns watching me, my dad made me some lunch, I took a bite and feel asleep. I remember waking up when my mom came home and the next thing I remember is being put on a stretcher by two men in my bedroom with my parents standing over me. They said I had some seizures and they were taking me to the hospital. In the ambulance I had a stroke. The left lower lobe of my brain had a clot in it and then I had a blood clot in the center of my left eye.
I woke up in the ER and everything was very surreal. I felt this wwaaaaahhhhhh noise all around me. My mom and dad were there and the room felt a lot bigger than it was. Then the neurologist came in. As he started to talk to me I saw rainbows in the corner of my eye and I felt my eyes roll over to look at the rainbows. The next time I woke up I was in the oncology floor of the hospital.
That was one of my lowest points. I spent the next month doing all these treatments and I still felt terrible. I couldn’t see out of my left eye, I lost a lot of strength in my right side and I couldn’t really move my right side. I told my mom that I was done. I didn’t want to do this anymore. She looked at me so strong and said, “Ok, well, you know what that means.” I looked at her and said, “Huh?” She came over and sat on my bed and said, “Well, that means you die.”
I said I didn’t want to do that either. We sat there for a while and talked about what all this meant for me and my life. That night I was alone in my room. I had taken a nap, which is what I did most of the time in the hospital, and I woke up to this beautiful light up to my left. The head of this body of light was very white and the body was very blue. I didn’t really register what this was at the time. For me it was this beam and very warm and humble, very ethereal and quiet. Something from that light gave me this wisdom and strength that I have never felt or seen again. It hit me: No fucking way am I going to die. I have too many people to meet, too many places to go, I hungered for knowing more, seeing more, experiencing more. I knew from that moment on it wasn’t going to end for me.
Once I made that decision I never contemplated death again. It was a whole 360 for me. My life changed. No matter how bad it got, yes, I was scared sometimes, but I never feared death again. Before that moment I had feared god and feared death.
For the rest of the year I was in treatment. The big IV chemo and I was vomiting 10 times a day during the worst of it. I took everyday for that day and never looked forward, never looked backward. I had to be the person I am inside cause I had a second chance. I never had the opportunity to be who I knew I was in my heart and now I did. It was like I had a second lease on life.
When I got better I went back to school. I had pretty much lost all my closest friends so I made new friends. One of the struggles I faced when I met new people was no one had the same perspective on life as me, everyone was so caught up in frivolous things, the things we don’t need to spend time and energy on. It drove me crazy.
In my junior year I lived with 6 girls, and I still had to give myself weekly injections. All the girls would gather around and were really fascinated that I still had chemo to do. I was on chemo for three years total. I had pills to take, and a shot in the leg once a week. It sucked. I was so grateful that I was treated when I was treated, because I probably wouldn’t have survived otherwise. Even now in my day-to-day life I still realize that I’m here for a reason.
After school I worked for Harley Davidson. I loved the company, but I was not fulfilled. I always left myself open to new opportunities and one day I was waiting for a friend to pick me up and I got bored, so I took a walk. I literally walked right into the nursing school at Marquette. I saw a ‘School of Nursing’ sign and I followed it. When I got there I just went upstairs and ended up talking to the dean, just making conversation. The next year I started the Masters program, which is nursing combined with a masters degree.
The first day of class they talk about what nursing is, what it means to be a nurse, what the profession is all about. I was in class, crying! I looked around and I was so excited, this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, no matter what. There are so many things you can do as a nurse. It was overwhelming and I felt so at peace. I thought, I’m taking good care of myself and I get to give back to the people that gave to me. What better way to live the rest of my life?
There was no other logical place for me to work than where I was patient. I called the manager of the floor where I was a patient and she remembered me. So it was kind of a given that I worked with the oncologist that was my oncologist, I also worked with social workers that are still my social workers. It was a little uncomfortable for some people but it just seemed right. And it was hard. To be there in that capacity and to be taking care of other people while I probably still had a lot of work to do inside myself.
Before I got sick I was so lost. I had no idea what I wanted to do. My leukemia was, by far, the best and worst thing that ever happened to me. The times that it makes it worth it are when as a nurse I’ve been able to help someone be ok with where they are, with their disease. I’ve had teenagers and adolescents have moments of total breakdown. They were sad and crying, just lost and frustrated with their situation. And in these moments I have told them my own story. I have told a handful of kids and parents what I’ve been through. I want them to have a little bit of hope and faith and to be ok with where they are at. They can see somebody that has made it and they realize that there is a possibility!
I remember the first time someone asked me about death. When I was sick I had gone to a company dinner party with my parents because I couldn’t be left alone after my seizures. I walked into the kitchen to get some water and a boy about 7 or 8 years old walked into the kitchen as I walked out, I said, “Hi,” but he just stared back at me. Finally he pointed out that I didn’t have any hair and he asked me why. I thought the most basic explanation would be because I was on medicine that makes my hair fall out. And his next words were, “Are you going to die?” My immediate reaction was, no, I’m not. How could you explain to a child that there is a so-and-so percent chance that you will die and a so-and-so percent chance that you won’t.
-Marika, Houston, March, 2008
Labels: We Fly With Our Own Wings