This column comes to you from my bed. People are talking quietly in the hallway. Some overcast light comes in my window, whose sill is stacked with books, DVDs, and chocolates. If I want anything, all I have to do is press a button and someone brings it to me.
You could say I’ve got it made, but I have to tell you, being in a hospital is not a lot of fun. The nurses are great, the food isn’t bad, but I can’t go outside and I’m awakened at five a.m. for a blood pressure check.
I’ve only had one visitor, because this hospital is over 450 miles away from home. How did I end up here? It’s a long, painful story. In October 2006, a headache like none I’d ever had before descended behind my eyes. It’s been there, in one form or another, ever since.
When someone says they have a headache, it’s easy to be dismissive. Everybody gets them. Take an aspirin, sleep it off. You’ll feel better in the morning.
If only it were that easy for everyone. The thing is, a lot of people have headaches that are more like a chronic illness, in their pain level and their persistence. One variety is called “New Daily Persistent Headache.” Doesn’t that sound like fun? I thought that was what I had, but my doctor is calling it “transformed migraine.” That’s a migraine gone rogue.
When my local doctor seemed to lose interest in me, and the one at a university clinic decided I was all better and didn’t need to return, I decided to take matters into my own fed-up hands. I did my research – that’s what I do for a living, after all – and located the best headache clinics. I made an appointment, even though it takes a day to drive there and even though my doctor refused to give me a referral, thus limiting the coverage my insurance company would extend. My, my, it must feel good to have so much power over a suffering patient.
And so it came that I spent a day being questioned and tested at the Michigan Head Pain and Neurological Center in Ann Arbor. It was great. It was gratifying. They asked the right questions; they made the right comments. They know all about headache pain and are devoted to making it better. What a concept!
My MHNI doctor decided I should be admitted to the head pain unit at Chelsea Community Hospital, 25 miles west of Ann Arbor. I was so certain I would not be hospitalized, I only brought enough clothes to last a few days.
I work at a hospital, so it’s pretty weird to be a patient here, and not an employee. At my hospital, I help doctors find the information they need. Here, the doctors are hell bent on helping me. At home, if I have a question for one of my doctors, I have to call, leave a message, and then hope I’m by my desk when the nurse calls back. I almost never speak directly to the doctor, only the nurse. Here, I participate in rounds every morning, where I talk with not only the doctor on call but a whole cast of supporting professionals who know all about me. You could say I’ve traded my name badge for a wrist ID.
They say that headaches are invisible. But if you could see my fellow inmates – excuse me, inpatients – you would know they’re in pain. There is the soft-spoken Southern woman who walks so slowly, it’s obvious any motion makes her pain worse. There is the tall man who takes his meals in his room most days. There are young women, so pretty it breaks my heart, holding their hands to their heads as if it would help. I do that; it only helps a little.
There are twenty of us on the unit, from places like Florida, Tennessee, New York City, and an island across from Seattle. We range from young women accompanied by their parents, to mothers who despair of being able to raise their children, to middle-aged married folks visited by spouses. One of my favorite people is 17-year-old Dylan (not his real name), who has very long, thick, wavy hair, but only on one side of his head; the other side is shaved. He’s turned out to be very smart, very funny, very fed up with his headaches. He reminds me, of course, of my son, and it makes my day when he asks me how I’m doing. On the Head Pain unit, nobody answers that question with “Fine.”
These young people should be finishing school, going to concerts, falling in love. These young mothers should be raising their kids. And I should have more of a life than forcing myself to get through another day of work because I’ve run out of paid time off.
I haven’t lost a job, or a husband, or too much of my life to this disease. But it could happen. And that is why I’m here, in a hospital bed, recovering from a pain block to my upper spine. (Which brings to mind Dr. Nick on “The Simpsons,” who reassures his patients that “It’s just a procedure, a deadly procedure!”) Every few hours, a nice nurse comes in and gives me more drugs via IV, drugs with names from a B-level sci-fi movie: Toradol! Norflex! Zofran! Robaxin!
Life isn’t bad here. I’ve read four books in seven days, and most of the chocolates are gone. My fellow patients are great company. But we all want the same thing: to go home. To go home headache free.