Thursday, October 1, 2009

ICU and Beyond

And so, early the next morning, we called the doctor. Surprise, surprise! Off to the ER.

Predictably, I wasn't in favor. I felt weak, but not dizzy. I don't remember, but I would be surprised if I didn't dress for work! But on we went. At the initial triage, my blood pressure was 84 over 64! Wa-a-ayyy low. I was checked into a room in the ER, dressed for hospital success, hooked up to IV's and the tests began. My nephrologist came in and I had to address the fact that I hadn't seen him in sixteen months. For some reason he treated me like a misbehavin' teenager and didn't show much sympathy. Evidently the reason I was dizzy and passing out was that I was very low on blood and especially red blood cells. I was about to receive a complicated lesson on the redness of blood.

The diagnosis was complicated, but let's back up a bit to lay some groundwork. Despite my resolve not to wear the walking boot, the year had not been without chronic pain in my left ankle and foot. Continuous swelling had kept the tendinitis from fully healing and pain had been more or less constant. I knew that some painkillers were deterimental to kidney function and that aspirin thinned blood, so I consumed aspirin. A lot of aspirin.

What I didn't know was that aspirin was acid and the acid can cause bleeding ulcers. Bleeding was confirmed by the black sticky stools I had been having for several days. The blood loss was aggravated by severe anemia caused by kidney failure. Kidneys have many functions. Everyone knows about the filtering of toxins, but few are aware that the kidney monitors hemoglobin levels in the blood. When more red blood cells are needed, the kidneys produce a protein called erythropoietin which causes bone marrow to produce more red blood cells. Biotech companies now produce these proteins for use in treating anemia. Athletes requiring extreme stamina (cyclists, long distance runners) like to use 'EPO' to produce abnormally high numbers of red blood cells to supply extra oxygen to their muscles, aka 'blood doping.'

So, kidney failure means no 'epo' which means no red blood cells which means anemia! Internal bleeding plus severe anemia means no red blood. I was bleeding to death. I had passed out in our living room from lack of red blood cells.

And so the transfusions began. In the afternoon I was taken to the endoscopy lab for more fun and games. Here they ran a tube down the esophagus, took pictures of the ulcer and cauterized it. Hopefully that would stop the bleeding. Eventually that night I was moved into the ICU where they could closely monitor my condition during the transfusions. Initially I received 6 units of blood. The good news was that it stabilized. The bleeding had stopped and I was moved to a regular room. By now I had IV's for ulcer medication, pain medication, blood thinner, blood transfusions and who knows what else. I had three or four IV's in my right arm and one or two in my left. It's not good when a nurse is surprised by the number of IV's.

The next couple of days were just observation and I began to make plans for going home. But I was continually denied by the doctors. More transfusions were being discussed, which came as a surprise as my hemoglobin level was running stable at around 8 units. I asked a nurse what was normal and she said 12 to 14. I knew I had received 6 units, so I did the math and reviewed it with the nurse. "I was THAT low?" I asked. "Yes, you're a lucky man," she replied. I was beginning to see how close a call I had had with death.

As the days were on, my thoughts ran on two paths. The first was coming to grips with reality, not easy after years of stubborn stupidity. The kidney was failing. The rest of my life was going to depend on either dialysis or transplant. I could not conceive of how we could handle what would no doubt be staggering costs. I couldn't conceieve of how we could pay for this hospital stay! The other thoughts were the units of blood. They would have all come from different individuals who had given blood for whatever reasons. At this point I had received blood from 6 different individuals. I was beginning to understand what is meant by "the kindness of strangers." The notion of receiving these gifts was humbling.


  1. David—
    As I read this I feel the most horribly familiar mixture of anger and guilt. Anger at you for not taking care of yourself, guilt for not stepping in and making you do it.
    Familiar because denial is what we were all raised to do so damned well.
    I just hope we haven't passed that on to our own children.

  2. No regrets for my behavior. I was fighting for all I was worth with the greatest strengths I had. When the disease finally had me, I raised my hand and broke the pattern. During the coming year I resisted dialysis as well, but under constant medical supervision.

    The roughest night of all was Sept 29 after talking to Michael about his diagnosis. The guilt and despair was overwhelming.

  3. Glen faces this with Sam, who had the same operation on his heart at the age of one that Glen had after he was out of college. Genetic. And with more possible consequences and malformations that we don't know about yet.