Maggie Siller

 

The second semester of my junior year at Georgetown University, I had decided to take a leave of absence from school in order to go abroad to Geneva, Switzerland to work as a fulltime intern in the Political Affairs Section of the United States Mission to the United Nations. I spent my days attending meetings, writing cables to Department of State headquarters in Washington DC, and discovering whether or not the Foreign Service was a career I would like to pursue. At night, I would go out with the other interns and my coworkers in an attempt to enjoy everything the city had to offer.

One month and a half into my internship, I was out and suddenly got a severe headache; my eyes were sensitive to the lights around me, which I thought was solely because my head was in so much pain. It got continually worse, and by time I made it back to my apartment, I was compulsively shaking. I took some Tylenol hoping that it would bring my fever down, but, I never actually took my temperature. I spent the night shaking and sweating until finally I was able to sleep. I woke up the next morning feeling drained and exhausted but improved enough that I decided to go out shopping with a friend. However, after a few hours, I began to feel nauseous and dizzy and had to return home. Later in the afternoon, after over twenty four hours without eating, I decided that I would try to eat some bread; yet, soon after, I began to feel extremely nauseous. My fever returned as did my severe headache. I finally called one of my coworkers to take me to the emergency room, but my attempts to explain my symptoms in French were unsuccessful. The doctor concluded with a headache, nausea, and a fever of 105 degrees that I had the flu and with some ibuprofen and rest, I would fully recover. I was sent home without even having a simple blood test, which would have shown that it was neither the flu nor any other viral infection. As the night wore on, I began to experience severe stabbing pains in my abdomen which led to vomiting and increased nausea. I could not move from a sitting position, and unable to make it to the hospital, I called the emergency room and was told that a doctor would be sent to my apartment. When he arrived, he gave me a shot to help calm the muscles in my stomach; however, the pains continued until I called a cab to come take me back to the hospital. I could not walk nor stand and nearly had to crawl down the stairs of the building to get to the first floor to wait for it. An hour passed, and it still had not come. With my cell phone dead and no way to contact any family or friends, I was finally forced to climb back up the stairs to my apartment to call an ambulance for myself. I sat outside in the freezing cold waiting for the ambulance to arrive, wondering if I would make it to the hospital in time. I had never felt so alone in my entire life; I had no one to talk to and no way to contact anyone. I wondered if anyone would ever realize I was missing, and if they did, would they find me?

When I arrived at the emergency room for the second time in less than twelve hours, I was told that my symptoms did not seem to fit anything they could think of and that with some time, rest, and ibuprofen, I would probably recover. I knew that something was not right in my body, and even if I could not explain to the nurses how I truly felt in my broken French, I was not leaving until someone figured it out. My diligence ultimately saved my life.

After several x rays and cat scans, an unconvinced surgeon told me it was appendicitis. I kept hoping that it was the answer, but in the back of my mind I knew that something was terribly wrong. And I thought of all the plans I had for my life…to go to law school, become an international lawyer, travel the world, settle down and have kids, and suddenly it felt like all of that could be a dream and that I would never get the chance to achieve any of my dreams. As I was wheeled down the hallway, I wondered whether I would ever get to see my parents again and whether the boyfriend they had never met would have to tell them my last words. I tried to rationalize my fears thinking that it was only appendicitis and that I would be out of surgery in an hour, and everything would go back to normal. But as the anesthesiologist prepared me for the procedure, I wondered whether his was the last face I would see.

When I woke up hours later, I had no idea where I was. Doctors came and moved me from the recovery room to the ICU and tried to explain that I had to breathe through a large ventilator tube because my lungs were almost completely filled with water. Although no one actually told me that it wasn’t appendicitis, I knew that something had gone wrong in the procedure. Finally, the doctors told me that they had found infected pus in my abdomen; yet, they had no idea what was causing the infection. They told me they were not sure if I was going to survive if I could not increase the oxygen level in my lungs and that they had called my parents to fly to Switzerland, my mom from Texas and my dad from Africa. As the night wore on, in my fits of rage and frustration, I would throw the breathing mask off my face, determined to make it on my own, determined to prove to everyone that I was not going to die alone. I had always been in control of my own life, but suddenly, I was lying on a table with tubes coming out of my body, unable to breathe on my own, and suffering from the unknown. The following two days, my parents arrived; however, still no one knew what was attacking my body. I was on multiple antibiotics but no one knew if any of them was the “right” one. After days in the ICU, slowly regaining the ability to breathe fully on my own, they finally received the blood cultures back from the lab. I had tested positive for neisseria meningitidis. However, the bacteria had not originated in my meninges making the diagnosis a total surprise. The doctors believed it had established itself in my abdomen and had then spread throughout my body—it was systemic. It settled in my lungs causing pneumonia and into my bloodstream causing septicemia.

I was immediately moved from the ICU into a quarantine room for two days; I could not see anyone except my parents and medical staff who all wore masks. After the antibiotics finally kicked in, I was moved back to the ICU for two days and then into regular room in the one of the hospital wards. I actually felt better and was slightly optimistic about my recovery, but my first night there, I experienced such severe headaches that I was begging to go back to the ICU. My IV’s were infiltrating, and no one could find a vein that did not collapse. Every step forward was being met by several steps backward.

I spent five days in this room continuing my breathing exercises and trying to regain my strength to walk and to move independently. I desperately wanted to leave the hospital and to go back to my apartment, but the doctors were unsure whether or not I could continue my treatment at home. My IV’s continued to infiltrate, and eventually, my doctor decided that I could finish my antibiotics orally. Yet, despite this good news, I was not able to be released because I had developed pancreatitis, and my pancreatic enzyme levels were too high.

I was finally released from the hospital on the condition that I would come back for further blood tests to monitor my pancreatic enzymes. I spent the following weeks resting and regaining my strength, and finally going back to work fulltime one month later. Although I have physically recovered, everyday I am plagued by the pictures of people’s faces in the hospital room: my mother, my father, my coworkers, my boyfriend, my friends; their looks of fear, of helplessness, of despair, and of hopelessness. Never will I forget those faces; never will I forget how it felt to lie on that table feeling like there was no reason for what was happening, that no one could figure it out, and that I was going to die from the unknown. But I was given another chance; I was given the chance to change my life, to start over, to rediscover who I am, and to provide others with hope. I have realized that there is always a reason, always something you are meant to learn or to discover. Nothing is meaningless. Maybe I haven’t learned everything I am meant to learn from this experience, but I have learned that you cannot always have a definite plan for your life. Nothing will work out exactly as you imagine, and it’s not your plans that matter nor what happens to you. It’s how you react to it…it’s how you recover.