Twenty years ago this month, you saved my life.
Twenty years ago, you began the long, complicated process of determining why I was dying and then helped me with the long, difficult treatment process that saved my life.
Twenty years ago, you believed me when I said something was really wrong with me. You treated me with respect and kindness. You treated my health as a matter of urgency.
You believed me when I said I was exhausted, short of breath, and that the antibiotics I’d been prescribed for “pneumonia” weren’t working. You believed me, even though I was only 24, and a woman with obesity, and many of my symptoms were vague and hard to quantify.
You treated me with respect, respecting my intellect and curiosity, taking the time to show me the results of the endless lung function tests and imaging of my lungs and eyes, discussing the nuances and art of determining which imperfections we might need to be concerned about, and which ones we needn’t be. You understood that giving me the information helped me to have some control over a situation defined by so much random shitty chance. You refused to infantilize or patronize; we were a team, figuring it out together, collaborating, and you valued my input.
You treated my rapidly declining health as a matter of urgency, rushing me into surgery when it was clear that external investigations had given us all we could ascertain. This urgency proved warranted, when the surgeon found a mass of necrotized tissue in my right lung. My body was killing itself, and the longer it would go on, the more damage would be done. Later, you always had time for me in the clinic when I had questions or concerns, often double-booking me with another patient to be sure I was seen. I learned that you liked to book me at the end of a shift, so we could be sure to have as much time as needed to have difficult conversations.
Saving my life cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but not by me. I never learned if it was you who started to “credit” my account, but I often wondered. A thousand dollars here, five hundred dollars there, somehow, I never paid for a CAT scan or an MRI. My surgical bills were wiped clear by the hospital, $150,000 after the measly $10,000 paid by Medicaid. How do I quantify the value of not having to focus on these overwhelming expenses while simultaneously just trying to survive? What is the healing impact of NOT having this stressor added to the back of my already over-burdened camel?
Recovery and learning to live with the aftermath of my illness has proved to be a lifelong process, but I want you to know that I’m doing ok. I took up strength training, I go for runs; I mostly get to live my life however I want to with only a few modifications. COVID has been a scary time, with my breathing already compromised and my immune system behaving uniquely under the best circumstances. But I’ve worked hard to protect the tenuous health we put into balance all those years ago.
I have done my best to make the most of the life you gifted me. I want you to know that I went back to school and got my graduate degree; I now use my time trying to make the world a better place, teaching middle school science and health. Most of my students are identified as disadvantaged in one way or another. Their needs are high, and the work can be exhausting. But I know the power of kindness, respect, and treating their needs with care and urgency. Maybe I’m not literally saving lives, but I believe that I’m giving them real opportunities to make their lives better. That is the gift you gave me, and I am paying it forward.
Thank you to Dr. Mark Freiberg, of St. Paul, MN, and all of the healthcare workers over the years who have listened, cared, and committed their lives to helping me and others live our healthiest lives. I literally wouldn’t be here without you.