It's all in your head...
Five years after the alarming tick bite, my life had long since moved on. My beloved sentinel (aka the perpetrator for those of you following along) had crossed the Rainbow Bridge in 2002 and a new member had joined my fur-family but he was relegated to guarding the indoor perimeter of the castle. I had never gotten any signs of a bulls-eye rash, a fever or had flu-like symptoms so I carried on with my normal routine, not receiving antibiotics at the time of the bite. I figured that I was in the clear.
In March of 2005, I had just completed a grueling two-year accelerated Master’s degree program to become a Physician Assistant. I was physically exhausted, had a sinus infection and was taking some well deserved time off before starting employment after passing my board exams. Sinus infections were common for me but I was finding this one particularly difficult to beat and had been placed on my third trial of antibiotics when at the end of March I was hit with the worst headache of my life.
It started on a Friday and I remember thinking, “Man, this thing just won’t quit! This is really awful.” I stayed on the couch, sleeping as much as possible and not thinking much of it until the following morning at 6 a.m. when it woke me out of a sound sleep. I spent that Saturday downing Tylenol like chicklets, sleeping whenever my head would allow and spending the rest of my time with sunglasses on even though all the blinds in the house were tightly drawn against the daylight.
It was another night of tossing and turning, trying to breathe through my blocked sinuses and the pounding in my head when *BLAMMO* the dang headache woke me up again at 6:30 on Sunday morning. “This is freakin’ ridiculous!” I said to no one but the sentinel at the foot of the bed. He couldn’t offer me any solutions. Now I was breaking out the heavy duty therapy….narcotic pain meds left in the back of the medicine cabinet from my last dental procedure (check the expiration date, yup still good), ice pack for my forehead and the back of my neck, dark eye mask that they give you for sleeping when you stay in those swanky hotels, spongy earplugs that are more annoying than helpful but I will try anything right now… I wasn’t fooling around. My head was killing me.
I somehow managed to make it through one more night and Monday morning I was pleasantly surprised to find that my headache was easing off. I thought that I was getting a little bit better. I was congratulating myself on surviving such a horrible sinus headache over the weekend when I took my first few steps down the loft staircase from my bedroom to the main floor. That’s when I thought that I was going to DIE. There were daggers piercing me between my shoulder blades and I was sure that I was going to fall down the remaining flight of stairs in agony. I have never felt back pain like that before. Ever. I froze in place wondering how I was going to make it down the rest of the stairs. I could gently ease my way down slowly, barely breathing with each deliberate painstaking step or I could just hurl myself in one fell swoop down the entire flight which would be abundantly more painful but over much more quickly. Thankfully, a modicum of sanity remained through the haze of intense pain.
I slowly made my way down the stairs and with each nimble step that I took, the wisdom of what was likely ailing me had started to creep into my brain. I was suspicious but I needed confirmation that only the hospital could give me. I called my ambulance partner who lived 2 miles down the road and asked him to drive me into town. That was the most painful 30 minute ride that I have ever experienced.
In the emergency room, they drew blood and everything looked ok. They did a CT scan of my head and beside the swollen sinuses, it also looked ok. That was when I looked at the ER doctor who thankfully knew me because I was a Paramedic / Physician Assistant and I said to him, “I think you had better do a spinal tap.” He was shocked that I would willingly put myself through having a needle shoved into my spinal column and he replied, “The chances of you having what-you-think-you-have are pretty slim ya know?” I said, “I don’t care. Just do it please.” He shook his head as he walked out of the room and said, “It’s your spine.”
So, I laid on my side and curled into a ball while he readied his tray. He pushed around on my spine to find his landmarks and marked them with a permanent marker, then he put on sterile gloves and cleaned my back. The next thing I felt was the needle for the lidocaine and quite frankly, I didn’t think it was all that bad. I’m not saying it was “pleasant” but I didn’t shed any tears over the whole thing. Matter of fact, I think that we still had a reasonable conversation throughout the entire process. He measured my opening pressure which was far too elevated (an opening pressure is a measurement of the intracranial pressure surrounding the brain and spinal cord, it is typically 10-12, mine was 26), he then allowed spinal fluid to drip into four collection tubes and then he pulled the catheter out of my spinal column. I had to lie flat on my back from that point forward for the next 12-24 hours.
They are pretty strict about the lying flat thing, especially during the first 4-6 hours. This is to allow the hole in your spinal column to close so you don’t continue to leak spinal fluid after the catheter has been removed. You are not even allowed to get up to the bathroom. Pleasant. As I was lying there, I already knew what the result was going to be. I just worried about what was going to happen next. I was in the middle of a massive job search. I was supposed to be getting on a plane in six days to head south for a multi-state job interview tour that I had been planning for months. I had been out of school since January and pretty soon Sallie Mae was gonna come looking for their student loan money. I NEEDED a job! I didn’t have time to be sick.
As I laid there obsessing about my career prospects, my dwindling bank account, the student loan sharks that were headed my way with billy clubs in search of my knee caps and my back starting to throb, the ER doctor came in holding my chart down by his side and he was just shaking his head. With a half-cocked grin on his face he said the words that I will never forget, “I can’t believe it but you were right. You have meningitis.”
DAMMIT. I don’t have time to be sick.