How it felt when she was dying.
The scariest night of my life.
“See? We’re here. Everything’s going to be fine.” I said to her, pushing the wheelchair through the sliding doors of the emergency room. The nurse that had helped lift her out of the Uber ran on ahead.
Her fingers gripped the sides of the wheelchair even as the rest of her body slumped sideways, eyes closed and face slack. A streak of vomit lay down the middle of her dress.
The administrator at the desk asked for her name. I gave it. I added: “She has anaphylaxis. I’ve given her the Epipen. She had something to drink at the party.”
A side door unlocked and slid open. With a nod, the nurse took her wheelchair and wheeled her off down the hall. The door slid closed behind them.
I felt a wave of relief. At the same time — confusion.
The administrator looked back to me, “What’s your name?”
I stuttered when I tried to speak and in the end, couldn’t even say it. I just cried. I just showed her my driver’s licence. The administrator, a young woman with glasses, smiled sweetly and said, “She’s going to be okay. You’ve done well. Take a breath.”
Something heavy unspooled from around my shoulders and I took a deep, slow breath. It felt like I’d been holding it for the last thirty minutes.
The waiting room was quiet — there were only two other people here and we glanced at each other politely. We each sat in our own empty row of chairs in the awkward, silent way of people awaiting bad news.
I looked at my phone. It was 11:56pm on February 13th. For the past thirty minutes I’d seen my girlfriend dying.
We’d been close friends for about a year before we tried dating. We’d bonded over a love of CrossFit and David Attenborough documentaries. Eventually, we decided we may as well give it a shot as a couple.
I’d known that she’d started having these episodes. I hadn’t really known much about anaphylaxis before her, let alone heard of anyone developing it in their early-twenties and with such a sporadic and random list of things that might set it off.
Once I’d gone to pick her up from the hospital after I’d eventually found out that’s where she’d been. I stopped on the way home to get her something to eat, but the after effects of the adrenalin and morphine left her building houses with her sweet-potato chips and doodling shapes in the sweet-chilli mayo.
I thought it kind of funny, in a pitiful way.
But I made sure I read the instructions on the side of her always present Epipen, and recited them in my head. I scolded her when she forgot to bring it somewhere. Sometimes I was too harsh about it.
In reality, I was terrified of something sneaking into her food — a peanut or whatever else might decide to set off her anaphylaxis. Could I handle it? What would I do? Could I look after her?
We left a party because she was feeling sick. I thought maybe she’d just had too much to drink. After all, she’d checked with the caterers before hand and told them about her allergies — they even personally brought her her own plate of anaphylaxis-friendly snacks during the night.
I called an Uber and, being childishly cranky with how ‘drunk’ she seemed, climbed in the front and chatted to the driver. His name was Christopher. He was good guy.
Half-way home she vomited out the window. Mostly, at least. She got some on herself and the seat.
“Um, Chris, can you pull over?”
When I opened her door, she almost fell out, the seatbelt catching her. She had the Epipen in her hands but they were loose and twisted — like an old lady with arthritis. She looked at me, her mouth slack, her eyes trying to focus. An angry red rash was taking over most of her visible skin. She looked awful — like she was in a lot of pain.
“Okay.” I said, trying to sound relaxed. “Is it Epipen time?” She tried to nod.
I remembered the steps in my head. Remove the blue safety lock. Hand around the pen, not thumb on top.
“Ready?” I asked. She grabbed my shoulder. I pushed the pen into her outer thigh and felt it click.
Needles hurt. An Epipen really hurts, I’m told. She almost jumped. I think she would have hit something if she’d had the strength. I’m glad she didn’t — she’s very strong. I remember thinking: Shit, was that the whole ten seconds? What if it’s not?
Quickly, I folded her back into the car and closed her door. I got back into my seat. I should have got in the back with her. I don’t know why I didn’t.
“Uh, Chris. Can we change the plan? Can we go to the hospital please?”
“Sure.” Christopher was calm. That actually helped a lot. He took off in the direction of the nearest hospital and I did my best not to berate him for not driving faster.
I looked back to find her gripping the seat with both hands, eyes wide and chest heaving. After a second, she’d slump straight down, as if she were passing out. Then back to wide awake gasping like a fish drowning in air.
“Hey, everything’s going to be fine.” I told her. I squeezed her leg the whole way to the hospital. It felt like keeping her awake was important.
I really, really wished Christopher would drive faster. She looked like she was dying.
After a few hours they let me in to see her. They’d put her in a gown, stuck an IV in her arm and dosed her on morphine. She was barely coherent. I told her I was really, really glad she was okay. She said ‘thanks for saving me’. I told her I didn’t really have a choice — the Uber fees for mid-trip passenger death must be worse than surge pricing.
I made sure she had enough blanket as the drugs made her feel cold. I told her a few jokes — making people laugh in a crisis is one of the few things I feel truly useful for.
Blurry eyed, she looked at me sitting in the chair next to her bed, “What’re you eating?”
I had scrounged some change from her purse to buy a Kit-Kat from the waiting room vending machine. “My Valentine’s present. Happy Valentine’s Day.”
We laughed until she fell asleep.
This happened again. I found her in a ball on the floor of the shower, screaming from the pain. She kept saying ‘I’m going to die.’
I used the Epipen. Helped her get dressed and after she vomited in the hallway, told her, “Everything’s going to be okay.”
I kept saying this as I listened for the ambulance sirens. I kept saying this as the paramedics arrived in the apartment and put her on an IV and into a bizarre mechanical chair to get her down three flights of stairs safely.
I told her this after they loaded her into the ambulance — and that I’d follow her up there.
After they left, I called my dad and told him what had happened. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah.” I said, stuttering a little and felt the weight slipping from my shoulders. “It was just really scary.”
While it was terrifying for me to watch someone I loved dying in the back seat of a car on the way to the hospital — to believe you yourself are dying must be something I can’t even imagine.
In one of my favourite books, Down and Out in Paris and London, Oscar Wilde details his descent into poverty and the anxiety that comes with it. He wrote:
You have talked so often of going to the dogs — and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.
I believe that was true for both of us.
We broke up a while later to be better friends. And she still is one of my best, closest friends. I admire her — I hope she knows that. Because she’s a badass.
If you don’t know much about anaphylaxis, Anaphylaxis Australia has some great facts to check out.
Web: William Stubbs
Aspiring: Gentleman polymath.