Facing my fear: the emergency room
After five days of immense pain, I drove myself to the one place I feared the most.
Monday, January 24th
It’s the middle of the workday. I’m supposed to be sitting at my desk, answering emails, responding to Slack messages, and eagerly awaiting my next Zoom call, the first time I’ve been invited to sit on a leadership call; instead, I’m laying on the couch in my office, unable to move. I try to stand but can’t so much as roll over, much less stretch my legs to reach the floor. With each move, the shooting pain in my right side grows more intense. I can’t walk, much less focus on anything but the intense pressure taking over my pelvis and abdomen.
I know this pain well. I’ve experienced it dozens, if not hundreds, of times over the last eight or nine years. Each time it hits, I end up in the floor in a tight ball, unable to move my hands from my right side. I’m confident it’ll subside within the hour like it always does, so I just lay there and try to breathe through the pain.
Two hours later, despite the pain more severe than it’s ever been, I get on the Zoom call and pretend I’m okay. I smile into the camera, say my hellos, and turn off my video as soon as the presentation starts. In reality, I have tears streaming down my face, a heating pad on my abdomen, and a searing pain in my right side on top of extreme pelvic pain. All I can think is thank god I wasn’t the one presenting.
Later that night, I call my dad, a doctor, to bring him up to speed. He’s been along for the ride as I’ve experienced the same pain over the last eight years, and is one of the only people, much less doctors, in this world I wholeheartedly trust.
“The pain has never been so unbearable,” I tell him.
He tells me that, although he can’t diagnose me over the phone, it sounds like a complication of endometriosis, which just so happens to be the same diagnosis a functional medicine doctor gave me late last year.
“If it’s what I think it is, the pain will last seven days,” he tells me.
“Seven days?!” I all but yell into the phone. “There’s no way in hell I can put up with this for seven more days.”
“You can fly home and I’ll make you chicken noodle soup,” he jokingly offers.
“If I could sit comfortably for more than an hour, I would,” I respond with a sigh.
Tuesday, January 25th
Usually the searing pain is gone within an hour, but this time it’s still here 24 hours later. This, on top of other symptoms, is concerning, so I call my doctor to make an emergency appointment.
“The first appointment we have available is in three weeks,” the coordinator says.
“But I’m in extreme pain right now. On top of the searing pain in my side, I have extreme pelvic pain, I’m bleeding, and I can’t move. Is there anything you can do?”
“I’m sorry,” she responds and books the appointment.
I know I shouldn’t, but I head to Google out of sheer frustration. When I first heard the term “endometriosis” from the functional medicine doctor, I briefly researched the term, but didn’t dig into it in the way I normally do. I wanted to trust the doctors, but I can’t wait any longer. I type “endometriosis” into my browser and hope to find something—anything—that could guide me. Turns out, one in ten women experience the painful disorder, and my symptoms all line up with those listen on the Mayo Clinic’s website. A sigh of hope seeps into me; not once have I had even a semblance of what this could be. At this point, I’ll take what I can get.
As I’m researching, I learn there is a community of experts focuses on endometriosis and pelvic pain. Not once in the last eight years has any doctor mentioned that there are specialists who can help diagnose and treat this pain; I’ve never even been referred to a gynecologist to discuss it. I google “endometriosis doctor Portland” and call the number that pops up on my screen. I give the coordinator the same spiel: I’m in unbearable pain and unable to see my doctor; is there anything they can do? They respond with apologies, saying the first appointment isn’t for three months, at 7 a.m. on a Thursday morning.
“I’ll take it,” I say quickly. I ask to be added to the cancellation list, but they seem doubtful. If anything, I’m confident this appointment is a light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe, just maybe, I found the right person to help figure this out.
When my dad calls for his evening check-in, I catch him up on the news of the day.
“We just have to get you to that first appointment,” he tells me.
“What if the pain gets even worse?” I ask helplessly.
“If it gets worse, call me and we’ll figure it out together,” he responds calmly.
Wednesday, January 26th
The pain is worse.
It’s 9 p.m. and I’m on the phone with my dad again, seemingly the only doctor in the world who’s willing to listen to my concerns instead of weeks or months from now.
“Should I go to the ER?” As soon as I say the worlds aloud, I know it’s a far-fetched idea. I’ve long since given up on immediate care, knowing that I’ll receive the same treatment I’ve received every other time I’ve gone in for this side pain.
Regardless of which center I go to, the experience is the same: by the time I check in, the pain has subsided. I list my symptoms, pointing to the exact place it hurt and explaining that it felt like someone stuck a fork into my side and twisted multiple times.The on-call doctor typically picks something they think it is — gallstones, kidney stones, an ectopic pregnancy — and do associated tests and imaging specific to their theory. Each time, regardless of the assumed diagnosis, I walk away with a “Good news — labs and scans look normal. Take some tylonel and wait it out.”
Last year, after experiencing the same shooting pain in the same spot in my right side, I went to urgent care three times in the span of four days. I walked away with a $1,800 bill and no answers; just a MyChart message that said “all looks good, take care” and no way to follow-up with questions.
I can’t put myself through that again, but at the same time, I know I have to do something. The pain should have been gone by now; instead, it’s more prominent than ever.
“The best thing you can do is see a specialist,” my dad tells me. “Even if you were to go to the emergency room right now, I don’t know that the doctors you need will be there since it’s so late.”
“Why don’t you wait until the morning?” my mom chimes in from the background. They’re on speakerphone.
“I’ll see how I feel,” I respond, promising to keep them updated.
After hanging up, I slowly meander upstairs to take a hot bath, the only besides complaining that seems to help.
Friday, January 28th
I should have gone to the emergency room, I scold myself. The thought has been on repeat since Monday, but I kept pushing it out of my mind for one main reason: I’m scared.
I’ve never been admitted to the emergency room. Along with never being stung by a bee, it’s one of my trademark accomplishments—so much so that it’s one of the truths I list whenever I’ve played two truths and a lie in work settings or otherwise. Maybe it’s because I’ve watched Grey’s Anatomy religiously, but I’ve gotten it in my head that the ER is a scary place where only people with axes sticking out of their head go. For that and other reasons, I’ve never gone to the hospital, even in the two times someone called 911 on my behalf. It’s become somewhat of a phobia, if you will.
The thing is, it’s been five days and I’m still in immense pain. On the drive to my weekly therapy appointment, my eyes water because sitting is so painful.
This isn’t normal, I tell myself. Maybe I should go to the ER on the way home.
I shouldn’t, I immediately catch myself. I’ll spend thousands of dollars for a Tylenol diagnosis.
I spent the 30 minute drive going back and forth in my mind, landing on the same conclusion I always do: It’s not worth it. I just have to wait it out.
As soon as I walk into my therapist’s office, I tell him about my pain and the back and forth I’ve been having about going to the ER. It’s obvious I’m still in pain; I can’t go one minute during our appointment without clutching my belly in agony.
“You should go on your way home,” he confirms. “You’re worth it.”
I leave a few minutes early, and instead of driving home, I type “emergency room” into Google Maps. Instead of heading West, I drive up the windy roads to the closest emergency room. I get a beautiful glimpse of Mount Hood on the drive up, the snowy mountain a colorful hue of pinks and purples, thanks to the perfectly-timed sunset. In the parking garage, I find a front-row parking spot, wondering if both were signs that I was right to come in tonight.
I get out of the car, walk across the street, and enter the building. I do my COVID screening and security check before walking up to the check-in counter. My shoulders sigh in relief as I look around; it’s just like any other waiting room and no where near as scary as I thought it would be.
“Are you checking in?” a woman behind plexiglass asks.
“Yes,” I nod, giving her my name and date of birth before explaining my symptoms.
She prints out a wristband and wraps it around my left hand.
“Take a seat,” she says. “Someone will call your name soon.”