Emergency pit stop: the search for a cause continues
The first consult with a physician starts with a psychiatric assessment and ends with an overnight admission, anti-inflammatories and a prescription for sleeping pills
By Shelley Page
Like when my left arm — I’m left handed — went completely limp while playing pick-up, and I couldn’t dribble a basketball or take a shot. That lasted for a few days. Or when I was door-knocking for a candidate in the federal election and I had to use crutches because my legs felt like they’d run a marathon. I worried my friends thought I was crazy. I worried, too.
In the late fall, six months after my Easter episode, I was hunkered down in the Charlatan, the student newspaper at Carleton University, working on the next issue. I’d quit basketball to become co-assistant news editor, obviously drawn by the title.
We were a polarized group of junior journalists, made up of j-school keeners amassing bylines for our portfolios and activists that used student journalism as a battering ram against the conservatism of the 1980s.
As I bashed away on a typewriter, reshaping an earnest diatribe, I noticed a stiffness in my fingers. I must be typing too hard, I thought, as if typing too hard were a thing.
But it was a creeping stiffness.
Within half an hour, the joints of my wrists, then elbows, were swollen and painful to touch. I could feel “it” spreading to my shoulders, knees and toes. Head and shoulders. Knees and toes. If only I was trapped in a nursery rhyme instead of a horror flick, like Something Wicked This Way Comes.
I wanted to get in front of a doctor while the stiffness was spreading, so maybe we could figure out what happening.
I asked my friend, Rob, a Charlatan sports reporter (who now covers sports for the Toronto Sun) to drive me to the hospital, while trying to seem sane.
We picked up my friend, Nancy, and headed to the Emergency department of the Ottawa Civic Hospital. Nancy stood beside me as I explained to the triage nurse that a wave of pain was washing over me. That earned me a trip to an observation room.
Alone, curtains drawn, my body was leaden. I was so cold.
The psych screen
The resident was more interested in my state of mind. Was I worried or depressed? A breakup, maybe? He also felt my joints, moved my limbs, and then tried to draw blood. He and a nurse jabbed the needle up and down my arms, leaving bite-like bruises, before hitting pay dirt with a vein in my right foot. He searched out my friends in the waiting room to ask if I had any psychological problems. If they thought I did, they didn’t share.
I think the resident admitted me because he thought I was mentally unstable. The first specialist I saw was a psychiatrist, who was filled with questions. Did I think people were watching me? Or did I hear any voices? Or receive any special messages on the TV? When I answered ‘no’ to everything, he lost interest.
The next morning, I saw a rheumatologist (a specialist I’d never heard of), who pressed on tender spots on my wrists and elbows, making me wince. He told me I had “fibromyositis,” which was an overall pain and stiffness of the joints. He provided no other context but gave me Naproxen, an anti-inflammatory, and sleeping pills.
He discharged me, telling me not to come to the emergency ward if the pain flared but instead to take the pills. Fibromyositis seemed like a made up word, and in the era before the internet, how could I know?
I’d lost two days, but was back at campus in time to put the Charlatan to bed.
For most several months, I was pain-free and after Christmas began applying for summer internships at newspapers of all sizes across the country. It’s difficult for a journalism student with no daily experience to break into the business, especially between third and fourth year. I was rejected all around, although I made the shortlist for the Toronto Star, where I dreamed of working.
I was considering other options when the Charlatan clippings I’d sent to the Vancouver Province yielded results. After a phone interview, I was hired for the summer. I was elated that I got a job, and that it was in my hometown.
But by early spring, not only were my joints sore, it felt like a vice was clamped on my heart and squeezing my lungs. If I coughed or sneezed, I actually screamed. On the long walks to campus from my house, I’d slump in snow banks trying to find my breath. I couldn’t sleep lying down because the knifing pain around my heart worsened. This was something worse than joint stiffness.
I slept upright, studied, edited, slept upright some more. And wondered what could be wrong with me.
Finally, hopefully, I gathered my energy and took the bus to the Ottawa Civic, and instead of emergency, went to the Family Medicine Clinic. There, a GP sent me for a chest X-ray. But by the time I shuffled to the X-ray clinic, it was closed for the day. I left and never returned.
By the time I arrived home in Vancouver, two weeks later, I was feverish, pale and silent. Even speaking hurt. How would I ever be able to work as a reporter?
The Sick Days is a continuing series by award-winning journalist Shelley Page.