Well That Was Unexpected!

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July 29th, 2021

The last time I wrote a blog here, earlier in the month, much of it was about finishing the new book and how lousy I felt as I neared and crossed the finish line. Stomach problems, back problems, exhaustion, you name it. I thought I was over all that once I put the entire book together and shared it with my publisher.

Little did I know…

I did feel quite a bit better for the next week or two, but I clearly wasn’t myself and there always seemed to be something bothering me. Whether it was pesky and small or a “crash in bed and don’t get up” sort of thing, I was just not all there and often in a lot of pain. Something was definitely not right, and Barbara saw that.

We had a couple of talks, during which she said, “You’re always the life of the party. You’re always so outgoing and funny. You haven’t been that way in a long time.”

I tried to pass it off, just telling her I was tired, but mostly that was just a personal defense mechanism. “Keep it to yourself. It will all get better. Don’t worry about it” was my mantra. I’m usually that way. I’m not the guy who sneezes once and rushes off to the Urgent Care center. I rarely go to the doctor. I just keep pushing and things usually work out OK.

Then, I started running a low-grade fever. I remember waking up one morning and knowing things weren’t quite right. My head was foggy, my lips were tingling, and I ached all over. We have a battery operated thermometer, which I had to dig out of the recesses of a bathroom drawer because it doesn’t get used that often, and it read 99.9 degrees. I figured it was just an aberration and would go away. Nothing to see here. Move along please.

That thermometer got a work out for the next five days, and sometimes it would back off. Normal for me is pretty low, like 97.7 or 98 at the most. I’d get down to 98.8 or so for an hour, then back up to 99 or even 100. It was all what you’d call “low grade fever” but it wasn’t normal for me. I kept hoping it would all just get better by itself.

When, on the fifth day, it hit 101, even I couldn’t ignore it any longer. Barbara got me in to see a doctor at our local health center Urgent Care.

Dr. Aziz was great. He listened, he nodded, and he asked question after question. The first action he took was to test me for COVID. It came back negative the next day. He said, “The good news is you’re negative. The bad news is that means you have some sort of infection somewhere, so we have to find it.”

They set up a CT scan for the next day. The cool thing was it was at a medical facility down in the suburb of Eagan, on the same property as the Vikings’ massive training and practice facility. I asked Barbara, “Do you think after the scan I should walk over there and see if they need me to try out for punter?”

The scan wasn’t bad. The procedure itself only takes a few minutes and all you do is lie there, but the hard part is the prep. You need to drink three Solo cups full of water mixed with a “contrasting agent” which allows them to see more on the scan. That’s a lot of water in 30 minutes. I’ll never look at red Solo cups quite the same way…

Two days later, I was resting on the couch, still sporting a 99.9 or something like that, when I got a phone call from my doctor’s office. It was another doctor within the same practice. She had a message to deliver. It was a blunt one.

She said, “We can’t rule much out from the scan, and we can’t pinpoint it either, but it’s clear you have an infection and it’s really important we get to the bottom of that as fast as we can. We can’t let that get into your blood stream.”

She didn’t say it, but I already knew it. An infection in your blood stream is a very bad thing. Often, it’s a “get your affairs in order” type of thing. Very dangerous.

Then she said, “So, I need you to go to the ER at United Hospital in downtown St. Paul. We don’t want you to go to Woodwinds for this.”

Woodwinds is our local Woodbury hospital. I had my knee operation there a few years ago, and it’s a really nice place just a couple of miles from home. One might classify it as a “country club hospital.”

The doc said, “They don’t have the expertise or the staff for this, so get to United.”

I said, “Like, as early as tomorrow?”

She said, “No. Right now. Pack a small bag and go. I’m sure they’ll admit you so be prepared for that.”

That will make a chill run down your spine. It still does, just writing about it now. I was hanging around figuring all this would go away and be fine, and all of a sudden I had to drop everything, tell Barb the whole story, and have her drop what she was doing to take me to the hospital. It was a blur. And it was a scary blur, for sure.

The hardest part was waiting at the ER. It’s a huge hospital, and the ER has a triage function they need to use to see the critical patients first. Lots of ambulances arriving. Lots of announcements to the staff telling them what was coming. We checked in and then sat and waited. United is networked with our local Urgent Care facility, so they already had all my files and reports. After about an hour, they called my name.

We went to an exam room down the hall, and I answered a lot of questions. My blood pressure was OK, just a little high from all the stress, but my temp was 100.5 by then. Still “low grade” but also a real temp being caused by some real thing.

They admitted me, but before they took me up to my room they did something really fun. They inserted a rubber tube in my nose and snaked it down the back of my throat all the way into my stomach. I can say with complete certainty that such a thing would be on the list of procedures anyone would like to avoid, if possible. Not fun at all.

My “home away from home” for four nights and five days. Cozy!

So, we got to my room and settled in. And thus began the endless parade of doctors, nurses, assistants, specialists, and people whose sole purpose was to stick yet another needle in me and draw more blood. That seemed to happen nonstop. I was thinking I might run out of blood. The insides of my elbows and forearms are still pockmarked with all the bruises and injection spots.

They hooked up the nose tube to a suction device, and began the slow process of draining all the fluid out of my stomach. If there was an ulcer in there, they wanted an unobstructed look at it. They also started hanging multiple IV drips of various antibiotics. Since they didn’t know where or what the infection was, they figured they’d shoot wide and cover all the options. I had two major needles in my right arm where the IV lines could be attached and swapped out every few hours.

I also had an endless course of saline solution, just to keep me hydrated because from that point forward I would not eat anything and couldn’t take so much as a sip of water. They wouldn’t even approve ice chips, and that was probably a good thing. Those only would’ve made me crave water even more.

The good news included the fact my BP was fine, I had no pain in my abdomen, even when they pushed and prodded on me, my white cell count was dropping, and my fever was easing each time they took it. We just had to find the cause of the fever.

This went on for five days. I spent four nights there, but rarely slept. As most people know, we as humans crave sleep at night but hospitals run 24/7 so nurses and doctors are coming in almost hourly around the clock. It’s hard to get much rest, but I had an uncanny knack for somehow waking up and knowing one of them was about to walk in the door. I guess I was on alert and I could hear them hit the hand-sanitizer and the pass code pad to come in. I think they only surprised me once or twice, and I know I was only sound asleep once.

They were all terrific. It’s a big urban hospital, but the care felt like it was damn near private. I got to know them all, I trusted them, and they got to know me. I’m proud to say I was a very good patient. I did what they asked me to do with a smile. I offered up whatever arm they wanted to poke next. I only gave them honest answers.

By the third day, my unabated thirst for water was finally easing thanks to the endless bags of saline. Being hydrated, I finally needed to start using the bathroom though, and that was an adventure. They couldn’t pull all the needles out, so they just pulled the electrical plugs on all the pumps and meters and let me drag that whole metal rack of bags, tubes, and wires into the tiny bathroom with me. I got pretty good at it in a hurry, but that saline drip was really effective and I felt bad every time I had to ask a nurse to “unplug me” so I could pee yet again. They never grumbled, and they always helped. They were an amazing crew.

The doctors were, as well. I had three specialists, two of which were surgeons who were part of the team in case I needed to have them cut me open and look around in there. There was a gastrointestinal guy, who was really great, and then there was the “hospitalist” who was the quarterback of the whole team. Since all the other doctors had specialities, it was his job to collate the information and form a plan of attack. Of all the doctors, he was the one who had the whole thing covered and he was the most optimistic and upbeat. He decided we needed a new CT scan to compare it with the older one.

We were able to do that just a few floors down and no red solo cups were involved. Instead, they reversed the flow of my nose tube and inserted the water solution directly into my stomach that way. I felt like I had a football under my skin. That’s a LOT of water, especially for a guy who hadn’t had a sip in days.

After analyzing that, they came up with a few answers. Yes, there had been an ulcer but it never perforated my stomach lining. It appeared there had been a small hole in my duodenum, which is the very top of the small intestine, but by the second scan it seemed healed or gone. The rest was some general inflammation around my abdomen. It was all getting better.

By Saturday night (I had arrived on Wednesday) they cleared me to have some soft food. My “dinner” was a cup of cranberry juice, a little pudding, some Jello, and a cup of what passed for sorbet. It tasted amazing, honestly. And my nurse Angela “stole” a Popsicle out of the staff fridge! That was heavenly.

The next day, I graduated to more solid food and had a sandwich. Then, the good news. The surgeons had decided they weren’t needed, the rest of the doctors thought I’d been through enough, and they were going to release me within a few hours. I’d take home some oral pills of the same strong antibiotic I’d been on, and I’d have strict instructions as to what to eat and drink, but I could go home. I wished I could have thanked every one of them in person, but I only got to see whoever was on their shift when my discharge went through and I could put on sweat pants and a tee shirt. No more always-twisted hospital gown. No more bed I was slightly too long for. No more shots and new IV bags in the middle of the night.

It was great to get home. My initial instructions were to rest. I hadn’t had much in four nights. I’m a natural at that, so it was no problem. I’m still doing it.

We have new tests coming in the next few weeks, but they are all out-patient and one of them is at an office right here in Woodbury.

I don’t know how I could have gotten through it with my sanity if not for Barbara. She had plenty of important work to do and I was quick to tell her to go home for as long as she needed to take care of her job, but much of the time she was right there next to me, keeping track of my vital signs and either nodding approval or shaking her head when things went sideways. They didn’t go sideways often, so I got a lot more nods.

After I’d been home a day, I had a video call with my Woodbury doctor, the first guy I saw when the fever went to 101, and that went well too. I’m now on a low-sodium diet, and for a few more days he wants me on low fiber, to take the strain off my digestive system, which is now up and running again.

And yes, having that tube pulled slowly back out through my nose was the highlight of the whole thing. Having a tube running down the back of your throat pretty much feels like the worst case of strep you ever had. It hurts. But it feels so good when it’s over.

So there you have it. I don’t really know if it was a “close call” or not, but the urgency I heard when I was told to get to the ER right away was enough to get my attention.

I have a new perspective now. Life can change at any time, with just a phone call, or even without one. I need to get over my aversion to doctors and my tendency to keep maladies to myself. Life is too important.

And the outpouring of support I got on social media and email was not just astounding but incredibly up-lifting. It never stopped. It still hasn’t stopped. Family, neighbors, friends, former teammates, former business colleagues, and the huge racing community (a family unto itself) whether that means racers and crew people, PR colleagues, or those of you who have read my blogs for years, were all off the charts. Del Worsham called me as soon as he heard I was in the hospital. It was just before they had to make a qualifying run in Sonoma, but he wanted to check on me.

It all kept me going during those long dark nights when I tried to sleep but knew the door was going to open again in just a few minutes.

So I’m following the protocols and doing my part. Our friends Terry and Lynn even came over last night with dinner in hand. They’d planned to just drop it off, but we insisted they join us. Laughter and friendship aren’t just good for the soul, they part of good health.

I’m on the mend.

See you here again soon. Sorry I was gone so long (I was otherwise detained as outlined above) but I hope you liked this and I plan on getting back to normal in more ways than one.

Bob Wilber, at your service with gratitude.