In March 2019, a door slammed shut. I found myself in the intensive care unit of my local hospital, dazed, in pain, and begging for relief. A parade of white coats streamed in and out, mirroring my consciousness. The stern faces of those with whom I was familiar should have alarmed me; but I was beyond that. I was ready to die and welcomed it. The pain in my legs was so great that the combinations of narcotics administered proved useless. The white coats were blunt: “We are not sure why you are failing here but we are bringing in specialists to look at you.”
Three weeks later, I left the hospital with a permacath dangling from my chest, several rounds of hemodialysis behind me, going home to an uncertain future. A dizzying array of tests and treatments had been administered and the diagnosis was end-stage renal disease (ESRD) with a side of sepsis. I had heard of sepsis and that word echoed ominously in my brain. There were other frightening words too, like “transfusion” (apparently, I’d had two), and yet I was alive, and now that the pain was gone, I was actually excited.
My first visit to the dialysis clinic was a shock. There were all these chairs situated in a circular fashion around a nurses’ station, and several patients looked curiously up at me as I reluctantly joined the club. This was quite different from my hospital experience where I was often the only patient in the room. The hum of the hemodialysis machines, the alarms, the scurrying of the professionals who attended to the alarms, the smell of disinfectant—all of this induced sensory overload. It was cold. I never did get used to the cold. That clinic was my new home, my tether to life itself. I would learn how this works and be the most compliant patient they’d ever met. I would learn to embrace the four hours a day, three days a week I’d be trapped in a chair and be grateful. After all, I wanted to live. Right?
One day, a few months into this routine, the clinical director stopped by my chair, and with her arms crossed and head cocked to the side, she muttered, “You really don’t belong in here, you’re so young. Have you ever considered PD?” I had never heard of “PD,” so she scuttled off to summon a “PD nurse.” I learned that PD, or peritoneal dialysis, was a type of dialysis that would free me from that chair, allowing me to do treatments at home even while I slept. No needles, no blood coursing through tubes, just a catheter surgically placed in my abdomen that, through some medical magic, would introduce a solution into my body cavity and then remove toxins and excess fluid.
It is at this point that my healthcare hero enters my story. She is my PD nurse, Tabitha. This tiny, energetic, kind, patient person was going to train me, monitor me, and become my new lifeline. Training meant an intimidating book of material to cover and procedures to practice, but I tackled each lesson with enthusiasm, determined to do everything perfectly. My lab results would be stellar; I’d show the team that their faith in me was warranted.
Over two years later, as I reflect on this journey, I believe that the most important lesson Tabitha taught me was to live, not just survive. She encouraged me to have fun, lighten up, and expect the best. As I am a rather pessimistic person, she was exactly what I needed to find balance in my life. This new normal would not be a slow-moving death sentence, littered with A+ lab reports. There was still a lot of life to live! Tabitha encouraged me to get out of the house, dine out (while gently reminding me to take my binders), travel, and find new adventures. She taught me to be meticulous in my procedures, but she modeled how to find humor in my new way of life.
I have been extremely fortunate to have an amazing healthcare team, including a primary care doctor and nephrologist who collaborated to save my life. It was, however, during one of the darkest periods of my life that Tabitha brought kindness and light, offering hope. She is always a phone call away and knowing that, I can get through the challenges of ESRD and thrive.
Georgene Sims is a retired educator, living in NW Indiana whose hobbies include writing, gardening and community cat rescue. Her BA is in in political science from Northern Illinois University and she holds a Master of Arts in Teaching degree from National Louis University. She is also proud to sport an exceptionally tolerant husband, Jason, and a magnificently gifted daughter, Meghan.
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