Guest Blog from Listener Matt F. About Surviving Serious Illness
As a survivor of childhood leukemia (diagnosed aged 5) and living with a diagnosis ofhepatitis C since I was 20 (I was infected via blood transfusions during my cancer treatments in early adolescence, but did not come to find out until then), I’ve lived nearly all of my life well-acquainted with both the fragility and the resilience of the human body.
For much of my adult life, however, I was unable to fully take stock of how much my traumatic health-experiences had rattled my psyche, making me vulnerable to depression, agitation and anxiety that were, in fact, not unusual responses to those unresolved experiences of powerlessness and fear. For years, though, I tried to cope on my own, in ways both healthy and unhealthy. I knew I needed some kind of help but did not know how to make sense of my story, or ask for help with feelings of brokenness.
At the age of 33, life seemed to offer me one more reminder that my life was as precious as it was fragile, but this time the lessons of its experience would insist that I never again try to face it alone.
In the Spring of 2012, I had just returned from a five-week trip back to the United States, back again in my adopted home of Ireland. I landed back in Dublin, feeling a sense of confidence and clarity, looking forward to a summer job at a camp for children experiencing/surviving serious illness. During my time in Ireland, I had made progress towards understanding my story and the job at camp marked a sea-change in my clarity and confidence that I could improve the lives of children who experienced what I did.
Unbelievably, the summer was not to be so rosy, and not long before I began the job I fell ill with a fever. The fever began with light chills but quickly progressed to intense heat and a nauseous stomach. I thought it was some kind of viral stomach bug and decided to sleep it off. The next morning I felt a bit better but in the afternoon, confusion was setting in and my breathing became a bit labored just as the fever again began to spike.
Were it not for friends who insisted that I immediately present myself to a doctor, I would have continued to put off the possible severity of my situation and no doubt would have died. Going to a general practitioner, who had the wisdom to immediately refer me to the ER, I was soon diagnosed with streptococcal-A induced sepsis and spent the next 3 days in septic shock with failing kidneys and collapsed blood-pressure.
I was so dehydrated that I hallucinated that a Native American woman with blue hair was urging me to drink from a blue bowl! I visualized my own death and the birth and death of countless people happening all over the Earth, not as an end but rather as a dispersion of points of light across incalculable distances in deep space. I remember not being afraid, but I did feel as though I were slowly fading in and out. Eventually, I felt peace and renewal. I eventually awoke to my actual Mother standing next to my bedside, crying but happy that I was coming back consciousness.
Due to the diligence of the doctors and thanks to lots of oxygen, adrenaline, fluids, and antibiotics, I made it through the worst part of everything and was told that I was lucky to have lived. I ended up spending a week in ICU and then more than another week in normal-care.
Leaving the hospital, I was absolutely heart-broken and physically shattered. I had lost over 30 pounds and was an emaciated bag of bones. I had difficulty walking short distances, breathing properly, and my stamina had all but disappeared. Amazingly, I sustained no permanent damage to my body. The damage to my mind was another story altogether, however.
My summer aspirations were ruined and the highest inland areas of self, where I had been keeping the confidence and clarity I had felt, were completely swept away by the chaotic and churning waves of residual trauma. For several months I was a complete mess, prone to episodes of agitation, confusion, depression and fear that came washing over me without warning. I was simply scattered and missing from myself.
By three months though, due no doubt to lots of walking, rest and good eating, my body was coming back to normal. But after three months the real mental toll, while less acute, was announcing itself as more chronic. I tried to stick things out a bit longer, not asking for help with my feelings.
Eventually, due to the encouragement of friends and family, I realized if there was ever a time to ask for help, it was now. I’ve begun to see a counselor and while the work with her is just beginning, I am beginning to see how important it is to tell my story and to hear the stories of others who have had their brushes with death and feelings of loss. I am beginning to understand how there is no shame in asking for help and no more sense in facing mental anguish alone than there would have been sense in thinking I could have “slept off” the sepsis” and stayed away from the doctor’s office.
I wanted to tell my story because I want anyone who has survived sepsis (or any other traumatic experience, for that matter) or who survives and now mourns one they lost, to know they are not alone and that help is there if you ask for it. True, other friends and family may never be able to relate to the trauma, they will not taste their mortality hopefully until the end of their natural lives, but nothing can replace the benefits of having an objective non-judgmental person who just listens and shares their observations. You may not need advice, but as is said, you can never see the back of your own head as someone else can. Sometimes all it takes is another perspective to re-hitch hope to a disconnected heart.
If you feel broken, confused, unsure about the future or just alone with your experiences, please reach out to someone! We may all have to face death on our own terms but we do not have to face life that way!
Despite everything I have been through, I am finding renewed strength in my vulnerability and I can finally see the possible resolution to so much that was long-un-resolved in my life. For better or worse, it was the lessons of sepsis that pushed me just a bit closer to the edge of discovery that I now willfully leap off into the faith for a more hopeful future.