Practicing What I Preached: An Emergency Room Experience
And Then My Face Froze
For years, before I started my seminary work toward an M.Div. degree, I worked with our church youth group. Over the years I'd told our kids time and again they had a choice to make in every moment of every day. They could choose to be a blessing or a curse to others. It's easy to say and I meant it. Then one day half my face froze and I had to decide if I could practice what I preached.
It started with a cascade, that's what my allergist called it. It was a few years back, there was too little flu vaccine to go around, and President Bush was asking those who were healthy enough to skip the vaccine so the elderly and very young could receive the doses that were available. So I didn't get a flu shot that year.
Sure enough, that winter I caught the flu. But the virus wasn't satisfied with being the flu and decided it would be more fun to be bronchitis. Bronchitis was just too dull and the little beasties morphed into an ear infection, the first one of my life. It was massive and agonizing. This was the cascade. It was awful. But antibiotics took the pain away and I thought I was done. I was wrong.
In the middle of the following week, some time after lunch, it came to my attention that the right side of my face had decided to stop doing its duties and expressing my emotions. In fact, the right side went entirely slack. Did you know the fold that begins at your nose and ends at your mouth disappears when your muscles go on strike? Crow's feet disappear too. I guess that's what makes botox attractive. So, being a writer, I checked online and sure enough half a face on strike could be a symptom of a really massive ear infection. That medical site also made it clear that if not taken care of quickly, it could be a permanent condition. Immediately I called the doctor's office and told them my troubles.
I'll never forget the response. "You need to go to the emergency room," the nurse counseled. "Really," I responded somewhat stupidly, "do you think it's that bad?" The nurse, amazed at my lack of insight, responded firmly, "Sir, from what you've told me you could have had a stroke."
I left for the emergency room immediately ... by myself ... driving myself. It dawned on me halfway to the emergency room that if this truly had been a stroke then it was probably not the smartest thing for me to be doing, driving myself to the hospital. Probably hadn't been particularly bright of everyone at the office to let me go either. Needless to say, by the time I arrived at the emergency room I was a little tense.
God bless the nurse who checked me in. When I told her what was wrong, which was pretty obvious as this was one time when it was literally written all over my face, her immediate response was the question, "Can you raise your eyebrow on the affected side?" "No," I responded, surprised by the question and even more surprised by her initial response, "Good!" "Good?" I interrupted. "Yes, that means you haven't had a stroke. If it was a stroke, your eyebrow would still move." That was reassuring.
It was 4:30 in the afternoon when I arrived in the emergency ward. Now when you arrive in the emergency ward and you aren't copiously bleeding or seizing or seriously, physically traumatized in some other way, you find yourself on a bed, surrounded by hanging drapes, quietly waiting for something to happen, surrounded by other folks in similar circumstances. It's nothing like "ER" and -- this is nothing against the staff who were wonderful, caring folks -- it gets a little dull after the novelty wears off. Around 5:30, I asked if there was somewhere I could get something to eat and was told, with a nice apology, that there could be no food as several CAT scans might be required, the last using some dye and therefore no food could be taken. I can only imagine how the food and dye might have conspired together to misbehave.
Here was the moment. I was bored, stiff from sitting, worried about my face and my ear, and wondering actually how bad this all was and I began to feel myself slipping into a sort of cross self-pity. Then my words to the youth group came back to haunt me. "You can be a blessing or a curse to others in every moment." I also remembered C.S. Lewis' admonition in Mere Christianity that roughly paraphrased if you want to change your attitude or do something new (such as reaching out to others) then first you have to pretend. If you're in a bad mood, pretend you aren't and sooner or later you'll discover you feel better.
I decided, begrudgingly at first, to follow my own advice. I began to engage the staff in friendly conversation and lo and behold, it worked better than I had imagined it would. The staff in the ER responded well to me being pleasant and I responded well to their response. We passed the time between CAT scans in friendly banter and I received more attention than I had received in that first hour when I had stewed in a slowly simmering crankiness. Practicing what I had preached was working well.
Then came the fourth CAT scan, the one requiring the dye. I was beginning to understand how serious my situation was. The infection in my ear had been found in the hollow bone structure below the ear and this final scan would determine if the infection was in my brain.
I was wheeled into the room with the large machine one more time. I greeted the technician by name, we'd gotten to know each other fairly well by then, and she asked me a fateful question. "Do you have such and such condition?" "A very mild version, yes," I replied. Here was where an evening of at first pretending to be pleasant and then actually becoming pleasant and a blessing to others instead of a curse paid off in an unexpected manner. Assuring her the condition was mild, she was willing to test the dye and see what happened. There were no ill effects and the procedure continued. I imagine if I'd been cranky all evening, she might have been delighted to have me cool my heels all night in a hospital bed waiting for an MRI in the morning.
Instead, we were all a blessing to each other that night and I was able to go home to my wife and kids around 11:30 in the evening. Oh, and no, the infection hadn't leaked into my brain and in time my face recovered, for which I thank God on a regular basis. So, when you find yourself in a tough spot and a bad mood, pretend you're happier than you are and concentrate on the little things you can do for others. The trial passes faster and unexpected blessings may come your way.
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