I wake up every morning with unutterable gratitude. Why? In the spring of 2016 on a Tuesday morning, I woke up and could not walk, talk or even sign my own name.
The problem had started the previous weekend with an excruciating headache, sensitivity to light and a slight temperature. The clinic around the corner told me I had an ear infection. Though I told the nurse practitioner I didn’t think that was my problem, she gave me some ear medication then sent me home where my condition rapidly declined.
On Monday I drove myself to another clinic in the nearby city. By then I was shivering and losing the ability to walk. I asked for a wheelchair and blankets. The doctor ran a few tests and assured me I was “getting over flu.”
Again I said, “No.” I hadn’t had flu nor any symptoms of it, but I felt terrible and was getting worse every day. Though I begged to be put in the hospital, he pooh-poohed the idea. His nurses apologetically wheeled me back to my car and asked if I could drive home. I told them I had no choice.
The next morning, Tuesday, I couldn’t get out of bed and I could speak only in a disjointed, hard-to-understand manner. I called my next door neighbor. (My children live in far-flung states and my sister who lives in my town was leaving for a wedding in New Orleans.) My wonderful neighbor, Terry Easom, hustled over, took one look and called an ambulance. As I was lifted onto the gurney I felt both fear and relief. At last somebody was going to get to the bottom of this.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t talk well enough to advocate for myself, and Terry only knew what she had seen when she rushed to my aid. As a result, a very young and earnest doctor in the ER took my BP and my temperature then wrote on my record that I was a “senile old woman.” (I only learned this later.) He told me to go home and get some speech therapy. I was too sick to protest. Terry brought me home and called more neighbors to help get me into the house.
Then a series of small miracles occurred. The first one came in the form of my dear friend and fellow bestselling author, Vicki Hinze, from Florida. She knew from a telephone conversation with me a few days prior that I was sick. On Tuesday, she had a strong premonition that I was in trouble. After repeatedly trying to get me on the phone, she called another amazing friend, bestselling writer Debra Webb, in Alabama, to ask if she had heard from me. Deb said no, then immediately called my home phone.
I had just returned from the ER. My neighbor answered then handed the phone to me. All I could say was, “De..de…de…de.” Deb was horrified, especially when she found out I had just come from the ER. “Call the ambulance again,” she told my neighbor, “and don’t let them send her home.”
It was dark when the ambulance came again. I remember that much. I was now drifting in and out of consciousness, unable to speak but also unable to stop saying two nonsensical syllables. “Dit” and “bop.” I don’t know what I was trying to say but I’ll never forget sounding like a defective record, hung on one spot.
A different doctor in the ER looked at my record from that morning’s visit, and immediately tried to send me home again. As I lay in the curtained-off cubicle, drifting toward unconsciousness, all hell was breaking loose in the hallway outside. Terry called upstairs to the main hospital for a nurse friend who came down to ER, pulled up my website on her mobile phone and explained that I’m a writer. She had talked to me two weeks ago, she said. I was sick, not senile, and they’d better get busy and find out what was wrong.
Meanwhile Deb and Vic were in full writer research mode. They were also in constant touch with each other and my neighbor. They both called Terry’s cell phone to say they believed I had meningitis and my doctor should do a spinal tap. Vic’s brother had died of meningitis, and Deb’s youngest daughter is a nurse.
My ER doctor told my neighbor he couldn’t do a spinal tap because he hadn’t done many and he was afraid of paralyzing me. Further, everybody in the lab had gone home and he couldn’t get a spinal tap for me until morning. Terry said, “She’ll be dead by morning.”
A female doctor overheard and stepped forward. “I’ll do it.” Another miracle. I vaguely remember the needle going into my spine. The next thing I remember was waking up in a hospital bed with IVs in both arms and a robed, masked doctor standing over me asking, “Do you know who you are?”
“Dit,dit,dit, bop,bop,bop,” I told him. But I also raised my right thumb upward. Yes.
“Do you know where you are?”
Jabber, jabber. Thumb up. Yes.
“Do you know why you are here? Do you know what day it is?”
My eyes tracked to a large calendar on the wall and my thumb did the talking. This kind and amazing doctor told me I had an infection in the fluid around my brain and my spine. He said I had meningitis and they were treating me for two different kinds, viral and bacterial, until the test results came back.
He had just pronounced what could be a death sentence. Or a living death, trapped the rest of my life inside a body that couldn’t walk or talk. I also knew from medical research on one of my many novels that I could be left blind, deaf, paralyzed. When they brought the admission chart to my bed, I couldn’t sign my name. How would I ever write again or play the piano? How would I ever get people to know that I was alive in there, that my cognitive abilities were intact? How could I ever tell my children and my grandchildren I love them?
Something fierce roared to life in me. I won’t give up. I will fight, fight, fight.
My son from Florida arrived late the next day, all six foot, two inches of him hidden behind mask, gloves and robe. I was still constantly jabbering, my hair stuck out in all directions from the spirit gum they’d put on my head for one of the tests on my brain, and I was starving to death because I’d had nothing to eat or drink for 36 hours. I thought Trey was a doctor. I began to pound the side of the bed and try to say, “Food.” It came out as nonsense.
He pulled his mask down and said, “It’s me, Mom.”
I cried. And he prayed. One of the amazing pastors at my church came every day, Lynn Mote, all robed up, braving the quarantine sign on my door, rattling the gates of Heaven on my behalf. The terrific people I sing with in choir prayed. Prayer warriors, all of them. And many, many more.
When I came home I couldn’t read because of headaches, and I couldn’t come close to thinking of a plot for a novel. I couldn’t even write an email because I left the end off every word. When I tried to play the piano, I sounded like a hesitant second grade student. I used a walker to get around and just holding my body upright in a chair was an effort.
But I was determined to come back one hundred percent. The process to full recovery took about a year. It took never giving up. It took working out in the water to strengthen my body and walk without aid. It took trying each day to do a little more. Write a paragraph, then a page, then two. Play one measure in a song on the piano, then two, then the entire song. It took cocooning myself in a cozy nook with an adult coloring book and carefully coloring in the tiny shapes and squiggles in those complicated mandalas. Retraining my brain to follow patterns, select colors, think creatively.
This is the first time I’ve shared my story publicly. It’s so bizarre, it sounds like fiction, but it was a personal nightmare. I wanted you to know that writers are just like you. We have problems, large and small, that we either face with fear and dismay or with strength, determination and lots of prayer. I wanted you to know that in 2016 I wondered if I could ever write another book, and how very happy I am that I could bring Elvis and the Charmed Cat mysteries to you in 2017, be part of the BREAKDOWN series in 2018, and bring SNOW BRIDES to you in January of this year.
But most of all, I’m very happy that I can still say, “I love you” to those who matter most. Maybe they get tired of hearing it. I don’t know. All I know is that each time I say it, I remember that one day, I woke up and couldn’t talk. I remember that now I can speak only by the grace of God.