In the spring of 1992, I was attending Ryerson University in Toronto and living alone in a basement apartment in East York. Living away from my family in the Maritimes for the first time, struggling through a demanding curriculum, doubting my career choice and with no money or social life, I found myself battling what felt like a flu as March´s Spring Break neared.
After spending the first Saturday morning of the break stocking up on comfort foods and digging in for a long fight with the bug, I ended up falling asleep on a chair in my living room out of sheer exhaustion. When I woke up 4 hours later, I knew something was different.
All of the traditional signs of meningitis were there; the stiff neck (which I attributed to sleeping in a chair), the high fever, dizziness, nausea, chills... Still, the word ´meningitis´ never crossed my mind. It was a child´s disease, after all. As far as I knew, it was simply the worst flu I had ever had.
Over the following 20 hours, the symptoms progressed. I began vomitting uncontrollably. I couldn´t remain upright for any more than a few seconds. I felt so cold that I was shaking convulsively under three layers of blankets. Soon, the fever got so high that I began to hallucinate. It quickly became impossible to distinguish between reality and nightmare.
Shortly after receiving a phone call from my cousin, who begged me to go to the hospital, the blood-blister rash appeared and I started to wonder if I was dying. It wasn´t until my vision faded to blurriness, however, that I decided to call for help. I crawled to the phone and felt out the numbers 9-1-1. Within minutes, I was being sped to Toronto´s East General Hospital.
Aside from having to walk to the ambulance unassisted by the paramedics, I was treated with great urgency from the moment I arrived. Perhaps it was my dangerously low blood pressure, the rash that had spread quickly to all parts of my body or my drifting in and out of consciousness but whatever the reason, I was swiftly admitted and rushed off for my first spinal tap.
Later, as I lay in the barren isloation room, visited only by the occasional masked nurse who would silently come in, take what they needed and scurry away, I felt genuine fear for my life. This was heightened when the doctor came into the room and pronounced from behind his sterile gear that I had meningits. When I asked if I was going to die, he replied only "we´re doing everything we can for you", which I knew to be doctor-speak for "don´t make any dinner plans".
After a brief breakdown, a surprising feeling washed over me - one of complete acceptance of what was happening. Even as my awareness came and went and the efforts of those around me became frenzied, I maintained this sense of peace.
Untold moments later, I found myself being wheeled franticly through the green halls of the hospital by some people with very concerned-looking creases in their brows. As they brought me into the trauma room, I found myself experiencing an incredible gratitude for these people, whom I didn´t know but who were working so hard to save my life. It was there, as I lay naked on that cold metal table, that my life was saved by these faceless people.
Its difficult to explain what happened in that room. As disturbing and horrible as it was, I found a certain fascination in all of it that kept me almost entertained. Even as they were forced to put a central line into my neck without the aid of anesthetics, I was able to consciously note the bizaare sensation of having someone prodding around deep under my skin. At one moment, I faded out only to return while lying on my side with a thick piece of cloth in my mouth. When the doctor explained that I´d had a seizure, I simply said "cool".
That peace was disrupted, though, when my respiratory system began to shut down. Within minutes, I went from needing only the small pronged tube running under my nose to being entubated, again without the help of sedatives or anesthetics.
I had gotten to the point where a major effort was required to force air in and out of my lungs so the doctor explained that they were going to insert the tube into my lungs and hook me up to a machine that would breathe for me. What he didnt warn me of, however, was that the fluid that was filling my lungs would come up as the tube went in. It seemed like an eternity until they were able to suction enough of it out for me to get any air but I now know that seconds seem much longer when you´re drowning.
Once the respirator was hooked up and the IV´s were in place, pouring anti-biotics full stream into my body. The doctors and nurses decided that they had stabliized me to the best of their abilities and I was wheeled off to the ICU ward which would be my home for the next month. Upon arrival to my room, I let the exhaustion claim me and I drifted off for two days.
...And then I recovered. It seemed at the time that my progress was abnormally slow and painful. By the time all IV´s and the respirator were removed two weeks later, I had lost 50 lbs from my previous 185lb frame. Due to the emaciation, I could not walk, stand, sit, feed myself or go to the bathroom. The rash had left a legion of purplish scars across my body. The whites of my eyes had been replaced by solid crimson due to the conjunctivitis. I had lost all recognition of myself.
At a follow-up appointment with my doctor, he pronounced me a medical miracle. I had survived this brutal assault on my body without any permanent residual damage. At the time, I knew little more about the disease and its effects then I did prior to my experience with it. Now, having read the stories of others who have lost their lives, limbs and loved ones, I feel almost embarassed to share my story.
But I do so because despite all the experiences that this has made possible, all of the adventures I´ve embraced thanks to my renewed appreciation of life, I have never been able to share this with anyone who knows what its truly like - and thats a very lonely feeling.
In the first few months following my exit from the hospital, many people told me that I had survived for some greater reason - that God had special work for me to do. I´m not sure I´ve figured that out just yet but I do know that if anyone out there can find the comfort of recognition in these words, it won´t be entirely bad that it happened.