The Long Haul

March 27th, 2011 § 12 comments

On long flights, I’ve always figured that my time was spent better sleeping than eating, a preemptive strike against the inevitable jet lag.

I’ve become skilled at sleeping in an economy class seat. At some point I learned that my pillow does more good behind my back than my head. Noise reduction headphones changed everything, of course, and every time I put them on I send a silent thank you (and apology for my less-than-exemplary breakup behavior) to the old boyfriend who gave them to me for Christmas a few years ago. I find that the window seat sometimes allows me to lean against the wall and avoid the old bob ‘n’ jerk of the head. I always nab an extra blanket if I see one in the overhead bin on the way to my seat. A couple of Tylenol PM, eye mask in position, and out I go.

Confession: I kind of like air travel. I don’t like the discomfort of it, but I like the nowhereness of airports and the sky, of disappearing completely for several hours, of hiding out in no country. Of course, these same things can also make it wildly alienating. My recent flight back to Paris from Hong Kong was a lonely ride, indeed.

I don’t think I could have eaten the late night meal on that flight even I wasn’t already full of quail eggs and beef tongue and shishito peppers from the yakitori place where we’d had dinner, not to mention the pork buns from dim sum several hours before that. I just wanted to sleep, and I did, for several hours until I woke to the feeling of the lump of a man next to me getting up. I followed, and walked like a zombie among the other zombies in the dark cabin, drifting along the aisles and hovering around the galleys and toilets.

I stretched my legs a bit, took a lap, and then settled back into my seat and fell asleep again almost immediately.

Five days later I found myself in the urgences at the Hôpital Saint Louis.

Something was wrong, I knew all week. Stairs or a brisk walk were leaving me winded. A pain in my leg wouldn’t go away. These were classic signs of deep vein thrombosis, I knew. I went to the doctor and she sent me to the ER with a letter explaining the situation, and they immediately put me in a gurney and told me not to get up.

I was examined and blood was drawn. They left a port in the crook of my arm, which did not bode well for a quick departure. My chest was scanned (a single dose of radiation equal to that found in a year’s supply of contaminated Japanese spinach, I read), and then they knew for sure what I had suspected and dreaded, that I had developed blood clots during the flight, and that one of them had broken loose and headed north to my lungs. A pulmonary embolism. Luckily it was a small one, but there were likely many more clots in waiting. I would have to be hospitalized, maybe for as long as a week.

The first night was spent in a windowless cell in the ER, a bleak situation brightened by the presence of a good friend (and later by something administered intravenously to ease the discomfort caused by the bands wrapped tightly around my legs). In the morning I was moved upstairs to a sunny room that I had all to myself.

There was a steady stream of visitors, bringing  candy, crack Tyrell’s jalapeño popcorn, freshly baked muffins, flowers, books and back issues of The New Yorker. Plus one very glamorous disco parrot.

(Dear friends: I love you.)

My phone had good reception on the high floor, so I could finally let everyone know what was going on. There was even wifi for patients, but unfortunately — and somehow not surprisingly — no one knew the password. (Thank you, doctor, for your efforts to get me online. I hope we meet again when I have clean hair).

For some reason, everyone kept offering to bring me Mexican food, and this was much appreciated, since the only thing worse than airplane food might be hospital food.

In the end I was there five days. I seem to be fine now. My blood is being thinned with pills and my veins are being supported by snug socks. The DVT, the clots, and the subsequent embolism were precipitated by empirical temporary conditions, not by any kind of predisposition or genetic tendency.

Still, it’s hard not to assign meaning to these kinds of experiences, to make poetry out of prose. That all of this occurred as a direct result of my trip to Hong Kong (and that is true) offers plenty of fodder for interpretation by anyone believing in signs or systems of cosmic discipline. But the Fates need not be invoked. The facts speak for themselves and their message is clear: I’m not going anywhere for a while.

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§ 12 Responses to The Long Haul"

  • Laurie says:

    So glad you’re okay. Started following you recently as I am an amateur francophile, or maybe better said an apprentice. Even under the circumstance you made me laugh out loud. Hope you’re back to your old self very soon.

    Kind regards,

  • Jennifer K says:

    That is so scary! I’m glad that you got Mexican food while in the hospital at least, and that you’re OK now :-) )

  • Lindsey says:

    Goodness, Barbra! How terrible! You knew immediately that what you were experiencing was a sign of deep vein thrombosis or you did a little webmd research? Could it have been prevented (walking around on the plane more)?

    Also, perhaps the least pertinent of questions – is France now carrying Tyrrell’s popcorn too?!

    Glad you’re on the mend!

  • Barbra says:

    Laurie – Humor helps in these situations, I think.

    Jennifer – It was a treat, having El Nopal delivered!

    Lindsey – I didn’t know immediately, though I had suspicions that were confirmed by a little googling. It can be prevented (or the risk at least drastically diminished) by walking around a lot, and support stockings are a good idea, too, because they help with circulation. And yes, Tyrrell’s popcorn is now available here.

  • Elizabeth says:

    OMG, what a terrible experience! So glad you recognized what was wrong right away. And also, thankfully, you were at the home end of the trip, and not stuck in HK. Oy!!!

  • Ann says:

    Oh, Barbra! What a terrifying experience this must have been — I’m so sorry! DVT is one of my morbid fears. I’m so glad you recognized the signs.

  • Barbra says:

    Elizabeth – I am very grateful that this all went down in Paris and not on the road.

    Ann – DVT is scary, but it seems to be pretty preventable (which sounds confident, but I’m sure I’ll be nervous the next time I get on a plane).

  • Lulu says:

    Dear Barbra: Glad you and your blood are safe now. And we love you too!!

  • Chez Loulou says:

    Very scary! I think about this every time I fly back and forth to the States. Very happy to hear that you’re ok, even though it means you’re grounded for the time being. Guess you’ll have to just explore more of Europe by train. Not such a bad thing. :)

    The same thing happened to a friend of mine who lived in Seattle and she ended up in a hospital in Kansas City or somewhere for a week, with no friends to bring her food or disco parrots. The horror!

  • betsy says:

    Dear Barbra,
    We are Americans who live in London – recently bought an appartement in Paris and come quite frequently. We lived in Hong Kong for six years too – so your blog strikes a lot of chords with me. (Thanks to your blog I gave my daughter in HK a private cooking session with Martha Sherpa as an Xmas gift.)
    My husband who travels a lot almost died last year from multiple pulmonary embolisms – after several faulty diagnoses (“pulled muscle” for the leg pain,”pleurisy” for the lung pain). The correct dx came literally at the last minute.
    He is now off the warfarin and wears his compression socks. He self-injects heparin when he flies and always flies business or 1rst.
    Glad you’re OK Don’t be afraid to fly – the world still needs exploring!
    Isn’t vin rouge an anti-coagulant? A votre santé, alors!

  • Barbra says:

    Betsy – Thank you for your thoughtful comment. Fortunately the doctors I saw here picked up on the DVT quickly, but I’ve experienced misdiagnosis of a loved one, and it was utterly frustrating and frightening.

    I’m also pleased to hear that you sent your daughter to Martha Sherpa. I hope she survived the day!

  • Lewis Seiler says:

    Barbara, Glad you are ok, what an experience! Take care.

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