I’m retching. As the person who catches whatever passes by at the airport, illness is nothing new, but this is different. I’ve been on the bathroom floor for five hours.
The footsteps start upstairs. I hear my husband, Kevin, yawn and stretch. He has a plane to catch. There are lunches that need making, bills that need paying, a last chapter that needs revising. It’d be helpful if I had a spatula to separate my sweaty body from the floor, but I manage to get myself to the shower.
“You sick?” Kevin asks when he sees my face.
I nod. “Don’t come near me. I have a bug.”
“Do you need me to cancel my meetings?”
“No,” I say. “I’m a tough cookie.” He smiles.
The retching finally stops. I don’t look great, but the kids are fed, the bills are paid, and I somehow finished that draft for my agent so I won’t have to work when my sister and nieces arrive the next day. I walk up and down the stairs getting the house ready for their visit, huffing and puffing, amazed at how wholly the virus consumed me. Later, reading downstairs, I notice that even though I’ve stopped running around my breaths are still shallow.
My mother-in-law returns the kids from her weekly after-school dinner date.
“Are you feeling better?” she asks.
“Yep,” I lie.
She senses something is off in that way only mothers can. “Really? You sure?”
“Yeah. I think my asthma is just acting up because I was so sick. I took my inhaler.”
“I can put the kids to bed if you want to go to the doctor?”
“Oh, no,” I insist, “I’m sure the albuterol will kick in soon.”
And suddenly it’s 8 o’clock. My breaths are still shallow. If Kevin were in town, I’d probably go in for a breathing treatment, but he’s gone, and I sent my mother-in-law away, and now the kids are asleep. Yes, I have neighbors who’d be happy to watch the kids. Two of them are doctors who could listen to my chest. But I’m 34 years old. I work out daily. I eat well. I pride myself on not being a drama queen or attention seeker. I’m tough. I rally. It’s my thing.
My son has to shake me awake, but I notice right away that the shallow breathing is gone. I have a good laugh at how worked up I got. Imagine if I’d called my neighbor? I’d be mortified.
By the time I get to the airport to pick up my sister and nieces, my color is back to normal. Any languishing symptoms are shoved aside to make room for a long-anticipated family fun fest.
We head to Busch Gardens for the last day of their visit. Before we’re even through the ticket line, I’m sweating as if I’m at hot yoga. I chalk it up to the virus finally exiting my system. About halfway through the day my calf starts zapping on and off with pain. Great, I think, I pulled a muscle. But I don’t say anything because we paid so much for the tickets and everyone is having fun, and I refuse to role-model whining. We’re there seven hours, sopping up the kids’ excitement like the drug it is.
As it’s our final night, I plan a grown-up dinner after the kids are in bed. I make my favorite, sea bass — which costs a full tank of gas — and pull out a stellar chardonnay. I’m exhausted, but I can rest over the weekend after my sister leaves and I’ve caught up with work.
When the first bite of fish hits my mouth, everything in my body resists. I swallow it back in one lump and chase it down with a sip of wine. My body then informs me of its intent to throw up and I run to the bathroom. I return 10 minutes later, stomach emptied.
“I think it’s too soon for fish after how sick I was last week.”
Kevin and my sister look at me funny. “Weird that it just came back all the sudden,” my husband says.
“Yeah,” I agree. “Weird.”
I don’t mention that I’ve been off — sweaty, short of breath, exhausted — this whole time. I took care to wash my hands incessantly, not kiss the kids and avoid picking up toys so no one else would be catching this demon virus, but I didn’t crawl into bed as my body wanted to.
After dropping my sister and nieces off at the airport, I head home on a mission. Screw being sick. It’s been a week. Mind over matter. I hop on the elliptical but can’t get my breathing to steady until I take away all the resistance. The calf pain returns, but I power through. After 40 minutes, I sit down to work through the knot in my leg. When I feel no relief, I take my elbow and pound into my shin like I’m breaking up a clump of ice. Then I head to the shower.
It feels good to be clean. My plan is working. I’ve persuaded my body I’m fine. When I flip my head to towel-wrap my hair, I notice my left shin is swollen. Not a lot, but it’s discernible, which is weird, because I thought I’d just pulled it. An overwhelming urge to call my doctor sets in.
Before the physician assistant is even in her chair, I’m apologizing for wasting her time. She looks at my leg. It’s redder than it was earlier. “Have you been breathing okay?” she asks.
I shake my head. “Not at all. In fact, one night last week my breaths were so shallow it was worrying, but it went away the next day. It’s all from this virus I had.”
“You’ve been having a hard time breathing, but you didn’t make an appointment until you noticed your calf was swollen?”
And just like that I go from thinking I’m tough to knowing I’m a moron.
I had a blood clot that ran from my groin to an inch or two up from my ankle. I suffered not one but two pulmonary embolisms, which resulted in a cardiac event that caused heart damage. It is a statistical aberration that I survived that night when my son had to wake me up in the morning. Had I not, my 4- and 5-year-olds would have been home alone with a dead mother.
None of the doctors was impressed to hear I worked out almost every day with untreated PEs, gasping for air. I thought I was teaching my kids resiliency and strength, when really I was teaching them to be ashamed to ask for help and to ignore their gut.
I was diagnosed with antiphospholipid antibody syndrome (APS), a disease where your blood turns against you and throws clots, and I was put on a daily blood thinner.
Accommodations had to be made. I nap most afternoons and have to stand every 40 minutes or so. When I don’t, my left leg swells from the vein damage of having endured such a large, prolonged clot. I wear a compression sleeve on my calf, so summer shorts have been replaced with maxi dresses and jumpsuits. I avoid activities that might cause a fall and derail the day for everyone.
As a woman who didn’t need to read Sheryl Sandberg’s book because I’d spent a lifetime leaning in, I struggled with this new reality. “I’m so embarrassed,” I’d tell guests when ducking out for 30 minutes to rest. “I’m suddenly 80.” Instead of admitting I needed to stretch my legs when out to dinner for work, I’d excuse myself to the restroom — a strategy that backfired during long meals that required two or three trips. Sitting on the sidelines taking pictures while the kids ice skated, I felt like a louse. Then one day my daughter said, “I don’t mind your weird blood” — that’s what I took to calling it — “it’s sort of nice to be able to take care of you sometimes.”
Abby Fabiaschi is a human rights advocate and co-founder of Empower Her Network, a nonprofit that paves a path for survivors of human trafficking. In 2012, Fabiaschi resigned from her executive post in the tech industry to pursue a career in writing. “I Liked My Life” is her first novel. She and her family divide their time between West Hartford, Conn., and Park City, Utah.