Anyone who knows me will agree that my body’s attempts to have an immune system have generally turned out pretty poorly. But there was one week, just before Christmas, in which it exceeded its previous inability to protect me against ailments and illnesses by a country mile. And because my body has an amazing sense of timing, it happened to be the same week I was due to start working in the delicatessen at a local supermarket.
The evening before my first day of work, I went out to dinner with a good friend of mine. During dinner, I was suddenly overcome by an intense feeling of nausea. I broke out in a sweat, and was unable to move for fear I’d throw up. Eventually I managed to fight it back and afterwards I felt okay again, if a little shaky. I assumed it was nothing major, but decided to go home to bed just to be on the safe side. The last thing I wanted was to have to call in sick to work on my very first day.
But the next morning, I was still feeling unwell. Despite my meagre breakfast and general bad feeling in my stomach, I decided to go into work anyway, in the hopes that it would get better. It didn’t. Any movement required a huge amount of effort and self-control, and attempting to look like I wasn’t sick was about as achievable as a quick trip to Mars. I walked slowly from the car park into the supermarket, trying to keep my breakfast down.
Half an hour in, as the guy I’d been buddied up with for my training day was explaining to me where everything was in the deli, I suddenly felt too sick to even stand, let alone take in all the information he was giving me. I told this to the deli manager, who told me to go home. So I collected my things and sat outside the supermarket in my work uniform, crying, as I waited for my mother to come and pick me up.
An old lady came up to me while I was sitting there, and the following conversation ensued.
I sat there crying silently in shame and self-pity as she walked away. When my mother picked me up, I cried most of the way home, and then went to bed and cried some more. Then I slept for a bit. I spent much of the day dozing in bed and feeling distinctly shit. By the end of the evening, though, I was feeling markedly better, even managing to sit in front of the television and eat some blueberries. I had every confidence that I would wake up the next morning to find I’d made a full recovery overnight and be ready for my next shift the following day.
However, what actually happened that morning was I got up, ate a couple of spoonfuls of rice bubbles, and then had to dash to the toilet to throw them back up, along with the remains of last night’s blueberries. After vomiting four times in the space of half an hour (a curiously large amount for someone who’d barely eaten in the past 24 hours), my mother decided I was sick enough to warrant a visit to the doctor. And so off we went, me clutching an ice-cream bucket in my sweaty palms for the duration of the drive.
When we finally got to see a doctor, she took my blood pressure and temperature, pushed on my stomach a bit (which, let me tell you, is a great experience when you’re nauseous) and told me that I had a stomach bug, many nasty variations of which had apparently been going around like the plague recently. She wrote me a medical certificate that deemed me unfit for work for the next two days, prescribed me with some anti-nausea pills which I was to start taking if my situation had not dramatically improved by my next shift at work, and sent me home.
When I got home, I called my boss and let her know what had happened. She was very nice about it and told me to keep her informed as to the state of my health, and offered me a six-hour training shift that Friday due to the spectacular failure of my previous one, by which time both she and my medical certificate expected I would be fit to work. I spent the next two and a half days lying in bed listening to the radio and living off lemonade and the occasional slice of tomato.
Fortunately, I did not throw up again and, having started taking my anti-nausea pills, come Friday I was feeling a lot better and ready to give work another shot.
When I arrived at work I was feeling nervous and tired, but I managed to make it through the shift without relapsing or feeling too shit, and despite my sore legs and the overload of new information to memorize, I emerged feeling reasonably okay about my first day of work, mark II.
That night after dinner I went over to my boyfriend’s place. We had peach flavoured ice blocks to celebrate my not throwing up at work and managing to survive the shift. My throat was feeling a bit dry (I assumed, then, from spending all day in a heavily air-conditioned building and talking to customers), but I kept drinking water regularly and thought nothing of it at the time. Then, as I was driving home at about quarter to ten, I noticed my tongue was feeling a bit swollen. I thought this was also due to the air conditioning and had a large glass of water as soon as I got home. Pretty quickly after that, I realised that the water had not remedied the swollen feeling, and it was in fact getting worse. I went and looked at my mouth in the mirror: my tongue was visibly larger than normal and was pushing its way out between my teeth.
I told my parents, and we came to the conclusion that I was having some sort of allergic reaction. My mother called an ambulance. Though my tongue continued to swell, my airways remained clear and I could still breathe pretty much as normal, so the ambulance didn’t put us as a high priority and when it finally arrived, the driver received a more urgent call, turned around in our driveway and took off. By this time, it must have been around 10PM. As I was still able to breathe, my parents decided the best thing to do was to take me into the after-hours doctor. So we bundled up in the car and off we went.
It took us about ten minutes to get there, by which time my lips had also started to swell and were developing a vague tingling sensation. On the whole, my mouth area was not feeling too hot. At the reception, we were greeted by a rather unattractive woman, who was decked out in all the festive gear you can imagine, including a pair of particularly grotesque flashing earrings. The phrase “mutton dressed as lamb” doesn’t quite cover it.
On top of her distasteful appearance, this woman had also been blessed with a complete lack of manners. She didn’t notice (or, more likely, pretended not to notice) our presence for a fair few moments after we turned up.
Once we had her precious attention, we then had to go through the process of explaining why we were there, a task which seemed almost too laborious for her. By this time, my symptoms were quite visible even if you managed to somehow miss my pronounced slur caused by my severely swollen tongue. At last, we were told to take a seat in the waiting area and the nurse, who “was just with a patient”, would see us shortly. My mother asked where the doctor on duty was, and the receptionist told us that he was at home on call, but that if we wanted, the nurse would call him in. The fact that he wasn’t actually at the clinic was deeply concerning to both my mother and me, but there was nothing we could do until we got to see the nurse.
Although our wait it probably was not terribly long in real time, in swollen-faced-Beth time it felt like several eternities went by in slow motion before the nurse was finally finished faffing around with her other patient and called us in. I then had to describe my symptoms to her past my giant tongue, and was a little disturbed by the fact that my blatant slur and puffy lips didn’t seem to fill her with any sort of urgency.
It was clear I was having an allergic reaction, but none of us had any idea what to. A little embarrassedly, I offered what I then thought was the most likely culprit: my boyfriend had had garlic prawns for dinner before I saw him earlier that evening, and I had then proceeded to kiss him several times. As the reaction started not long afterwards, and as I had previously had a reaction to garlic prawns (although it had been hives on my legs rather than a swollen mouth), I couldn’t think of anything else it could be.
While we were in the nurse’s office, my tongue suddenly began to pull violently towards one side of my mouth. Every time I tried to force it back where it belonged, it would simply resist me. For some reason, it had developed a sudden urge to become part of my cheek, and nothing in the world was going to stop it. Perhaps in another circumstance its determination would’ve been admirable, even inspiring, but right then I was more concerned with the fact that it was pulling towards my cheek with such force that it was beginning to become quite painful. Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the tugging subsided and I was once again left with a puffy but compliant tongue.
The nurse decided to give me an antihistamine that would (we hoped) begin to clear up my symptoms about twenty minutes after I took it, but which would make me very sleepy in the process. Not having my tongue feel like a blue whale calf flopping around in my mouth sounded very appealing to me, so I took the medicine, and we were then asked to go back out into the waiting area for twenty minutes, after which time we would see whether my condition had improved at all.
In fact, the opposite happened: I began to get worse. My tongue began once again to spasm uncontrollably around in my mouth, which was painful, and its spasms were punctuated by intervals in which my teeth chattered violently and also uncontrollably. It was a very sexually attractive time for my physical appearance.
When the twenty minutes was up and I felt neither drowsier nor any better, my mother and I decided we didn’t know what the fuck was wrong with me and went back in to talk to the nurse again. We discussed our concerns about my condition, which was not improving, and mentioned the nausea pills I had been prescribed for my recent illness as another possible cause. Upon looking up the name of the drug (Maxolon, or Metoclopramide HCL), the nurse remarked that my symptoms seemed to match those listed as possible side effects of taking it. My mother then asked if she could call the doctor on duty in for us, to which she responded that she couldn’t do that, as we were registered with a GP in the neighbouring town. The night was positively bounding along from bad to worse to well this is just fucking ridiculous.
With calling the doctor out of the question, the nurse decided the best thing to do at this point was call an ambulance. What happened next I remember only vaguely. The antihistamine finally kicked in and I began to feel very drowsy. An ambulance was called. I was taken to another room, laid down on a bed and had a blood sample taken, which was then left in my arm for the doctor at the hospital. I remember my teeth chattering, and shivering a lot. I can’t imagine I looked spectacular by the time the ambulance arrived. I certainly felt like I was slowly slipping away into the afterlife.
I don’t remember exactly how I got in the ambulance. I do remember struggling for the duration of the ride to retain consciousness, as sleep had become even more tempting due to the fact that I was now lying down with a blanket on top of me. But the one thing that stands out about the trip was how lovely the ambulance drivers were. The older man sat in the back with me and talked to me the entire time, asking me questions and making good-natured jokes to keep me awake. If I’ve learned anything from the experience, it’s that ambulance workers are probably among the crème de la crème of humanity.
We arrived at the hospital at about midnight. I remember something about a wheelchair, and the ambulance driver who’d been sitting with me (I wish I could remember his name) saying, “Now, when we get out, I’ll get in the wheelchair and you can push me.” I said okay, that would be fine, and then I ended up being the one wheeled into the hospital and down to the waiting room. The ambulance workers disappeared after leaving me with the blanket, and my mother and I settled down for yet more waiting. Fortunately for me, I was still pretty out of it, so I spent most of the wait dozing in the wheelchair.
In my brief periods of semi-alertness, I noticed my tongue wasn’t spasming around anymore, my teeth weren’t chatting, and my tongue actually felt a little less swollen than before. It seemed the antihistamine was at last having an effect.
We waited for about two hours before we were called in to see a doctor. The doctor we finally got to see was a young Asian lad who looked fresh out of medical school (and not much older than myself, to be honest). My symptoms were much less severe by this time and I could talk without a lisp, so I had to describe my swollen tongue and the spasming I’d experienced. I don’t remember this bit very well either, but the gist of it was that the worst of the danger had passed and I would be okay to go home. I was finally discharged sometime after 3 AM. My father picked us up from the hospital and drove us home. I sat in the back, wondering what the hell I’d just been through and why.