by Hannah the Zebra
I am a fifth grade teacher and we teachers are a weird lot. Both because of training and temperament, we often put our classroom students first. It’s probably not the best profession for us immune deficient zebras, with the kids coughing and sneezing all day in an enclosed classroom. But we are what we are. For most of us, we have difficulty even imagining ourselves in a different profession. Thus we often ignore illnesses as it gets close to the end of the school year. Let me just say that if you are immune deficient, that is most definitely not a good idea. And my denial copping strategy? Yeah, well, that really does complicate things.
The first week of April of last year, I developed bronchitis. That’s not unusual; I usually have a case of bronchitis at least once a year. But the bronchitis that my students and fellow teachers had the winter and spring of 2009 was particularly tenacious. So when I developed bronchitis and it hung on, I didn’t think anything of it. The course of the illness seemed no different for me than for anyone else. I did what I normally do; I took the antibiotic, I used my nebulizer for the albuterol treatments, and I kept going to work. It was the ‘kept going to work’ part that was, shall I say, not the smartest thing I’ve ever done.
By the last two weeks of school, I was really struggling. But it was the end of the year, and I was sure I could make it through the last two weeks. I would deal with the prolonged bronchitis after that. Then Tuesday evening of the last week, I noticed that my legs were swelling. But I had been put on a steroidal drug to help clear my lungs, I had been taking it for several weeks, and edema was a common side effect. The last day of school was Friday; I would go in to be seen by a doctor on Saturday. There were only 3 days left in the year. I could certainly make it through 3 days. Then there were only 2 days. Then one day. Tomorrow I would see the doctor.
On Friday my fifth graders left our elementary campus for the last time. It was 12:25. I left at 5:00 and headed for home. I looked at my legs. They were worse. We ate dinner. By 7:00 I noticed that my legs weren’t working correctly and I could barely see my ankles. And I was having trouble breathing. We headed to the hospital, and that’s when things began to change in a spectacular fashion. They started giving me breathing treatments every 4 hours and pumping huge amounts of steroids into my veins.
I was there for 3 days. And my life hasn’t been the same since. We thought I’d be back up to full speed by our daughter’s wedding in August, no problem. After all, it was two months away. But by August I still had problems standing up for more than about 10 minutes at a time. And I could only do things for about 1-2 hours a day, total. Wonderful. Spectacular. (Irony intended.) This healing was going to take a very long time. And it was clear by then that I wasn’t going to be able to start the school year in September. Or, it turns out, for quite awhile. I have improved significantly, but here it is almost April, and I’m still on medical leave.
Things learned? Probably that I’m not invincible. I know that sounds absolutely crazy, coming from someone who is immune deficient. But that has been one of the ways I’ve insulated my emotions from the knowledge of my immune deficiency. If my emotions don’t need to come to terms with my illness, then it is a way of avoiding it. Would this be the little matter of my denial coping strategy? Ummm…… yeah, I guess it would. But there is nothing simple about this. It is, I suppose, the bargaining stage of grief. The “I will make this accommodation for my illness, if, in turn, I can still continue to do that” stage. It takes awhile, or perhaps something spectacular, to make us realize that bargaining isn’t the way into acceptance of our illness. But what is?