Confessions from Level 8


FB_IMG_1593886415249The rona had me in her sights.  Like many, I haven’t always made the most conservative decisions for my health lately. I attended church services twice in the past three weeks. I got my hair cut and colored. The loved ones in my social bubble haven’t all been social distancing; one regularly attends family gatherings.  I’m not as cautious as I was a few months ago and have gotten lax with sanitizing surfaces and not singing entire song verses when washing my hands. After my experience this past week, I know I need to do better.    

I first began experiencing symptoms a week ago. Beginning last Sunday, I noticed joint and muscle stiffness, a mild sore throat and low energy. This past Wednesday, my sore throat had intensified and I developed a headache. My temperature hovered around 99.6 most of the day. In adults, that temperature is not considered a fever; it became normal by bedtime.The following day the muscle aches and sore throat had worsened and my digestive system took a turn for the worst. I wasn’t able to keep down any food.  Friday morning I felt better so I did work out at home. My breathing wasn’t labored so I felt encouraged that I was recovering.  Saturday I had wanted to go for a run because I haven’t done so in a few weeks but my joints and muscles were still sore and stiff.  I took my usual Zumba class.  My breathing was fine though my energy was low. That night after our daily walk I felt exhausted and I felt that my chest congestion had worsened. Sunday morning I woke up congested and feeling chest pressure so I called the advice nurse. I was set up for a video call. After we discussed my symptoms, the doctor recommended I get tested for Covid-19. He said my healthcare provider has experienced a shortage of tests and that many were having to wait until the end of the week to be tested.  However because I was experiencing symptoms for several days, he felt that my need to test was urgent. He said he would speak to the supervising doctor about expediting my test. I was called within 20 minutes and given an appointment for 11:40 in the morning. After prayer, meditation and some tears, I headed to my test site.  

I drove into the parking garage where I was directed to park my car until it was my turn for testing. I was then directed to pull into a parking slot where I was finally allowed to lower my window. The nurse described the test process.  It would be both a nasal and oral test with a swab.  Both tonsils and both nostrils would be swabbed. I was told that it would be uncomfortable but that it would be brief.  I was then asked to remove my mask for the oral exam. I was asked to sing ahhh for ten very long seconds. I gagged but it was more uncomfortable than painful. Then we moved on to swabbing the right tonsil. I was directed to place my mask back on while the next test was prepared. I was directed to only lower my mask so my nose was visible. I remembered what a friend had told me about keeping absolutely still during the nasal swab so I tried to not move. As with the oral swab the nurse counted out 10 seconds while swabbing each nostril. I tried not to visualize where the swab was going. I thought of calming images though I wanted to flinch. Then it was over. I was asked to adjust my mask. The nurse told me that negative results would be sent via email and positive results would be communicated through a phone call. She told me to take care of myself. I thanked her and drove out of the parking structure. 

At home I moved into self-isolation. Because I have been taking a class which was due to end Tuesday, I decided to move into our home office. I brought in a sleeping bag and pillow and blanket and sufficient water. I spent the majority of the day completing my class and watching YouTube videos featuring my favorite Pose actors. Earlier that morning I had asked the doctor about exercise. He had said he had no objection so long as I was mindful about not being contagious to others.  I went on my evening walk by myself and wore a mask as usual. As I’ve been doing for many days, I applied Vicks Vapor Rub before going to bed. 

Today I woke up and felt that my chest congestion had dramatically improved. I also saw that I had received an email from my healthcare provider. I knew the news was good.  I am negative for Covid-19. The doctor sent a follow-up email recommending that I continue to self isolate until my symptoms improve and to monitor my health. 

This experience terrified me. While most of my symptoms have subsided, I am still experiencing joint and muscle pain. I’m grateful I don’t have Covid-19 but I am still susceptible to catching a virus. We all are. This is not a hoax. My brother lost a good friend. I have friends who have lost relatives and friends. One of my former students is on life support. We can’t lose sight of what’s most important.  Without our health, we can’t make beautiful memories with those we love. That’s what I most feared, being separated from my daughter and my husband. My eyebrows can wait.  I can attend Mass from the comfort of my desktop.  I can only hope that more of us realize how important it is that we protect ourselves and one another. 

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Anchors: They Weigh

 “Bag lady you gone hurt your back
Dragging all them bags like that
I guess nobody ever told you
All you must hold on to
Is you, is you, is you “ Erykah Badu, Bag Lady
“Until then I am a red balloon, a balloon tied to an anchor.” Sandra Cisneros
The Ancient Mariner and the Albatross around his neck
I have been wearing a wound-vac since Tuesday, April 29thor for 25 days.  In those 25 days, I have learned how much I miss daily exercise, wearing any clothes I want, and showers that don’t require waterproof tape or plastic wrap.  M has named the wound-vac Mr. Backpack. Mr. Backpack is attached to me 24/7, whether I am sleeping, enjoying my weekday Sex and City marathons on E!, or going out to our now-once-a-week family dinner(he gets his own chair.) I even made up a silly Mr. Backpack song to the tune of “Mr. Sandman.” All was going well with the new member of the family until I visited my surgeon for the first time in two weeks.  Yesterday, my doctor decided to keep me on the Wound-Vac  for two to four more weeks.  I didn’t take the news well initially.  I cried, raged, and moped. I considered reading the Book of Job again. But today I have accepted the news.
A wound-vac or wound-vacuum is a machine that provides vacuum pressure on a wound within a sealed bandage. Think of it as a Space-Bag to prevent infection and promote healing. (For those of you who don’t know or remember the TV commercials, Space-Bags are gigantic Zip-locs for storing blankets, sweaters, and other bulky items  by vacuuming out the air and increasing your storage space.)
As I did throughout my illness, I did Internet research to learn about wound-vac, particularly about others’ personal experiences.  My experience has been positive overall.  Home health nurses visit me three times a week to change the dressings. Thanks to a prescribed painkiller, which takes effect in a quick twenty minutes, I don’t feel a thing(of course, then I’m really mellow but unable to drive for about three to four hours.) One of the key aspects of a dressing change is the measurements taken. The wound’s length, width, and depth indicate the rate of healing.  So centimeters matter.  My wound is healing.  I am understandably impatient.
I had built my life around keeping busy.  Being on the Wound-Vac has made me remember that life happens. While I can do my best to shape and structure my lifestyle, life itself will go on, often times with events and experiences beyond my control.  That is why the wound-vac has become my teacher in humility.  Take the news from the doctor. I wanted to return to work on schedule. I wanted to parade vac-free in Carnaval this weekend. I wanted to jump in the shower, be in there for ten to fifteen minutes (yes I realize we’re in a drought), and wash and condition my hair.  Maybe do a samba step in celebration.  Instead I’ll be devising some bling for my vac bag and waving from a parade float. I will continue live my life differently for a few more weeks with my three-pound friend on my shoulder.
Mr. Backpack, bring me a dream.


Yes, another acronym


The morning after Valentine’s Day, I had finished my morning cardio workout and was going to head into the shower when Rambo (the artist formerly known as Blues) gripped me in his viselike bear hug.  I finally managed to escape and mock-whined about the pain he had caused. But as I got ready for my shower, I did notice twinges of pain.  I did a self-exam and found what felt like a small, hard mass. With heart pounding, I returned to our bedroom where I asked my boyfriend to confirm my suspicions. Yes, there was a lump. Yes, it was painful.  I immediately called the advice nurse and I was booked an appointment with the breast clinic. My surgeon felt it was a benign cyst but I would still undergo a mammogram, ultrasound, and biopsy.
Due to my hectic work schedule and my usual desire to power through it, these tests were delayed by about a week. By then, what was a tiny lump became increasingly painful and swollen. I began to experience a low-grade fever.  Life went on as usual, despite my overwhelming fear of breast cancer and my overall fatigue.  To complicate matters, the biopsy site became infected and after two rounds of antibiotics, I had to undergo an incision and drainage of the abscess.  I was back at work the following day despite the pain, with antibiotics and gauze dressings in tow.  By then, a second surgeon had been consulted and I first heard of IGM, idiopathic granulomatous mastitis.
IGM is a rare disease.  It is similar to mastitis which affects nursing mothers. The I in IGM means “I don’t know.” Researchers have yet to pinpoint the causes. Some women with IGM, like me, nursed their children between two to six years prior to experiencing symptoms.  Some may not have had children at all. It’s an “I don’t know.”  What is known is that IGM is a chronic condition like gout or arthritis. It won’t respond to antibiotics because it’s not a bacterial infection. It is an inflammation of normal tissue which can flare up. I had done some online research but I hadn’t yet been given an official diagnosis. There were plans for a possible lumpectomy if the symptoms didn’t clear.
I had stopped dancing with SambaFunk because of the pain of infection. However, as soon as I could after my first outpatient procedure, I was back in class, bandaged but determined to prepare for Carnaval. I resumed exercising daily.  Work had never let up so I continued to balance the various demands on my time. Every day, I changed my dressings three times a day.  Every day, the wound was not healing. Though my biopsy had shown no sign of cancer, I worried about my immune system. Was I pre-diabetic? Was something wrong with my white blood cells?   I checked in with my surgeon via email and by phone but I failed to demand to be seen again. Follow up appointments were rescheduled and canceled. I was too focused on my work obligations to put up much of a fight.
The weekend before I was due to leave town for a school accreditation visit, I noticed pain in my ribcage after my morning workout.  Upon inspection, I realized the pain was radiating from my original wound.  I called the advice nurse.  She booked me an appointment with an emergency room doctor.  That doctor took one look at my wounds and said she needed to call my surgeon who happened to be in the OR on a Sunday afternoon.  When she asked that I be transferred to the ER as a high priority, I knew I wouldn’t be leaving town. My surgeon, dressed in OR scrubs, came to see me and said I would be undergoing emergency surgery the following morning.
The good news is I don’t have cancer or diabetes or any other major illness. I came home on schedule Wednesday evening.  I was placed on medical leave for four weeks and I have been wearing a Wound-Vac machine 24/7 since the day after my surgery.  I am now being treated for IGM with anti-inflammatory meds. For the first time in months, I am not living with an infection.  I miss dancing and exercising but I know that soon my body will heal and I can resume these activities.  More importantly, I’m finally taking time for my health.

Being put to the test

Seven days ago, I was a whirling dervish of activity. I began to live this way years ago in an effort to survive.  Too much time on my hands meant too much time in my head.  So I found ways to fill my time and my mind. These days I rush about from home to work to my daughter’s activities to my dance classes and dance community to family gatherings to me time to volunteering to church. It’s not always the least stressful life but it’s a good life. 
It is a good life. I am awake. I can walk. I can talk. I don’t have a life-threatening disease. I have a job, a home, a family, and the greatest friends a person could desire. But this week has tested me greatly.  In addition to the physical challenges of my recovery, there are mental and emotional challenges. I must relearn to sit quietly, do nothing, and wait.  I wait for myself to become comfortable again with the gift of time and space, the blessing of a calendar and schedule wiped clean.  I wait to trust my thoughts, to stand firm in the knowledge that never again will I allow negativity to cloud my life. I know I have learned so much through life experience, that my will to live and to change continues to be strong. I wait for healing.

When I was younger, I used to ponder becoming a contemplative, if only as an oblate to a certain Order or monastery. I used to ponder going on a desert retreat or a silent week-long retreat. Perhaps this time is meant to be that opportunity. May I trust it and seek peace.   

Woe is we

My mom has warned me that I will continue to have days like this. This is day 3 after a relapse of severe morning sickness. I’ve been violently ill for two days in a row, limited to a diet of graham crackers, saltines, apples, and water. The baby has been deprived of his prenatal vitamins for nearly a week but I suspect he’s living off the stores of nutrients and extra pounds I have carried. I look forward to rosy cheeks and chipper moods, to eating real meals and leaving my house for something other than work, medical appointments and errands.

The media and pop culture makes pregnancy all about bellies and cravings. Except for the vomiting in Knocked Up and Miranda’s complaints about gas on Sex and the City, we get a sanitized version of a real life challenge. What I’m experiencing, in all its miraculousness, is the greatest physical challenge I’ve undertaken. Besides the perpetual queasiness and upchuck antics, there is leg and back pain, an ever expanding waistline, chapped lips, fatigue, mood swings, and paleness. I suppose the one plus, besides knowing my little one is growing, is my ever increasing bust, as described in Look Who’s Talking as the Russ Meyer effect. As my first trimester nears completion, I know this journey will continue to include challenges.

So woe is me. My pity party is done for now. Meanwhile, my half Peruvian, half Mexican little one is living the life, sleeping, eating, dancing in his warm cozy home.

Honoring a lost friend

I learned a lot from Charlene Brown. I met her at Columbia University in July 2004. We were roommates while enjoying a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to study the Renaissance. We became friends right away. We shared a love of musicals and plays, art, good food, and the marvel that is New York City. We were also comrades, the only openly religious members of the summer teaching institute, and therefore supported one another when anti-religion ideas were put forth.I will never forget Charlene’s smile and her gentle manner. I am sad to learn she has lost her battle with cancer.

One of my fondest memories of that New York summer was rushing back to Morningside Heights in a rainstorm one night after watching a show. We were drenched but laughing all the while as we ducked into doorways and hopped puddles. Our shoes were damp for days.

I never kept my promise to visit Charlene in the Central Valley. We kept in touch via cards and emails. The last time we corresponded, she was hopeful about treatment and focused on her teaching. I am happy to learn she kept teaching history throughout her battle with her illness and that her funeral was a huge celebration of her career and life.

Now I know she’ll never miss a show and she will always lift a prayer.


Staying home sick

The immune system is a delicate thing. One minute I’m shiny happy in the patio at Raleigh’s, rocking my new Cal Bears wife beater tank as South Central and Watts try to coax me into resuming drinking before my own self-imposed deadline. By the following Saturday, I’m screaming my weakened lungs out as the boys look a hot mess in the fourth quarter against Arizona, and mid-week, I’m curled up on the couch watching way too much VH1 and nursing three hot oil burns on my right elbow. The cold I’ve had for over a week is lingering and after a long day of hacking and feeling like I’m holding the whole school together with duct tape and will power, I decided to call in sick.

I am a marvel at caring for others but I’m relatively new at taking care of myself, even on the health front. Sure I love my greens and drinking lots of water but I’m also a sucker for Taco Bell and Jack in the Box mystery meat tacos. I haven’t run in three weeks and my sleep pattern has only been good for two weeks. Once this cold hit, I didn’t do much besides taking several Airborne tablets(actually the generic Walgreen’s version but same difference)on the first day I had symptoms. Last weekend, I went out into the San Francisco coolness with my bro and sis in law to the theatre on Friday and faced showers and humidity for Saturday’s game in Berkeley. Work has continued to be unbelievably taxing. So I needed a day for me.

So I slept in, watched lots of movies on TV(why in the hell would fine-ass Jay Hernandez go for Kirsten Dunst with her nasty unwashed short hair and raggedy clothes in crazy/beautiful), cleaned my bathroom, vacuumed the house, and watched some more TV.

My cough still sounds like a seal’s bark.
And yes I’m still headed into the City to see another musical.

the first cold of the season

Nausea. Cough. Day 5 of a cold and I’m feeling better after forcing myself to eat a banana and rice crackers.
At least the rains stopped during my outings these last two evenings. And I finally rested today.
what’s the cliche? No rest for the wicked. Or no rest for the weary.
Same difference.

Back into sadly familiar territory

On Friday afternoon, my good friend, Play Brother, and his girlfriend were told some terrible news by his doctor. The tumor is growing again and the cancer has spread to his spine. He was given two to four months to live. My friend is dying.

I have often believed I have a heightened sensitivity to energy. Call it a third eye or sixth sense or supernatural gift. Whatever it is, it affects me. On Friday, I could not shake my feelings of fear. When I woke with a slight hangover Saturday morning, I told myself it was my hormones and my mood swings. But the bad feeling remained, cognitive behavioral therapy exercises aside. Then the phone call came. I knew before T explained. I knew it had to do with Play Brother and I knew what she would tell me.

I drove into San Francisco, beautiful and warm for a change, for the International Beer Festival, had a great time, distracted myself from reality for 6 hours. On the drive back across the Bay Bridge, I cried so hard I wondered if I should be driving. I came home and struggled with sleep.

This morning, I did something I have to tried to avoid doing for weeks. I thought. For ninety minutes, I lay in my bed and thought. Thought about the injustice of this tragedy. Thought about how my friend has been a man of integrity and love. Thought some stupid things, too. After all, I’m not 100% recovered so that time dwelling on sad thoughts reopened some of those wounds. But mostly, I thought about how terrible it will be to lose one of my best friends. I thought about how close I will be to death and how tangible this loss will be. I thought about God. I don’t want to think anymore.