I woke up in the hospital at 5 a.m., drenched in sweat, feeling miserable. The nurse answered the call bell and I started crying–not a nice, dignified cry, but a sobbing mess.

“I’m so afraid. I’m afraid I am never going to go home; I’m afraid I am never going to pet my dog again; I’m afraid I will never blow dry my hair…”  

A week or so before, I had some physical symptoms over the course of a few days that were too weird/embarrassing to discuss with even close friends. And who has time to go to the doctor? 

I spent a few days in bed dealing with what I had diagnosed as “the flu.”

No, I am not a doctor. But my son had been exposed to the flu and I knew it was going around. I had aches and fevers, so it sure seemed like the flu to me.

After four days, I visited an urgent care clinic. The doctor entered the room wearing a mask and gave me a no-contact fist bump. He asked what was wrong. 

“I think I have the flu,” I said. (Note: I should have said, “I don’t know.” Because I didn’t.)

After a 60-second exam (which did not include a flu test) he confirmed my diagnosis and sent me home with a prescription for Tamiflu. Before I left, he held my wrist to check my pulse. And something about the gesture gave me pause. “Your pulse is fast,” he said. “You are probably dehydrated and should drink more fluids.”

As we drove home, I had a nagging feeling about the rapid pulse and the cursory exam. I thought of heading to the ER. But I was tired, wary of a long wait and honestly, I didn’t want to spend another copay to be told the same thing.  

The next morning, I woke up vomiting. (I know that is gross to share, but one of the things I’ve learned is that we have to be a lot less afraid of talking about gross things!)  At this point my husband suggested we head to the ER where I was quickly admitted.

At the hospital they did a flu test which came back negative.  (See, I am really, really not a doctor after all!) They quickly discovered that I had a kidney infection, and soon confirmed that it had traveled to my bloodstream.

I spent the next five nights in the hospital fighting for my life.

Here is what I learned from this experience:

All the things I was so busy doing, all the responsibilities that prevented me from finding time to seek medical help–all of that went on without me. The only thing keeping me from taking care of myself was me. I saw all these things I “had” to do in my life, but what I didn’t see was that so many people would be happy to help with them. It was never all on me because help was always there.

I took my poor body for granted. I spent most of the time angry at it for not being the shape and size I wanted it to be. But self-care is more than manicures and massages. Self-care is actually going to the doctor. 

There is no way I would have let my children suffer as long as I did without seeking medical attention. If one of them saw a doctor who wasn’t listening I wouldn’t have stopped until I had answers. I realized I need to advocate for myself as much as I would for them.

Before this incident, I spent a lot of time avoiding pain and discomfort–I took Tylenol for a headache, drank a glass of wine to relax, tried to ease a cold with cold meds…I learned that pain and discomfort have their own messages worth listening to.

My husband, whom I liked to complain about so much before, really showed up. One night I tried to send him home but said I was a little nervous about the man watching me. He said, “Actually that’s a paper towel holder, so I think I’ll stay.” And I like romance novels as much as the next girl, but let me tell you, real intimacy is helping someone take a shower.

I learned that nurses are everything

I heard from so many friends from all parts of my life–neighbors, coworkers and even a college boyfriend who’s now an EMT in Australia. If you need to know that you matter–trust me, you do. Reaching out to someone in a time of need makes so much of a difference even if you don’t get a response. (Sorry!) I was plagued by horrible fever dreams. One night I scrolled through Facebook and read positive messages of kindness and healing. So many of those friends had cameos in my dreams that night. I literally felt held by them.

The wall board in Jennifer Kepner’s hospital room, tracking her progress.
The wall board in Jennifer Kepner’s hospital room, tracking her progress.

There were some dark moments in the hospital when I was afraid I would never come home. In these times, what I was afraid of missing were not the big events or extravagant vacations but the reassuring daily routines of life. I wanted to pet my dogs, go to a job that I love, hear my kids come home from school and make dinner.  

It isn’t so much that I didn’t appreciate what I have; I didn’t even see what I had–a life that I love; people I adore; a partner who will walk with me through anything; and so, so many friends to help me not just when I’m in crisis but whenever I needed it.

So now I can say that I am 46 and I’m the hero of my own story. It is my job to take care of the body that has been trusted to me. And I am blessed with an army of helpers standing by my side.