The story I'm going to share here today is, as I see it, pretty strange. But when I think about events surrounding my life -- i.e., medical and hospital events -- it doesn't rank all that high on the weird meter.
Occasionally I'll revisit this particular day in my mind, but often it's easily forgotten until something triggers my memory. This morning it was just a matter of walking past our wall calendar and noting that today's date is February 13. Dates and numbers have easily stuck in my brain since I was very young. I remember visiting a different classroom in fourth grade and seeing an August birthday calendar on the wall. My eyes went to the 31st and the name of the boy whose birthday was that day. I still know that kid's birthday, even though I haven't seen him since I was 10 years old.
Back to the story. Why did February 13 jump out from the calendar this morning? Fifteen years ago today I was living with my friend Becky...so many, many great stories about Becky but this is by far the strangest we share. We were both juniors in college, and it was the day before one of our school's biggest events of the year: Sing Song. Becky was one of just six (or eight?) host/hostesses, meaning that between social club and class acts she would be out there singing and performing dozens of different songs. We're talking costume changes, solos, duets, etc. in front of a huge audience. I was involved in my social club's performance and was barely as busy as Becky had to be that week what with all of the rehearsals.
But this was Thursday, the day before 'opening night' as it were. That night would be a ginormous final rehearsal for everyone. It was always insanity during Sing Song. Becky had gone to bed at a reasonable hour on Wednesday evening, and I was doing my usual falling-asleep-in-front-of-the-TV routine. But like any responsible college student, I had at least brought my alarm clock into the living room and had it next to my head. It was set for somewhere around 6:45 or 7 a.m. I can't be sure of that detail now.
I think it was around 6:15 a.m., something like that, when I felt someone shaking my shoulder. I looked up, and Becky was next to me on all fours. It sounds funny now, but her words were "Tracey...it's Becky." When I really got a good look at her, I could tell she didn't seem like herself. She was groggy and her eyes were half-closed. It's like we both knew something was wrong, but we didn't know what it was. Becky had basically crawled over to me because she couldn't stand up straight, and when I tried I couldn't stand up straight either. It felt like my brain was very cloudy and neither it nor my body would work like I wanted them to work.
So now Becky and I were trying to decide what was wrong. For some reason we both thought there was a gas leak and proceeded not to leave the house but instead to look up a hotline in the phone book. Thankfully we made the decision not to stay in the house, but as it was February and very cold outside, we each went to our closets to find warmer clothing. I remember thinking that I needed a jacket, but my brain couldn't decipher what that was or how to find it amongst all those hanging clothes.
Outside in the driveway, breathing clean air, Becky and I were still out of it. We were first sitting in one of our cars and both beginning to develop splitting headaches. All we could do was describe how bad the headaches were. When the gas hotline man came out of the house, I think at that point we were sitting on the driveway. "You don't have a gas leak. You have carbon monoxide poisoning. I measured it at 700ppm (parts per million) in there." And thankfully he had the sense to call an ambulance to our house at that point.
Meanwhile, an older neighbor was walking by and noticed us sitting (Becky might have been lying down) on the driveway. She talked to the man and then directed us to come to her house and wait for the ambulance. In my mind, being a 21-year-old girl who thought she was invincible, this was all a bit silly. An ambulance? The neighbor feeling like she needed to watch over us? Please. But now I just shake my head at that girl's ignorance and misdirected confidence in her own strength.
The ambulance arrived and the EMT taking most care of us was a woman who, over and over, just shook her head and kept talking about how carbon monoxide is the 'silent killer'. At this point Becky and I were both wearing oxygen masks and were still pretty groggy. All I could think was that this ride would cost too much, my parents would be mad...and no kidding, I actually tried to convince the EMT's that I could drive myself to the hospital. Yeah.
We were set up in a small room together, both still on the oxygen masks. Nobody had told us this -- not sure if it would have mattered -- but when your brain is deprived of oxygen and starts getting it back, it can cause a sort of 'high' effect. The doctor came in to talk to us about what had happened and what needed to happen, but unfortunately for him Becky and I were in that 'high' phase and would break into fits of laughter at nearly everything he said. I am so embarrassed thinking of it now, but I'm sure he understood. Maybe he thought it was funny, but I don't remember him smiling at the time.
What we learned, eventually, was that the level of carbon monoxide in a non-smoker's body is 0. The level in a smoker's body is about 1. The levels in my body were 15.6, and in Becky's...23. She had been sleeping up on a bunk whereas I was on the floor, so that was probably why her levels were higher. The very scary part was finding out that a level of 30 is fatal.
It was explained to us that, though using the oxygen masks would be helpful, what would force the carbon monoxide out of our bodies more quickly was a hyperbaric chamber. The hospital had two, and I don't think they'd had them very long. Becky and I were changed and each put into a chamber, which were long glass tubes. There were 'rules' for the hyperbaric chamber, like being aware of the pressure changes (like taking off and landing in a plane) and having to take 'air breaks' because breathing 100% pure oxygen can itself be fatal. But let me tell you...I have never before or since breathed air so clean. It was amazing.
Each of us also had someone sitting outside the chamber to monitor our progress. The entire process took two hours, which really wasn't bad. There was a TV outside the chamber, and the woman sitting with me switched channels until I settled on 'America's Funniest Videos.' I remember this because after one of the videos the woman with me clicked on the intercom to my chamber and said, "That would be so embarrassing." I wanted to laugh, because, really? I was lying in a hyperbaric chamber and she was making comments on a home video? I guess she was just trying to keep me company, which was nice.
Becky and I were able to meet up again later, fully alert, and share the details of the morning. What I hadn't known before was that the only reason she had woken up was because she had to go to the bathroom. When she got down from her bunk, she immediately fell on the floor and realized something was wrong. That's when she crawled into the living room to wake me up.
When we arrived home, I wrote 'Thank you, Becky's bladder' on a Post-It and stuck it to the bathroom mirror, where it stayed for months. Of course, both Becky and I were thanking God rather than her bladder. We found humor in the story, but it was still very sobering how close we came to never waking again. So I share the humorous parts of this story, but every time it comes to my mind I'm so thankful that God spared us both.
Love you, Becky...Happy CO Day!