“Resilience- an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.”
My alarm clock went off at 4 a.m. although the the loud, siren-esque sound wasn’t necessary. I was in such a light sleep knowing my health journey could all change within the next two weeks that I’m not sure I actually fell asleep after all. I got dressed, warmed up a bouillon cube in a shot of water and grabbed a Pedialyte to go (ya know, the normal things everyone with blood pressure in the double-digits does as a part of their morning routine.) My parents and I arrived at JFK two hours early, ensuring that there was sufficient time to
let the panic sink in make it through the insane lines of airport security and get to our gate with plenty of time to spare. I hadn’t flown in years and it would be my first time since getting sick, however, we were off to Mayo Clinic and with the only other option being a 27 hour Amtrak ride, nothing was going to stop me from getting there. I had waited years for this.
I had never had an issue with flying, with the exception of the one time I got a sinus infection in the middle of summer vacation in Florida (who does that?) and my ears painfully wouldn’t pop the entire 2.5 hour trip home, but this time, I held some reservations. In the weeks leading up to my flight, I had spoken to my doctors and
obsessively extensively researched how flying affected people with my condition (thank god Google doesn’t judge me for my queries.) I knew that the odds were about 50/50 that I’d get symptomatic during take-off and landing when the cabin was still adjusting to the pressurization. Albeit my health history, I was generally a positive person so I filed that knowledge in the back of my mind, in a safe little cabinet that could easily be accessed should I need to remind myself mid-flight that others like me, too, experience these horrific sensations.
They called our flight number to board and I slowly walked to the bathroom one last time, doing anything to keep my feet on land as long as possible. While drying my hands, I took one last glance at myself in the mirror, talking sense into myself and repeating “You can do this. You’ve gone through so much to get here.” I quickly chatted with the flight crew upon entering the plane, as if they had a direct line to Fate and the ability to change mine because I was nice and polite– “We won’t let anything happen to that girl because she said ‘hello’.” I took the aisle seat next to my mom, my dad seated in front of me, and mindlessly scrolled through my iPod, doing anything to distract myself from the sealing sound of the air-tight door coming to a close (distraction techniques were never my forte.) We began to roll forward onto the tarmac and I knew there was no turning back now.
The engines roared to life, a deafening noise that I didn’t recall being so jarring in the past, and I clasped my mother’s hand so hard I think we both lost blood flow to our fingers. Sunk back into my seat with eyes wide open, we lifted off of the ground, climbing higher into the sky each second, the cars on the parkway quickly turning into little moving ants. I looked around at the other passengers- adults reading the in-flight magazines, children attempting to wiggle out of their seats- and I realized that I, too, could enjoy the flight as normal as they were. Once we stopped our rapid ascent, the seat belt light turned off and the stewardess made the announcement that they’d be coming around with snacks. I did it, I survived take-off in one piece, and assuredly, those nightmare-inducing stories on all of the forums did not pertain to me– or so I thought.
I felt a huge sense of relief wash over me. I looked at my mom with the biggest smile and said “I did it.” We high-fived and not a moment later, it was like someone stuck a needle into my sense-of-accomplishment balloon. As any array of death-like symptoms arriving in a swift, harsh manner would, I felt them suddenly. If you were to imagine the feeling your body would experience if being squished between two cement walls closing in on you while being strapped to a NASA spaceship breaking through the atmospheric barrier and multiply that by 10, you’d have a faint idea of what I felt going on in my body. The pressure was so intense that my vision started going black. My heart was slamming in my chest, what I now know as adrenal surges flooded my body like fire in my veins and I began to pass out. It all happened so intensely and abruptly that I didn’t even have time to panic. I remember thinking to myself in a rather calm and matter-of-fact way, “This is it. This is how it’s going to end.” Never in my life had I experienced any sensation like it and that’s saying a lot as I had gone through some pretty rough events with my health, to put it mildly. Before going completely unconscious, I had a moment of clarity and remembered to put my head between my knees.
Blood flow restored to my brain and after what felt like eternity, I was able to signal to my mother that something was terribly wrong. With legs that felt like they were filled with lead, I staggered down the aisle and collapsed on the floor in first class, tears streaming down my face. When you picture how your life could end, you don’t fathom the possibility of that occurring in a metal tube surrounded by a bunch of strangers at 37,000 feet, ya know? Not exactly my choice of endings, although grandiose. The stewardess called for anyone with medical experience to immediately come to the front of the plane and to my luck, there were three firefighter/EMTs on board heading to a forest fire in Arizona. They pulled me into the galley of the plane and knelt down beside me, quickly strapping an oxygen mask over my face. Although my body was retaliating for the extreme physical stress the g-force and pressure of the plane was putting on me, I mentally opened the file cabinet, pulled out the information that I had read explaining why I was feeling the way that I was, and forced myself to remain calm. Will power to the fullest.
Half-way into the three-hour flight, the steward asked me if I’d consent to an emergency landing in Chicago. As much as I wanted to get off of that torturous plane and have the comfort of knowing that medical attention would be waiting for me, I declined. I was going to make it through that flight to Minnesota one way or the other and I wasn’t going to put all of those people on board through that. I mean, who did they think I was? I was so delirious that the only crisp memory I recall about landing is being sandwiched between the first row of first-class and the wall in front of that because after all I’d endured, it wasn’t “safe” for me to go though descent and landing in the middle of the floor. HA. Protocols.
I can still recall the unbelievable sense of relief that washed over me when we touched down. This time, I had really done it. I flew. I was back on Earth in Minneapolis, an ambulance waiting for me, and Mayo Clinic and the fate of my health just a two-hour car ride away. I fucking did it.
Unless you’ve actually prayed to God or whatever higher power you believe in to spare your life, you can not fathom the terror that I experienced that day. Sorry to sound dramatic, but it’s true. This is actually the first time that I’ve shared my experience; something about it still so terrifying but empowering to re-live it
on solid ground. When you’re chronically ill, a term that I refused to acknowledge for a long period of time because I, Michele Shapiro, was not going to be chronically ill, you tend to see all of the negative changes that you’ve been forced to accept. You feel weak, betrayed by your own body, and beaten down day after day of the same issues. It is only when you truly take a hard look back at all of the shit that you’ve endured that you realize how strong you really are. After my two-week stint at Mayo, my parents looked up train tickets, renting a car to drive home, and any other possible means of travel short of walking (for the record, I totally would’ve been game), but do you know how I decided to go home? I flew.
I am resilient.