I entered a Family Court courtroom yesterday filled with apprehension. My anxiety arose because of a snippy exchange that I had with one of the attorneys involved in the case which had been entirely due to my using careless language in an e-mail with her. Admittedly, she had bristled rather intensely in proportion to my statement, but still, I understood her reaction. I had apologized; however, she had pointedly not forgiven me.
The presence of a judge rotated from across the street in Circuit Court eased my tension. He greeted me with warmth. He’s one of my favorites and I instantly felt the chilly air of the courtroom increase in temperature. The attorney glared at me but the restorative work had already settled into my wonky heart and eased its rhythm.
The judge said, I heard you were wearing a heart monitor, Ms. Corley, and I cautioned that it might occasionally beep. He asked if I were feeling better and I admitted that I was, thanks to a strong dose of antibiotics. Then I said, But wait, it’s February 17th, 2017, right? He nodded. So, nineteen years ago this week, a doctor gave me six months to live. So I guess you could say that I’m happy to have beaten the odds.
I did not exaggerate.
I can see the doctor’s face so clearly. The years fall away. I sit, alone, on the sad side of the desk in his office. He’s slouched in a large leather chair. With florid skin, blonde hair, piercing eyes, he’s oozing arrogance and an attempt to charm me. It’s not personal. I’ve seen him do it with the nurses and other doctors. He just does that. He ropes people into his spell. It seems to satisfy him.
He repeated his prognosis. I’d give you maybe six months. Maybe. He shifted his body inside his tailored lab coat and emphasized the possibility, making clear that it could be six weeks or a day. Maybe longer. But.
I felt my eyebrows draw together and my cheek twitch. But why? A twinge in my gut foretold the reawakening of a dormant bleeding ulcer. Why am I sick? Why am I going to die?
He shrugged. From what the neuro doc told me, he’s always assumed your body would wear out. I can’t find a cause for your fatigue, your aphasic episodes, and your breathing issues. You are not responding to anything we do. Between us, we think your body has just reached its natural limit. It can’t keep up like this. It’s tired. He looked at me accusingly. I almost apologized for expecting too much of my body.
But my son, I began. My law practice. My mortgage. My son, Patrick, then just six years old. No daddy waiting in the wings; I won’t speak ill of his father but suffice it to say, that Auntie Mona or Aunt Penny would be the ones to take my child. Or one of my siblings — Ann or Frank, possibly. Joyce, certainly. Any of those folks would raise him as their own. Eventually, he might forget his dying mother and the days she spent lying on the couch confused, exhausted, uncertain.
A few days later, another episode sent me to the hospital. Brief black-outs followed by near-collapses. In a bed at St. Luke’s Hospital, I listlessly played with the oxygen line that led to the breathing machine. Your lungs just can’t do their work any more, said the doctor, shaking his handsome head. Have you made any arrangements?
Arrangements. What might those be? Always lousy with money, ever in debt, never able to work those long lawyer hours that bring a house in the suburbs and a new car every other year. Not pretty enough for a husband who’d stand by me through thick and thin. A wobbly walker with a bad attitude towards anything or anyone that threatened her child. No, I forgot to make arrangements. I did not live the Cinderella life at either end — I didn’t sweep the hearth with diligence, nor fall into the arms of everlasting happiness.
That was on Valentine’s Day, 1998. A lawyer in Texas sent roses with a Get Well card. I dropped the card and it slid to the floor, where no doubt a cleaning person eventually found it and discarded it in her trash barrel.
In the morning, machines beeped and patient attendants rattled bed pans and breakfast trays. Whichever friend had taken Patrick for the night brought him for a visit. Later in the week, they released me and I drove myself home.
When did the tide turn? That March? The next year? I don’t remember. But I lay in another bed in the same hospital and a radiant angel in a lab coat with Joseph Brewer, M.D. embroidered on the left breast above a pocketful of pens came into the room and saved me.
Mrs. Corley, he chortled. I saw your name on the admission list and thought, ‘Didn’t I have a patient named Corinne Corley a few years ago?'” He shook my hand. You look terrible! he said. I thanked him with a rueful smile. What happened to you?
What happened. Good question. I began my tale starting with the first collapse, going through the neuro doc’s opinion, the pulmonology tests, the cardiac exams. Halfway through an account of 1998, Dr. Brewer’s head starting shaking. He stopped me at “six months to live”.
No, no, no. His voice held anger. He sat down beside my bed in the plastic chair provided for my visitors. He clasped one of my hands in both of his. You might die but only from not being given the proper treatment, he told me. You’re not wearing out. You’re hypercoagulable.
Joe Brewer had been the one to tell me, with lab results to validate his theories, that my condition likely stemmed from a viral encephalitis in infancy. He took the story of three Corley girls being sick at the same time and everything that had happened to me since, and sent me to the lab for testing. That had been in 1988, but I had not seen him since his diagnosis of me. The virus, HHV-6, had just been identified when I first met Joe Brewer. In the intervening decade, a lot had been learned, he explained.
One fascinating effect of reactivated HHV-6 involved a change in the clotting time of blood. Patients with reactivated HHV-6 developed a proclivity for fast clotting time, causing a hypercoagulable state. If untreated, patients did not get adequate oxygen to vital organs — lungs, heart, brain, extremities. Joe Brewer raised my hand into the light and showed me the flaky skin on my fingertips. Your toes are like this too, he guessed. I nodded. Always. He flashed a genuinely pleased smile. And you pass out from time to time? Yes. And you can’t breathe? Yes.
At that moment, the pulmonoligst came into the room. What’s going on? he snapped. Joe Brewer stood. The pulmonologist said, What are you doing with my patient? Dr. Brewer explained that I had once been his patient and that he had come to visit me. I lay in my bed, tired, but with a kernel of hope growing in my breast. The two of them argued for a few minutes. Dr. Brewer tried to explain his theory. The pulmonologist wanted nothing to do with it. His voice grew louder and louder, until a nurse came from the hallway to investigate. She stood helpless as the doctor on my right practically yelled at the doctor on my left, demanding that he get out of the room.
Finally I had had enough. You, sir, I said, pointing to the red-faced pulmonologist. You think I am dying. I pointed to Joe Brewer. He thinks he can save me. Good God, why not let him try?
Because he’s a quack, the doctor snapped. Dr. Brewer said nothing.
Maybe so, I replied. But what can it hurt, a little Heparin? Will it kill me? According to you, I’m dying anyway. I’ll take my chances.
He stomped out of the room. A commotion ensued at the nurse’s desk. In those days of paperwork without computers, I was discharged from the first doctor’s care and re-admitted as a patient of Dr. Joseph Brewer, infectious disease specialist. He started me on IV Heparin. I went home several days later, after getting lessons on pinching skin to administer shots of blood-thinner. It would be weeks before I could work full-time, but eventually, the pink returned to my cheeks and my breathing eased.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Except for one note: That pulmonologist dropped dead of a cardiac arrest several months after the altercation over my hospital bed. I read his obituary with sorrow. Two teen-aged sons. A wife. A host of loved ones left to mourn him.
And one former patient, alive, wondering whose future had actually been foretold when he looked into the reflective blue of my eyes.