So 2020 wasn’t my year. Amid a nationwide lockdown, I was rushed to the Makati Medical Center emergency room (ER). My breathing was labored. I couldn’t walk five steps without panting. I couldn’t even brush my teeth without gasping for air.
The ER security guard took one look at me—barely able to stand, heaving and wheezing as I clung to the railings—and immediately placed me on the “suspected COVID-19” list.
I was sent to a tent outside the ER where all the “suspects” were. As I was not feeling especially friendly, I refused to mingle with the suspects and mustered all my remaining strength to walk to the main entrance of the hospital, casually walked past security, and entered the ER from inside.
A medic team quickly sat me down in a wheelchair. I was panting, sweat oozing from every pore on my face, so much that my face shield turned foggy, like it needed its own wiper. The oximeter read 68.
“You were on the verge!” one of my (seven) doctors would later say, but the hospital couldn’t admit me right away. They were at full capacity and I needed to get a reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction test first. The MakatiMed website said that the closest swab test appointment was a month away and the result would take up to five days. Yep, those were medieval times in the COVID era, when a swab test felt like a novelty rather than a life-or-death necessity.
I would be dead before I could get a swab test. Fortunately, my cardiologist managed to bump my name to the top of the list so, finally, after waiting for five hours, a nurse wheeled me down a ramp to another floor. It was the old ER, which—I was later told—was transformed into a room for COVID-19 patients waiting for admission.
So the stubborn old me who refused to mingle with the suspects was now among the unquestionably, irrefutably confirmed COVID-19 positive patients! I would have fainted at the mere thought of it, but I was too spent to even black out.
It was early evening when I had my first swab test. Unknown to me at the time, it would be the first of a series of swab tests. The doctors strongly urged me to stay the night, pointing out my precarious condition. But I didn’t fancy spending a minute more among COVID-19 patients. I signed a waiver, got discharged, and staggered to the car where my nephew and sister-in-law had been waiting the entire day.
After 12 hours, my result came in: negative for COVID-19. The next day, MakatiMed called to say that a private room was available.
It took numerous tests before I was diagnosed with pulmonary embolism. My pulmonologist had suspected it all along but waited for lab results. After all, I wasn’t sedentary or immobile, or old.
Pulmonary embolism, sometimes called the killer clot, is a blood clot that usually forms in the leg. The clot travels to a lung artery and blocks blood flow. In many cases, like mine, multiple clots are wedged into the arteries.
The first few hours after the embolism occurs are the riskiest time for complications or death. I had been nursing mine for several days that my pragmatic doctor could not understand, scientifically, how I was still alive.
My scans did show how bad the situation was. My pulmo likened it to a tree with several branches. At least two massive clots blocked the arteries, plus multiple other clots were scattered all over.
It was so bad that one evening, my blood pressure dropped dangerously to the low 70s/60s. Three nurses, including a critical care registered nurse, and a resident doctor monitored progress. I was informed a room at the intensive care unit (ICU) was reserved for me. There was a pandemic, and the hospital was filled to capacity.
“If I show your scans to other pulmonologists, they will think it’s from a dead patient. That’s how lucky you are. Now it’s my job to keep you lucky,” my pulmo said.
My doctor said that according to science, I should have died twice over. Thankfully, science did not have the last word.
I am not prayerful. I was born a Catholic, raised a Born-Again Christian and grew up an atheist. After college, I became agnostic. But I have a family who fervently prayed for me, a family with unshakable faith in God.
I remember lying on the hospital bed, struggling to breathe just to stay alive, and thinking, “No, not today. Not in this room. No, my mom would be devastated. She already lost a daughter once.”
They never really got around to transferring me to the ICU. After the blood pressure drop episode, I woke up the next day, to the surprise of the medical team. Nobody expected me to see another sunrise. Most just die quietly in the night.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report says that 25 percent of pulmonary embolisms have only one symptom: sudden death. Up to 30 percent die within the first month.
If pulmonary embolism is caused by a clot formed in the legs, what caused those clots to form? In my case, cancer (that’s another story). Suddenly, it felt like 2020 would never end.
Since performing surgery on a pulmonary embolism patient like me would be fatal, my doctors proposed to have an IVC (inferior vena cava) filter inserted in my groin prior. Theoretically, this would deflect any clot from traveling to my heart that could cause a heart attack. There was no guarantee it would work 100 percent. I also had to undergo surgery for the cancer, which by itself was super high-risk that my surgeon, on the eve of the procedure, suggested that I write to my family.
For the next several months, way into 2021, MakatiMed became my second home. I was getting treatments and tests daily, weekly and every three weeks that some people thought I worked there. Wearing double masks became my norm.
For the record, I believe in God now. Without God, I would not be here writing this story. —CONTRIBUTED