Knock, Knock.

Yosemite 2013

The most awful feeling settled into the deepest recesses of my bones the moment it happened. The dialysis nurse held open his hand to show me the broken pieces. The connecting end of the catheter was broken. It was a Friday in December, a few weeks after the stem cell treatment in Florida.

I had finally fully recovered. My little wounds had healed. Light pink scars remained. I was looking forward to the unfolding results over the next few months.

Now I found myself freaking out inside. I had a bad intuitive feeling. A very bad feeling. I called the radiology center to schedule to have the catheter replaced immediately. The soonest I could get in was Monday.

As if declaring a prediction, the doctor said to me as I lie on the operating table, “everyone gets an infection when these are replaced”. More dread crept into my mind.

A few days later, and I wasn’t feeling well. I wasn’t feeling well at all. I knew I was going to end up in the hospital. I knew I would be in for a while. It wasn’t going to be a quick trip, or a pleasant one.

My mother was on her way. On Sunday morning I couldn’t stand because the pain in my feet was beyond excruciating. My neck was swollen on one side. The pain in my upper back was unbearable. Almost a 104 degree temperature made me delirious. My mother gathered some of my things, as I dialed 9-1-1. I needed help getting down the stairs and to the hospital.

Knock, knock. Death was at my door again. This time it was serious. This time I saw grave concern (yes, pun intended) on the faces of those around me. This time my family was worried. I had septicemia, and blood clots had closed off my jugular vein. SERIOUS!!

That broken catheter connector normally served as a barrier to bacteria. They’d gotten in. Exchanging the catheter pulled them further into my body, and straight into my heart. Straight into my bloodstream. Cultures were brewing at the hospital lab. Fingers were crossed that it wasn’t MRSA. Antibiotics coursed through my body non-stop through an I.V. line. It would take days to determine the exact bacterial strain.

Heparin pumped constantly through another I.V. line to dissolve the clots. While in the ICU, I watched my right arm swell to three times normal size. The clots were in that arm as well. Any one of them could travel to my lungs or brain, and my life would be over in an instant.

“Are you in pain? Would you like any pain medicine? You can have whatever you like for pain.” Nurses repeated these phrases and questions often. I thought to myself, “WOW, they’re being so nice to me.” I learned much later that no one thought I would make it. They were making me as comfortable as possible for my final days.

I knew it wasn’t my time to go. I knew I would survive. Not for one moment did I feel or think otherwise. I knew it would be hard, and take time. Even as day three passed, and the cultures indicated that the antibiotics weren’t working. The bacteria were multiplying even faster.

My mom’s eyes were always red-rimmed, as she faced the alarming possibility of losing her first-born and only daughter. My brother’s techie tendencies distracted me, while he donned a blue sterile suit and examined the backside of the digital screen hanging in the ICU. We waited, and I continued to breathe. My heart continued to beat. My body battled.

Part I: Harvesting

Almost a month has passed, and I still think it’s the craziest thing I’ve ever done. I have no regrets, but it definitely is not for the faint of heart. Although I’d asked all the right questions, the experience of having my adipose stem cells harvested from my abdomen was not quite what I expected. The doctor was excellent, but it was still overwhelming and incredibly intense. As I watched him lower the scalpel, I thought “What am I doing? This is insane”.

Yes, you have it right. I was awake during the procedure. I could see the surgeon and the nurse the whole time. I could see the different equipment and instruments being used. While on the surgical table, I felt the prick of the needle on each side of my abdomen. The initial incisions were made, and more local anesthetic was pumped in. After waiting for the anesthetic to take effect special instruments were used to collect the stem cells.

It sounds simple enough, but what does this really mean? Exactly what happens?

I will tell you. Surgical instruments are inserted between the skin and muscle along the width of the abdomen via the small incision sites. Anesthetic fluid is pumped in slowly to help numb the area inside and separate the skin from the muscle and fat. More instruments are used to suck out the tissue, which contains the valuable stem cells. Occasionally there was a little bit of pain, as the cannulas hit a sensitive area. Imagine poking a small hole in a cantaloupe, and then scraping out some of the fruit without disrupting the seeds, over and over. Adipose stem cell harvesting is like that. It feels like that.

I have been a thin person almost all of my life. It felt unpleasant, this scraping. It was a sensation unlike anything else. On a person with more body fat the sensation might be different or less pronounced. After an hour it was finally over. I was relieved to be done, since I’d reached my limit mentally and emotionally. The surgeon had done his best to collect as much as possible, considering I didn’t have a lot to work with. My life-saving stem cells were whisked off to the lab.

A few stitches on each side, gauze, bandages, and a compression bandage around my abdomen. The hard part was done. I got up after a few minutes, and joined my mother in the waiting room, while my stem cells were being prepared for re-entry. I was exhausted and mentally wiped out. I wasn’t in any pain, and it would take many hours for the numbness to dissipate.

"All done."

“All done.”

Now what? I’d made other requests before deciding to fly to Florida for this vital stem cell treatment. Would they be fulfilled?

Time To Go

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEighteen hundred years old, and towering above me, the Grizzly Giant was a living reminder of resilience, strength, and vitality. Walking among the amazing sequoias, and seeing their ability to survive and regenerate after the damage of ravaging fires, inspired me. I savored the aromas of the forest, the fading chill of Winter, and the calls of the winged creatures flying above.

We arrived in the dark the night before. And it was freezing outside the comforts of my heated car. Thirty-one degrees to be exact. Someone had left a window open in the room, significantly diminishing the effectiveness of the old-fashioned radiator. Clothed in multiple layers, we huddled together for warmth in the small double bed. I didn’t sleep well that first night, but I was still excited to start the day’s adventures.

Last year I couldn’t have gone. I was still battling ongoing episodes of inflammation of my kidneys, which would land me in the hospital every few months. But this year, this year is different. All the infectious bacteria that caused my kidney failure have been found and eliminated. Throughout the winter I saw gradual changes in my lab tests, celebrated another birthday with friends, and began to return to my work helping others. I am healing. I am so much stronger and healthier. My blood pressure has been normalizing, along with more test results, and the stem cells are continuing to do their work.

It was time to go. Time to be near the giant trees, the melting snow, the massive walls of granite. For more than a decade I had wanted to see it, and now I would not be delayed. It meant missing a dialysis treatment, but I wasn’t worried. All life involves risk, and I knew my body could do it. I only wished that I was already in better hiking shape, and that I could stay longer to explore more.

As a chunk of ice floated down the river, I watched Spring unfolding. The deafening cascade of Yosemite Falls, the highest waterfall in North America, thrilled me as I drew closer. Looking up from its base, I yearned to hike to the upper section. But my body wasn’t quite ready yet to make the long trek. Mirror Lake, the meadows of the Valley, and the views of El Capitan and Half Dome all held endless wonders. It’s no surprise that John Muir and Ansel Adams were captivated. I’ve come a long way since being in the Intensive Care Unit a year and a half ago, and I’ll be hiking again in the Sierras in the near future.

The pictures don’t do it justice. They don’t convey the beauty and vastness of Yosemite National Park. Some people might believe that you can experience something or someplace by watching it on television, in the movies, or on the internet. You can’t. How will you know what it feels like to have the mist of Bridalveil Falls dampening your hair and skin? How will you feel the roaring thunder of the water in the depth of your Being as you draw closer, or smell the richness of the forest as you wander past mule deer?

Sometimes places call to me. Beckon me. And, often, daily demands have led me to ignore the callings of my Spirit. Work, family, relationships, bills, and responsibilities. Seeing death approach so closely has changed me forever. Now I listen to my Inner Voice. Now I heed the places that call to me. Now I embrace my independence, my fierceness, my uniqueness. Every day my kidneys heal more. Every day I get closer to coming off dialysis. Every day is one more step forward.

With the onset of Spring, I feel a restlessness in my bones. Spring is a time of life, renewal and rebirth. I can sense it within myself as well. This year, this Spring, I can go to the places that are calling to me. The places within and beyond. And, I am deeply grateful.