An ER visit and two birthday surprises in 50 hours… in the week of my golden birthday.
By Dulce Zamora
A few days before my 50th birthday, I woke up in an austere Singapore hospital ward, wondering how long I had left to live. The sticky rice muffin on my breakfast plate felt like glue sliding down my esophagus. The sweet soy-infused radish and the watery chili sauce didn’t make it go down any easier, nor did the cup of room-temperature Milo. Actually, nothing about the meal was bad. It was standard hospital fare. Yet, I had to eat it before taking my prescribed medicine: chalky aspirin.
Around midnight on a Friday, I had rushed to the emergency room with signs of a stroke. I was dizzy, nauseous, and hot without a fever. My whole mouth was numb, and my left leg felt little flush. I wondered whether I imagined it.
Two of my cousins had a stroke recently. I feared that my genes, and the bad habits that I picked up during the pandemic made me susceptible: I ate too much ice cream. I stopped working out. I read way too much news and got really depressed about the state of the world. I also worried about sick loved ones overseas, and felt guilty that I couldn’t physically be there for them.
My husband, Noel, and I had also been arguing about things we fought about for years. Bottom line, both of us didn’t feel appreciated by the other. In pre-pandemic times, he’d travel for work a lot, so there was some reprieve between arguments — or, rather, the issues got buried in the busy-ness of life. This past year was the first time he hadn’t made a single business trip since I’d known him. We now both worked from home. There were times the tension was so thick, it felt suffocating.
While I was in the hospital, I had no doubt stress and the lack of sleep that came with it contributed to my sickness. Then, I thought about how my medical condition could stress out my kids and add to an already challenging year. I tried so hard to create a safe space for them at home. The thought of adding to my children’s emotional burden opened up a spigot of tears that took me a good while to turn off.
The ER staff did all sorts of tests, including bloodwork, EKG, and an MRI of my brain. While waiting for the results, I texted with Noel. He remained at home with our sleeping daughters. It may seem strange that he was not with me, but it was a bit late to call friends, especially since I didn’t really know what I had. Because of pandemic restrictions, only one person was allowed to accompany a patient at the emergency room, but Noel wouldn’t be able to stay in the hospital ward with me anyway — not until daylight visiting hours. Instead, in between tests, I briefed him on the kids’ online and offline extracurricular activities for the following day. I also cancelled a virtual birthday party we were supposed to attend, and rescheduled time with my writing coach. I kept my sister, who’s living in the US, informed of my progress. I attempted some naps, but they were always interrupted by blood pressure checks or noises coming from the busy, but orderly ward.
Finally, some time between 9 and 10 in the morning, all of the results came in. Everything was fine. Even my symptoms disappeared. One doctor asked me if I had ever had MSG overload before (because apparently the symptoms were similar). That was before he knew I had Chinese food for dinner from a place we had tried for the first time. Another doctor wondered whether some of my symptoms were signs of getting older. He said, “You know, at age 50, your body is changing.”
Another doctor said my normal results didn’t necessarily rule out a stroke, so she scheduled a neurologist appointment for me on the next business day (Monday).
I was itching to go home, but it took another two hours of checks before I could be discharged.
When I got home in a taxi around noon, Noel and the kids were about to leave for theatre rehearsal. The girls asked, “What happened, Mommy?”
“I didn’t feel well last night so I went to the ER,” I said. “Maybe I had a food allergy, but I’m fine now.”
I knew the girls would understand allergic reactions, because they’d had their share of such ER and doctor visits.
“Don’t forget we have dinner plans with my boss tonight,” Noel said as they headed out the door. “It’s her birthday.”
“Really? I just want to shower and go to sleep,” I said.
“The kids have a surprise for your birthday too, ” he whispered, with his back to the girls who were already in the car. “Take a nap. I’ll text you the address.”
I sighed and nodded, thinking his boss might be disappointed if I didn’t show up for her birthday.
I did feel better after a nap, so I met them at the location Noel indicated. It was an Italian restaurant called Zafferano with a fantastic view of Marina Bay. We entered a private room surrounded by lofty, glass-encased wine fridges. There, my family and four of my girl friends said, “Surprise!”
I knew Noel and the girls had planned something for my birthday, but I didn’t foresee a reunion with friends, especially during the pandemic. To make the reunion happen, Noel organized a Zoom call with the other ladies in our circle that were located elsewhere in the world. Two of them were in Australia (Sydney and Melbourne), and the other two were in the U.S. (Miami and the New Jersey Shore). These were the ladies I had met at prenatal yoga class and baby care class. After our little ones were born, we met often for music class, swim class, play dates, birthday parties, and holidays. We called ourselves the Rogue Mums group. Our families did everything together. We were like family. But, then, our children entered different schools with different schedules and calendars. Some of us moved out of the country. We all got busy with our lives. Over the years, we saw each other — sometimes individually and sometimes in small groups — but we hadn’t all been together for nearly a decade… until that night. It filled my heart to connect as a group again.
Eight of us wined and dined on Italian fare while four others checked in online. The limit for gatherings in Singapore is 8 people.
Virtual party guests checked in: It was hot in Miami. There was snow at the New Jersey Shore. It was a beautiful, almost-autumn day in Melbourne and Sydney. Singapore was surprisingly cool and breezy.It wasn’t lost on me that, just that morning, I wondered how long I had left on Earth, and, by evening, I thought about how much there was still left to truly live. Fifty years old sounded ancient, but it was also the beginning of what I hoped to be the next half century of my life.
I could end the story here, but then you wouldn’t hear about the birthday surprise that Noel organized for me the next night. He and the kids brought me to The Summerhouse at Seletar for a surprise private dinner inside an air-conditioned dome.
“Nice to see you are both still in love with each other after all these years,” said the restaurant manager. She hadn’t met us before. We observed from the clientele that she worked a lot with young couples. That night, we witnessed at least three marriage proposals at the venue.
Then, she directed her attention at me. “He’s such a romantic,” she said. “He worked hard to put this dinner together for you.”
“I’m very lucky,” I said. Noel and I gave each other a knowing smile.
When she walked away, he said, “People probably wouldn’t believe it if we told them we’d been arguing a lot,” he said. “During our fighting, I was in the middle of planning your birthday surprise. I thought, ‘I can’t believe she doesn’t think I love her.'”
It struck me that he hadn’t told me he loved me in a long time. Sometimes, it’s nice to be reminded. I thanked him for all the birthday love.
I went to the neurologist the following day. After an extensive interview and a review of my test results, he said, “I am confident you did not have a stroke,” he said. “It’s possible you had a food allergy, but that’s hard to prove.”
“There’s something else,” he said looking down at his desk while fiddling with a pen. I leaned in to listen.
“You’re turning 50 in a few days, and it’s truly a milestone year,” he said slowly “Along with that could mean some changes, like with your hormones.”
I smiled, relieved. “Yes, I know.”
“Go see your gynecologist,” he said. “Get your hormones checked.”
I’m not going to discuss my fears of getting older right now. That’s for another blog entry. For now, I am extremely grateful to have a new lease on life. At 50, I did not have a stroke! I am alive and well. I know I am loved. The ER visit and my birthday celebrations reminded me that life is fragile. There are no guarantees. So, here’s some self-prescribed advice. Maybe you could use it, too.
Take care of yourself. Eat well. Sleep well. Alleviate the stress. And don’t forget to tell people how much you love them.
© 2021 Windswept Wildflower