It was a calm, blue-skied Wednesday in early September. As usual, I was late to my 10 AM recitation when I noticed a slight headache. I’m sure it’s not uncommon for Penn students to experience headaches, but I knew this one was different. When I have a headache, it’s usually dull and encompasses the entirety of the inside of my skull. This one, however, was localized on my right temple. It was worrisome and distracting enough for me to completely miss out what happened during class.
I was also worried because a few weeks before, I had been playing catch with my little brother. We were throwing a baseball and really enjoying how the leather of our gloves was popping. We got carried away, and ended up throwing the ball incredibly hard just to hear that popping sound. Eventually, I completely missed a ball, it went above my glove, and smacked me right in the center of the forehead. For some reason, nothing swelled and I felt fine a few minutes after. I hadn’t died in my sleep in the coming weeks, so I didn’t think anything was particularly wrong with me. However, the strange headache weeks later made me think of this episode.
After class, I went to lunch with my friends feeling completely out of it. They told me that I might just be dehydrated, so I drank a lot of water. That didn’t really help much. I went to class and felt awful, so I went back to my dorm and decided to take a nap. I was supposed to have dinner with friends and then lead a meeting, but I thought a short nap was going to make me feel better. Of course, I was wrong.
Waking up, I had the combined feelings of post-nap grogginess and feeling really out of it. It’s so hard to describe that “out of it” feeling, but it’s the sort of feeling that makes it feel really hard to get out of bed when you’re sick and function like a normal human being. Waking up and getting dressed felt like it took hours and I walked over to where the meeting was to be held. I was late and people were waiting, but they could tell that something was wrong with me. I had to cancel my meeting and instead of waiting to call Student Health in the morning, I made the decision that would change the fate of the rest of my semester: I decided to go to the HUP emergency room.
My friend Matt was a real bro and decided to accompany me. We made our way to the emergency room, I filled out the necessary paperwork, and we shot the shit for a long time. A really long time. A torturous amount of time. And this was just the waiting room. After we made our way into the actual emergency room, Matt and I witnessed things that go on in a big city trauma ward (it was down the hall), including injured drug addicts and hurt policemen and firefighters. It made my headache, completely gone at this time, seem completely trivial.
After being there for a while and running out of things to talk about, a doctor came over and said that based on how I described my symptoms, I could have bleeding in my brain. This once again confirmed my fear of dying in my sleep. The doctor told me that I needed a CT scan to make sure that none of the pipes in my skull were leaking. I ended up going through the machine and after another long while, the doctor told me that the machine found nothing. However, the machine can sometimes miss really small bleeds so I needed a lumbar puncture (also known as a spinal tap) to really make sure that I didn’t die in my sleep.
At this point, a sense of dread washed over me. I mean, you’d probably have a sense of dread if a doctor told you that he was going to put a needle through your spine to get the juices out. I hate the phrase “hindsight is 20/20,” but at this point, I honestly should have gone home. I was already worried about the cost of the CT scan and dreading needles in my spine (I am going to keep using that phrase so if it makes you uncomfortable, get used to it), but you know, it call comes back to that whole “fear of death” thing. I obliged to the spinal tap (Matt kept reassuring me that it was going to be fine), and I waited for the moment of truth. I was moved into my own ER hospital room (we had been in the hallway the whole time). Over the course of a week, a spinal tap became spinal taps.
The first needle was definitely the worst. A medical resident working in the ER was responsible for the injection. She was being overlooked by a doctor. I remember the guy specifically: he had a really deep and deadpan voice, much like H. Jon Benjamin, Sterling Archer’s voice actor. I had to take my shirt off and prepare for the injection and everything. I could feel the needle inside of me and things were going great until the needle hit a nerve. I’m sure that people reading this have experienced some sort of extreme pain, such as a broken bone or a broken heart, but a needle hitting a nerve definitely has to be one of the worst pains I’ve ever felt. The best way I could describe it is that I felt electricity shoot up from my spine into my stomach and then into my ribcage. My heart felt swollen and like it was going to explode out of my chest. The pain was so excruciating that I blacked out. I knew I had blacked out because when I came to, the good doctor woke me up by telling me in his deadpan voice, “Dude, you blacked out.”
I was only out for a few moments. The doctor went to go check on other patients and then returned for round 2. Instead of a medical resident, he was going to give the spinal tap himself. As soon as I felt the needle touching my skin, I had a panic attack. I remembered the excruciating pain from before, the room seemed uncomfortably hot, and I was definitely going to puke all over the place. The good doctor decided to give me a few moments to calm down before attempting another spinal tap. Matt and I shot the shit again. At this point, I think we whistled our favorite tunes so that the entire emergency room could hear.
At this point, I was calmed down. I honestly wanted to get out of the emergency room more than anything. I calmed down and waited for the doctor to come back. This time the needle went in and I waited for something to come out of my spine. As it was already one of those nights, nothing came out of my spine. The doctor thought he was doing something wrong, but I thought that I was a freak of nature. He left, and once again, Matt and I talked about movies and H.P. Lovecraft for some reason.
The good doctor brought another doctor with him this time. The second doctor had clearly been in the trauma ward, as he was gowned from head to toe and had a mask that covered most of his face. Both the doctors attempted to get fluids from my spine, but, as luck would have it, they failed. This was around 4 AM, and they said it’s not the easiest thing to get spinal fluid out (no shit), and that they would send a neurology team to do it in the morning. Around this time, my friend Matt left. Of course, I was very grateful for him.
At this point, I was alone in the HUP ER. My phone had died (I had no service inside the hospital anyway), I had no contact with the outside world, and I was alone in a cold, dark, and machine-like building 3,000 miles away from home. I did not sleep well that night.
I woke up the next morning expecting to get out of there as soon as possible. The neurology team did not arrive until about noon. Before that, I had plenty of fun filling out surveys for medical students. The team got the injection out of me the first time. I received the results in an hour: there was absolutely nothing wrong with my brain. I went off to have lunch with my friends and immediately began making jokes about my new adamantium skeleton.
I honestly want to say that my story ends here. That I managed to recover and become 100 percent over the weekend. Sadly, this was not the case. I tried to take the weekend easy, but then the headaches arrived. Apparently lumbar punctures can mess with the fluid in your brain. This made it so that I had a perpetual headache unless I was on my back. You can imagine how inconvenient this was for just about anything. Instead of going to HUP, I decided to call Student Health early in the week. I went over to Student Health, they were really nice, and they sent me to the Penn Pain Medicine Center.
Needle #6 (Final Needle)
Yes, the Penn Pain Medicine Center is a real name for a real place. I looked up the procedure for fixing the fluid levels in my brain: another injection in my spine. However, instead of taking fluid out of my spine, blood extracted from my wrist was injected into my spine. Yes, you read that correctly. Miraculously, I felt the pressure in my head begin to reach equilibrium within a few minutes. Although my back was sore for a few days and I had a mild headache for a few days, I eventually managed to recover. So that, folks, is how I became a human pincushion.
Mr. Andres Gonzalez, amateur comedian and writer. Hospital diagnosis: nothing. According to the tests, there was absolutely nothing wrong with him. If he had taken some Tylenol, none of this would have happened.. Prognosis: with rest and care, he’ll probably recover. But the cure to some nightmares is not to be found in known medical journals. You look for it under ‘potions for bad dreams,’ to be found in the Punch Bowl Zone.