What does self-care look like for a mom? I know magazines and social media make self-care look like a day reading a novel on the beach, or an afternoon watching Hallmark Channel movies. But for me, on a beautiful spring day in 2015, self-care looked like accepting the need for medical treatment so I wouldn’t die.
I had made it through that winter without getting sick, which is basically a miracle when you’re a mom of two young children, and I was happy, at peace, and feeling good!
Then I started feeling… not so good. I figured it was allergies, or even a cold catching up to me after a healthy winter. I ignored it, as most moms with young kids tend to ignore anything less than a full-on medical emergency, and pushed on, taking some vitamin C and ibuprofen. I remember thinking “just my luck” and being annoyed at the nuisance of feeling lousy during a busy week that included Easter and my husband’s birthday.
Within 72 hours of grudgingly climbing into bed immediately after dinner because I was too exhausted to stay up any longer, I was in the back of an ambulance headed for the hospital. What happened? The hours in between are a blur of memories: My little boys standing by the bed asking if I felt like playing, my husband checking on me to see if I needed anything, and me saying, “I’m OK. I just need more sleep.”
But it turned out I didn’t need more sleep. I needed emergency medical care. In addition to having pneumonia, I was in septic shock, a condition where the toxins from infection trigger a full-body inflammatory response. My kidneys were failing and my blood pressure and electrolytes were dangerously low. I was, quite literally, dying. And I didn’t even know it.
Riding in the back of an ambulance, feeling every bump and turn, my few coherent thoughts ricocheted from, “This is silly. I’m not that sick,” to, “Oh my God, what have I done?” I had a birthday cake to bake and Easter baskets to build. I had responsibilities and deadlines. I didn’t have time for this. It’s funny now, in a morbid sort of way.
It wasn’t until after I had spent 12 hours in the emergency room and was finally moved to a bed in the intensive care unit that I learned the severity of my condition. The diagnosis of septic shock and severe sepsis didn’t really set off any warning bells for me. I had heard the terms only while watching TV shows like ”Grey’s Anatomy.” I had some vague sense that my condition was a serious one, but I was too foggy-brained to consider what that meant in real life, to my life.
Sepsis, I learned, is the body’s dangerous and life-threatening response to an infection. My body was shutting down due to severe infection. I experienced everything that was happening to me in a haze — the three IVs in the ER, the move to the brightly-lit and extremely well-staffed ICU, the cavalcade of doctors and nurses who came in and out of my room. It felt like I was watching it all from a distance. This wasn’t happening to me. It was just a dream. I’d sleep for a few hours and wake up refreshed.
Later, the consensus of the doctors would be that I had rapidly progressed from norovirus to pneumonia to sepsis. The mortality rate for severe sepsis is around 50%. Fifty percent.
Nearly everything I learned about sepsis came after the ER and ICU, when I was finally able to keep food down and sit up on my own, when I was starting to feel like myself again. When I was no longer in danger of dying. One of the many doctors I saw during my week-long stay in the hospital told me, “If you’d waited even 12 more hours, you’d likely be dead.”
If my husband hadn’t forced me to go to the doctor, I would likely have gone into cardiac arrest and died. I was lucky to be alive. It was a refrain repeated again and again. I had come thisclose to dying. More than four years after the fact, it’s still a difficult thought to process.
How did it even happen? We’ll never know. At one of my follow-up appointments, I asked my primary care physician what I could have done to prevent it. She smiled gently and said, “You could have come to me sooner.”
I had nearly died of sepsis, yes, but the sepsis had been a response to infection and the infection had been a response to… a lack of self-care. Maybe that’s too simplistic, but that’s how it felt.
Before my trip to the hospital, I had a three-day rule for illness: If, after three days of rest and fluids, I still wasn’t feeling better, I’d go to urgent care or call my doctor. That Monday, I had started really feeling like I was sick; on Tuesday it had been body aches and chills. On Wednesday, it was vomiting and diarrhea. By Thursday, I was in the emergency room, dying. My three-day rule, a practical attempt at self-care, had failed me.
Recovering from sepsis takes time. While I had “recovered” at a surprising rate once I received medical care and was able to go home after a week, the real recovery was in the months that followed. My energy level was the lowest I’ve ever experienced in my life. Basic chores were exhausting. And I still had two little boys who needed my care and a husband whose Navy and school schedules had been as accommodating as they could be while I was in the hospital.
Once I was home, my responsibilities and routines resumed—but I was far from better. And my feeble attempts at self-care had to take a backseat to caring for my kids and maintaining some sense of normalcy for them.
In the weeks following my discharge from the hospital, I joked that I’d always thought a near-death experience was supposed to bring a life-changing epiphany — but that didn’t happen for me. There was no a-ha! moment of self-awareness, no sense that I should be doing something different with my life. My life was exactly as I wanted it to be, I had everything I wanted. Nearly dying of sepsis became a Very Bad Thing that happened to me in a year that was filled with good things. What did it all mean? What was I supposed to learn?
I want to be able to say that I learned to take better care of myself, but nearly dying didn’t relieve me of the responsibilities of motherhood. Even though my husband was hyper-vigilant in the months that followed my illness, wary of every cough or ache, I soon returned to complacency and the belief that I’ll be OK — because I have to be OK. For my family.
“I don’t have time to be sick,” I joked breathlessly from the ICU bed, my body connected to wires and tubes, monitors beeping steadily behind me. I said it, not just to ward off the sudden terror of knowing I almost died, but as a reflex to every encouragement I’ve ever received to slow down, get some rest, take better care of myself. Self-care wasn’t something I took seriously before my ambulance ride to the ER — and it’s still not something I’m very good at. Taking care of myself feels frivolous, an indulgence I do not have time to accommodate. Yes, even now.
It’s hard to overcome something so ingrained, so I’m both proud of myself and slightly embarrassed when I do. I recognize that my belief stems from unfair burdens placed on women and mothers, from the lessons of my own mother, who saw anything less than maternal martyrdom as parental neglect, and from my own compelling need to be fully self-sufficient and strong, always. But I also know I’m not doing myself, or my children, any favors by being this way.
And maybe that’s why, two years later, I took myself to urgent care as soon as I recognized the tell-tale symptoms and told those attending to me that I thought I had pneumonia. I felt validated when the X-rays confirmed what I sensed, but I was also annoyed that I had to rearrange my schedule to deal with my own inconvenient illness.
In my case, self-care isn’t spa days and Netflix binge-watching, it’s accepting that my routines and deadlines and expectations — both external and self-imposed — must sometimes be put aside in service to my own health. It’s a lesson one would think I learned from nearly dying, but it’s one I keep having to re-learn.