Carpe diem, my new mantra

April 11, 2003

An unexpected illness changed this doctor's outlook on life.

 

Carpe diem, my new mantra

An unexpected illness changed this doctor's outlook on life.

By Rebekah M. Haggard, MD
Family Physician/Boise, ID

Anything that could've gone wrong did. My malpractice case reared its ugly head after no activity for a year. Our liability premiums nearly doubled, resulting in a huge pay cut. Our malpractice insurer announced it was leaving the state, raising the prospect that next year I could be without coverage and thus unemployed. The car didn't start, the dog was sick, the roof had a leak, and I couldn't even be a couch potato because the cable was down.

I was so stressed that every patient encounter had become an annoyance. I couldn't wait to get out of suburban Philadelphia (where I was in practice at the time), and crash on the warm, relaxing beach of St. Martin.

The day finally arrived! My friend and I took off on our much-needed vacation. As we left the ground, I locked all my problems in an underground vault with no access. Soon steel drums, warm breezes, and turquoise water consumed my senses. Daily decisions never got any more critical than whether to lie by the pool or at the beach. Whether to get into the water or turn over and go back to sleep. Where to eat dinner. I was managing to relax despite the mess I'd left in the vault.

By midweek I was surprised that the "stress" diarrhea that had started before I left was getting worse rather than better. I didn't feel ill, but trips to the bathroom were encroaching upon my tanning time. Then I noticed blood.

The morning before our late afternoon flight home, the bloody diarrhea was profuse. Then came chills and sweats. My friend and I agreed that I'd have to go straight to the ED once we got home.

Checkout took longer than expected, and the lines at the airport were endless. By then I could barely stand up.

Once settled in my plane seat, I quaked and sweated. Eventually I lost consciousness.

A doctor on board worked feverishly to start an IV line. My systolic pressure was barely there, and my extremities and lips were blue and cold. I remember trying to open my eyes and everything looking blurry. All I knew was that I hadn't made it home.

The physician told the pilot that if he didn't make an emergency landing, I wouldn't survive the flight. The plane was diverted to Bermuda where an ambulance met us on the runway. I was hauled off to a hospital.

What I had was infectious colitis. Once I was finally back home and feeling better, it was time to face reality and attend to that vault loaded with problems.

Upon re-examination, I realized they weren't really problems at all.

Lying unconscious on the floor of a plane at 30,000 feet—that's a problem. Nearly dying, never to see my family again—that's a problem. Not being around to hug my dog—that's a problem.

My experience was a wake-up call. I used to hate mornings. Now, when I awaken each day, it's a win! I am such a different person—actually cheerful before noon—that the office staff thinks I was abducted by aliens in the Bermuda Triangle.

I'm living every single moment. My family and friends are precious. Patient encounters are no longer a chore, but a privilege. The grass is greener, the sky bluer.

The malpractice case plods along, my paycheck sags, the crisis of finding a new liability carrier is unresolved, the dog is grumpy, and my car still doesn't start. But all that is beside the point because today, right now, I'm here.

 

Rebekah Haggard. Carpe diem, my new mantra. Medical Economics 2003;7:94.