Survival is a word I hear a lot these days. With the pandemic, the social and political climate, we are all in survival mode. It is a tumultuous time we are now in. The social and political time we are living in and through is not the easiest, the health issues of the pandemic and the political views that go along with it are also not easy things to survive. Survival mode seems to be my new normal.
May 2, 2020, is a day I will never forget. I was not feeling well. I visited my primary care doctor because of severe pain in my mouth and jaw combined with a high fever. My doctor immediately sent me to Geisinger South Wilkes-Barre for a CT scan. After the scan, I came home and slept. I slept from about 11:00 am to about 6 pm. When I woke up I was in such severe pain I went to the Emergency Department. I was first screened in the outdoor tent at GWV and was being treated as a potential COVID-19 patient; however, there was something much more concerning that was causing a severe head and neck infection. The neck infection did not explain the amount of pain I was in or how sick I had become. Further testing revealed I was suffering from Ludwig’s angina, which is a type of bacterial infection that occurs on the floor of the mouth, under the tongue. It often develops from odontogenic sources and if not caught in time can be deadly. (I was told numerous times during my stay that had I not come into the emergency room when I did, it is very likely I would not be alive today.)
As Saif Abdulateef, DMD, Attending Physician of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery at Geisinger Wyoming Valley was finishing his shift, he volunteered to stay and care for me when he saw how sick I was. “She was thought to have had COVID because of her high temperature and a scan of her lungs showed some changes similar to that with COVID-19, but it was from the bacterial infection,” Dr. Abdulateef said. “She needed emergent surgery. The infection was so severe that she had become septic and needed to be intubated for airway protection. Ms. Prashker-Thomas was kept comfortable for 14 days in the Intensive Care Unit at GWV, with strong antibiotics to fight the infection.”
Dr. Abdulateef stated, “I took her to the OR three times in one week and our team rounded on her three times a day to make sure she was doing better.” Along with Dr. Abulateef, three of the OMFS residents, Dr. Mundiya, Dr. Pierre, and Dr. Nudell, tried to make me feel as comfortable as they could each and every day. There were days, especially after being extubated, that I would cry and they would try to comfort me as best as possible.
I lost about 14 days of my life because of fever, surgeries, and intubation. When I was finally able to speak and understand what was going on, Dr. Abdulateef and his team did everything to try to explain what happened because I had no recollection. All I knew was that I was missing teeth, my throat, mouth, neck, and head hurt, and I could not seem to form sentences. Well, one day I had had enough of the residents coming into my room and taking photos of my mouth, jaw, etc. and I somehow got out: “You’re using your camera wrong!!!” They did not understand what I was saying. I felt I was screaming in my head, but they could not hear me. I repeated myself. They kind of got it…I finally got out that I was a professional photographer, and they were using their camera wrong. That was how they engaged with me. They would come in and do rounds, take the mandatory photos, and ask me for “approval” of photos. It was a very tiny way for me to gain control over the situation since I had no control.
The ICU nurses and staff were beyond amazing. The ICU was divided into COVID-19 patients and non-COVID patients. The ICU staff made sure that I was always kept safe by having dedicated staff for non-COVID patients, closing my door before COVID patients were moved through the halls, and constant cleaning. It was scary to watch the COVID patients coming in on ventilators and in some cases, dying from the illness. Certain images haunt me every night even almost a year later from what I saw and at the time did not understand. I recollect the images of people being wheeled down the hallway on ventilators and then metal boxes being wheeled back down the same hallway. I knew what the metal boxes meant. I would say Kaddish to the best of my ability because I could not remember any other prayer. I still find it odd that out of everything I could remember, I remembered most of Kaddish.
The infection, intubation, and subsequent extubation made it difficult for me to speak and swallow. My cognitive processes changed as did my speech. It was difficult for me not understanding what was going on and being away from my husband, family, and friends for 20+ days. Because my husband could not be there with me, Dr. Abdulateef and his entire team, along with the ICU nurses became family to me. Dr. Abdulateef spoke with my husband twice a day EVERY day for the entire 20 days in the hospital, gave him updates, and checked on him as well to make sure he was ok. My husband would call the ICU nurses, just before every shift change, to get the overnight and daytime updates on me. The ICU nurses and secretaries never, NOT ONCE, ever made my husband feel as if he was a bother. They answered all of his questions and gave him more than just the standard update of “she is doing well” or “no change.” They went into detail daily because they all knew that family could not be there for the patient.
The endurance of all of the doctors and nurses is what got me physically through the hospital stay and after, but survival is where I am at. The prayer for prolonged illness says, “My G~d and G~d of all generations, in my great need I pour out my heart to You. The days and weeks of suffering are hard to endure. In my struggle, let me feel that You are near, a presence whose care enfolds me. Rouse in me the strength to overcome fear and anxiety, and brighten my spirit with the assurance of Your love.” Surviving every day through the world we are living in is not an easy feat. I wake up every single day grateful to see a new day but there are days where I want to more than endure and survive. I want to thrive. I have to keep reminding myself that there will be good days and bad. Ludwig’s Angina will not get the better of me or my mental state. Surviving and enduring now will lead me to thrive and continue to persist, persevere, carry on, and live!