How a Headache Saved My Life

(Photo: Unsplash)

(Photo: Unsplash)

I do not believe that luck exists, but sometimes I still get lucky. —Chuck Klosterman

It was two days before the start of classes for the new year, and I had a busy schedule. I was academic advisor for a group of first-year students who had just arrived on campus, and I had scheduled eight half-hour advising appointments in a row before lunch. Each student would appear one-by-one, and together we would decide which courses they would sign up for at the registration session the following day.

As I began my appointments, I noticed I had a headache. Coffee tends to make my headaches worse, so I switched to water. Unfortunately, this didn’t help. The pain kept getting stronger.

I still had several more appointments to go, but canceling them was out of the question. The students needed my signature on their registration forms, and there was no time left to make alternative arrangements. My head continued to pound, but I managed to get through the final appointment.

By this time I was barely able to function, so I abandoned my plans for the afternoon, drove home, and went directly to bed.

In the morning there was no change. I had managed to sleep through the night, but when I awoke, I still had a crushing headache. This had never happened before, and I was getting worried. There was a hospital just three blocks from my home, so I walked over to the emergency room.

Despite it being 10 AM on a Wednesday, the place was filled people. I would end up spending the entire day in the emergency department dressed in the indignity of a johnny and possessed of an unremitting headache.

*****

The explanation for my long visit was not merely the surprisingly busy world of the emergency room on a Wednesday morning. This was a teaching hospital, and after waiting an hour to be seen, it was quickly determined that I needed an LP: a lumbar puncture, or what is more commonly known as a spinal tap. The concern was that I might have meningitis and, in particular, the potentially fatal bacterial version. If the cerebrospinal fluid extracted in the LP was milky, indicating an elevated level of white blood cells, it would be a sign of bacterial meningitis.

A young medical intern was assigned to do my procedure, but before he could begin, an “LP kit” had to be located. The special needle, sterile drapes, antiseptic, and cotton swabs required for the procedure came in a prepackaged plastic tray, and someone was dispatched to find one. This process took another hour, as I lay on a gurney listening to the complaints of the other patients. Once a kit was found, the intern prepped my back with iodine and drapes, injected some lidocaine to numb the area, and jabbed me between the 4th and 5th lumbar vertebrae with the big LP needle.

He missed.

Somehow the intern managed to fail at the procedure, wasting the LP kit in the process. Furthermore, despite the local anesthetic, I felt several sharp pains. The intern had a brief conference with the resident physician; a search for a second LP kit was launched; and I resumed my role as eavesdropper on the world of the sick. Being a teacher myself, I was sympathetic to the goal of educating young doctors, but I was beginning to feel like I was making a costly sacrifice to the cause of medical training.

Unfortunately, what transpired over the next few hours was another failed effort by the intern, followed by a third lengthy search for an LP kit. Thankfully, the emergency room resident had reached his limit of patience after the second attempt and took over on the third. Sometime around 4 o’clock in the afternoon — six hours after I arrived at the emergency room — he raised a vial of crystal clear fluid and proclaimed me free of bacterial meningitis.

As harrowing as this experience was, I would not trade it for anything in the world. Meningitis saved my life.

I still had meningitis — but it was the less serious viral form. I was prescribed tylenol, and ordered to have a followup appointment with my own doctor. At the time, I had no regular physician, so before leaving I got a referral from the resident.

I spent the next days in a darkened room waiting for the pain to subside. Finally, on the following Tuesday, a week after it all started, the headache went away. I had missed the first few days of classes, but it was wonderful to be among the living again.

*****

As harrowing as this experience was, I would not trade it for anything in the world. Meningitis saved my life.

Ten days after my illness began, I appeared at my new doctor’s office for a followup appointment. All was well, and since I was there anyway, she offered to give me a physical. While examining me, she found an unusual mole in the middle of my back not far from the site of my lumbar puncture. It was a spot that would be very difficult for me to see.

My doctor sent me to a dermatologist, who cut out the mole and sent it to the lab. She called me a few days later to tell me the mole was malignant melanoma in situ. Melanoma is the most deadly form of skin cancer, but my life hung on the brief Latin phrase in situ, which means “in place.” Once melanoma grows deep enough, it can spread throughout the body. That mine was in situ meant that it appeared to be locally contained and shallow. I came in for a second appointment to allow the dermatologist to remove a wider margin of skin around the spot where the mole had been and was sent home with a good prognosis.

Thus began a life-long relationship with dermatologists. Once you’ve had melanoma, annual skin checks in the dermatologist’s office are recommended, but I prefer to go every six months. I have given my dermatologist carte blanche to cut off anything that looks suspicious, and so far all the tests have come back negative.

*****

When certain kinds of events happen, it is easy to imagine them turning out differently. They invite alternative story lines of what might have been. Psychologists and philosophers call this counterfactual thinking.

It is easy to create a counterfactual version of my melanoma story. If a virus had not made its way into the membranes surrounding my brain, I might not be alive today. I could not see the mole on my back, and without my meningitis episode, it might not have been detected until it was too late. This counterfactual is particularly salient because it represents the more common pattern of events. Meningitis is rare. Most people never get it. As a result, it is easy to imagine a scenario with no meningitis, delayed detection of the melanoma, and eventual death from cancer.

Counterfactual thoughts often produce emotions. The person who makes a costly mistake is more likely to experience regret if they can easily imagine having done something different. In my case, I am filled with a sense of awe and gratitude. Some might see the hand of God at work in this story. Others may simply see a lucky roll of the dice. However it came about, it reminds me of the fragility of life, of the great gift of good health, and of the many people who have not been so fortunate.

Stuart Vyse is a psychologist and the author Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition and Going Broke: Why Americans Can’t Hold On To Their Money.

How a Headache Saved My Life