Human Frailty and Earthly Madness: Reflections on an ER Visit

Life can change in a split second—and often through everyday, mundane activities. That happened to me last week while in the midst of eating dinner, I started choking on a fishbone that got lodged in my throat. It was around 6pm, and I was at the ER by 7pm. I know that going to the ER is no one’s favorite activity, but for me, it’s especially and particularly difficult for a couple of reasons.

One, I’ve been quarantined for the most part for the past two years due to my chronic health issues and concerns over how I would fare with COVID, and going to the ER runs a bit counter to that endeavor. Two, the primary issue with my ongoing chronic mystery illness is what has been not-so-eloquently named Myalgic Encephalomyelitis. Or, if you prefer a simpler but far more irritating name, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (which is irritating because of how poorly the name matches the actual experience of it).

The reason that number two is such a big deal is that I am usually winding down by 8pm every night and going to sleep by 9pm. For years. This is my rhythm. This is how I manage to function during the day enough to work a full-time job from home. Staying up past 9pm for me, the best I can describe it, would be like someone waking up a healthy person at 3am by dumping water on them and making them go run three miles. That’s what it feels like.

Of course, it was an unusually busy night at the ER. One woman with her ill daughter, I overheard, waited five hours in the waiting room before she was brought back. And I got there at 7pm. I didn’t know how I was going to make it until the wee hours, but I also knew that choking to death on a fishbone lodged in my throat wasn’t going to work either, so there I sat. For hours. Way past my bedtime.

I think a fair portion of what’s dysfunctional in me is my nervous system, which under severe stress like I was that night will start doing something crazy. My legs start shaking and flopping around out of control. That hasn’t happened in a long time, but that night was quite the show in that regard. Thankfully, though, not until I was brought into a room, though it would have entertained everyone in the lobby, I’m sure.

As I sat there undistracted by my phone (which was almost out of battery and I couldn’t use it), I thought. A lot. For four hours. And then some more. And here’s what I thought about:

1. We as humans are so much weaker than we like to think we are.

It’s kind of ridiculous to think that something that was as thin as a thread and as short as my fingernail could potentially end my life. I’m a lot bigger than a fishbone. But as amazing and adaptive and wonderful a creation as the human body is—as much as it can overcome amazing adversities and odds—it is also still very weak and fragile. It really is only the sovereignty of God as He breathes life into our lungs that gets us through fifteen seconds of one minute of one hour of one day.

2. We as humans are so much more impotent and ignorant than we like to think we are.

I know that there are skilled, wise, compassionate medical professionals out there, but those aren’t the ones I tend to end up with. After four hours, a CT scan, and what I’m sure will be thousands of dollars billed to my insurance company, they really couldn’t do anything other than tell me that it wasn’t going to kill me or obstruct my airway, and that I’d have to go see an ENT because they don’t have the nasopharyngeal scope in the ER. Seriously? That’s another story, but the point is, as much as we have discovered about the human body over thousands of years—and to be sure, many of those discoveries have been amazing, lifesaving, life-advancing discoveries—anyone who is chronically ill or has a mystery illness can easily tell you that for every one thing that medical science knows or has discovered, there’s probably a thousand things they don’t know or have yet to discover. It really is only the omnipotent, omniscient God who comprehensively understands the human bodies and earth that He has made.

3. Life in this world often doesn’t play by the rules.

Among other ideas for my memoir title, I think An Ecclesiastes Girl in a Proverbs World sums up what I feel like a lot of the time. Things just don’t seem to ever go right or according to plan. And sometimes, it just seems flat-out unfair. I try to steward my health by eating salmon, and a stupid little bone gets stuck in my throat and compromises my ability to speak, eat, drink, lay down, and breathe. The ER staff kept affirming that I was a higher priority, yet I kept seeing people who came after me get taken back before me. People who could talk, eat, drink, and weren’t choking. The guy who came in wearing no shirt who burned his stomach frying chicken strips (ostensibly with his shirt off at the time as well, or else I don’t know how he would have burned his stomach) got taken back immediately and was in and out while I sat there in the waiting room. Life doesn’t play by the “rules” in the sense that wise choices don’t always lead to better outcomes. We like to think so because that would give us control and therefore quell the persistent, low-grade anxiety of living in a world gone haywire through sin, but it just doesn’t work that way.

4. Being God’s child doesn’t lessen the suffering we experience.

All of these four truths can be hard to swallow (pun twistedly intended), but this one may be the hardest perhaps. And that’s the truth that being God’s child really doesn’t lessen the suffering we experience. It doesn’t soften the blows. It doesn’t tone down the intensity of the storms. Sometimes, whether stated or implied, it seems like there’s a belief floating around that being God’s child grants us the equivalent of a Disneyland Fast Pass for earthly travails. To be sure, I prayed a lot that night. I prayed and asked God that I would be seen quickly and wouldn’t have to wait given my health issues. But that didn’t really happen. I waited as long as everyone else. I prayed that I’d have really wise and compassionate care. To be fair, I’d say that somewhat happened. But the point is, from a temporal perspective, God didn’t push me through the waiting room faster because I’m His child and the other people aren’t. I didn’t get VIP treatment from God in my suffering. What I did have was the conviction by faith that He would strengthen me to endure, that I wasn’t abandoned even though I wasn’t temporally favored, and that death or life, no matter which one, would ultimately lead me to life eternal.

I was tempted to add a number 5 on the topic of the dehumanization that often occurs within the context of severe illness or injury in the medical system, but that’s another topic for another time. And if anyone’s curious, I’m doing better now, chewing very carefully, and a bit hesitant to ever eat salmon again.

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