The Wheel of Fortune Turns
2007 was the year everything changed.
My bosses -- all of whom had C*O in their titles -- would suddenly stop talking when I entered the room. Everyone's behavior towards me changed. My performance which had been exemplary the previous year was constantly criticized. "Work harder, faster!" my boss urged.
Physically, I was miserable. I had shingles twice. I had a yeast infection that kept returning despite repeated visits to my dermatologist. That year I withered from a slightly pudgy 220 pounds down to 130 pounds.
I asked my boss if my job was in jeopardy, and he admitted that it was. Three months later I was offered a generous severance if I would just go away quietly and promise not to say bad things about the company.
Before 2007, I never had trouble finding work. I would frequently field phone calls from recruiters, or have conversations at conferences about possible moves. I actually had to look for work in 2007, rather than have work come looking for me. Worse, I was having no luck: no luck in the new field of knowledge engineering, no luck in email security, no luck in IT, no luck even in finding paralegal work!
In November 2007 I was visiting friends in San Francisco. About eight of us were gathered in the living room, and I was speaking to everyone while standing up. Only then I wasn't ...
I was speaking in that the muscles of my face were in motion and sounds were coming out of my mouth, and I have every recollection of saying something meaningful. Only I wasn't ...
I was babbling. No one understood anything I was saying. And then I wasn't ...
Standing any more. I fell on the floor, twitched a couple of times, and laid there, unconscious.
My friends immediately called 911, and even though I regained consciousness within ten seconds, my friends were emphatic that I rest on the couch until the emergency response team arrived. I was furious. I didn't want to spend myFriday evening in an ER waiting room! So I might have passed out; I'm fine now. Let's see what the paramedics say, my friends insisted.
I did not have to wait long. The paramedics stuck me with needles, and had concerned looks on their faces. They wanted to transport me to the ER. I resisted. One paramedic said, "Sir, your situation is grave. If you refuse to allow us to transport you to the ER now, you will have to sign a statement refusing treatment. But, sir, honestly, given the readings I'm looking at, unless we get you to a hospital, I don't think you will live to see tomorrow morning."
That gave me pause. Grudgingly I climbed onto the gurney, and I found myself having an experience from my "unbucket list" -- the list of things I'd rather NOT do before I die. I laid there helplessly as I was strapped in, wheeled out of the apartment, down the hallway, into the elevator and then out to the waiting ambulance.
The ride was short (no siren, thank goodness), and, notwithstanding my fears, I spent absolutely no time in the ER waiting room. Instead I was whisked into the inner sanctum immediately ... and waited there. Over the hours that followed I was further poked and prodded and pricked. I was declared dehydrated and admitted to the hospital where I remained for the next three days.
More tests, more needles followed (I HATE needles!). Three days later, with my vital signs indicating recovery, the doctors released me even though they were unable to provide a diagnosis or explain my symptoms prior to my arrival at the ER.
I did not quite feel steady enough to drive the short distance back to my home in San Mateo, so I stayed overnight with my friend where I had collapsed a few days before. Later in the evening she summoned the paramedics back to her apartment because I was delusional and hallucinating. My vital signs were again sufficiently alarming that I was immediately taken back to the ER with no delay in the outer waiting area.
I was released from the ER within 24 hours, again with no diagnoses, no explanations, not even any hints about what might be happening. A few days later my primary physician's office called, asking me to come in for a follow-up visit. I drove into the city the following week.
The internal medicine specialist I had been seeing as my primary care physician almost since my arrival in the Bay Area in 1992 had retired, and my care had been transferred that year to Jen Bowerman, a young, but comfortingly competent practitioner. Although I missed my old doctor, I liked Dr. Bowerman, too.
She came into the examining room, looked at my folder, sat on a stool, and rolled close to me. She asked me if I'd had an HIV test recently; I said I had not been tested in more than ten years. She said, "I'm really sorry to be the one to tell you this, but not only are you HIV-positive, you have full-blown AIDS."
Even though all of the oxygen had been sucked from the room, she managed to continue speaking: "Your t-cell count is six, and your viral load is 800,000." She closed my folder and gazed sadly into my eyes: "You are a very sick man. You need to get into care immediately."
It was approaching mid-December, and I was scheduled to fly home the very next day to spend the Christmas holidays with my family in Mississippi. "You should see a doctor as soon as you arrive in Mississippi," she said. "Do not wait until you return in January to start treatment. This is urgent."
I did not realize I would never see her again, but I am grateful to Dr. Bowerman for her compassion and her sensitivity as she delivered life-altering news.
I did not realize as I flew out of SFO the next day that I was saying goodbye to my home of 14 years. I did not realize what a horror I presented to my mother upon my arrival, so weak that I had to be carted off the plane in a wheelchair, so gaunt one of my mother's friends described me as looking like a WWII concentration camp survivor.
I did not realize that my life, as I knew it, had ended.
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Last revised: Apr. 23, 2014.