While pills spelling out the word sick

Emergency pit stop: the search for a cause continues (Part 2)

The guerrilla attacks of pseudo paralysis continued, random and stealth.

Like when my left arm — I’m left handed — went completely limp while playing pick-up, and I couldn’t dribble a basketball or take a shot. That lasted for a few days. Or when I was door-knocking for a candidate in the federal election and I had to use crutches because my legs felt like they’d run a marathon. I worried my friends thought I was crazy. I worried, too.

In the late fall, six months after my Easter episode, I was hunkered down in the Charlatan, the student newspaper at Carleton University, working on the next issue. I’d quit basketball to become co-assistant news editor, obviously drawn by the title.

We were a polarized group of junior journalists, made up of j-school keeners amassing bylines for our portfolios and activists that used student journalism as a battering ram against the conservatism of the 1980s.

As I bashed away on a typewriter, reshaping an earnest diatribe, I noticed a stiffness in my fingers. I must be typing too hard, I thought, as if typing too hard were a thing.

But it was a creeping stiffness.While pills spelling out the word sick

Within half an hour, the joints of my wrists, then elbows, were swollen and painful to touch. I could feel “it” spreading to my shoulders, knees and toes. Head and shoulders. Knees and toes. If only I was trapped in a nursery rhyme instead of a horror flick, like Something Wicked This Way Comes.

I wanted to get in front of a doctor while the stiffness was spreading, so maybe we could figure out what happening.

I asked my friend, Rob, a Charlatan sports reporter (who now covers sports for the Toronto Sun) to drive me to the hospital, while trying to seem sane.

We picked up my friend, Nancy, and headed to the Emergency department of the Ottawa Civic Hospital. Nancy stood beside me as I explained to the triage nurse that a wave of pain was washing over me. That earned me a trip to an observation room.

Alone, curtains drawn, my body was leaden. I was so cold.

The psych screen

The resident was more interested in my state of mind. Was I worried or depressed? A breakup, maybe? He also felt my joints, moved my limbs, and then tried to draw blood. He and a nurse jabbed the needle up and down my arms, leaving bite-like bruises, before hitting pay dirt with a vein in my right foot. He searched out my friends in the waiting room to ask if I had any psychological problems. If they thought I did, they didn’t share.

I think the resident admitted me because he thought I was mentally unstable. The first specialist I saw was a psychiatrist, who was filled with questions. Did I think people were watching me? Or did I hear any voices? Or receive any special messages on the TV? When I answered ‘no’ to everything, he lost interest.

The next morning,  I saw a rheumatologist (a specialist I’d never heard of), who pressed on tender spots on my wrists and elbows, making me wince. He told me I had “fibromyositis,” which was an overall pain and stiffness of the joints. He provided no other context but gave me Naproxen, an anti-inflammatory, and sleeping pills.

He discharged me, telling me not to come to the emergency ward if the pain flared but instead to take the pills. Fibromyositis seemed like a made up word, and in the era before the internet, how could I know?

I’d lost two days, but was back at campus in time to put the Charlatan to bed.

Job hunting

For most several months, I was pain-free and after Christmas began applying for summer internships at newspapers of all sizes across the country. It’s difficult for a journalism student with no daily experience to break into the business, especially between third and fourth year. I was rejected all around, although I made the shortlist for the Toronto Star, where I dreamed of working.

I was considering other options when the Charlatan clippings I’d sent to the Vancouver Province yielded results. After a phone interview, I was hired for the summer. I was elated that I got a job, and that it was in my hometown.

But by early spring, not only were my joints sore, it felt like a vice was clamped on my heart and squeezing my lungs. If I coughed or sneezed, I actually screamed. On the long walks to campus from my house, I’d slump in snow banks trying to find my breath. I couldn’t sleep lying down because the knifing pain around my heart worsened. This was something worse than joint stiffness.

I slept upright, studied, edited, slept upright some more. And wondered what could be wrong with me.

Finally, hopefully, I gathered my energy and took the bus to the Ottawa Civic, and instead of emergency, went to the Family Medicine Clinic. There, a GP sent me for a chest X-ray. But by the time I shuffled to the X-ray clinic, it was closed for the day. I left and never returned.

By the time I arrived home in Vancouver, two weeks later, I was feverish, pale and silent. Even speaking hurt. How would I ever be able to work as a reporter?

18 thoughts on “Emergency pit stop: the search for a cause continues (Part 2)

  1. mschristieclass

    You can’t stop now!! This is riveting! Hard to imagine how you couldn’t have been taken seriously with those symptoms – bet things would have been different if you’d been a man….


  2. Katherine Monk

    I’m hooked… by the great narrative. but also the writerly voice, slowly becoming a character in each instalment. Can’t wait for the rest…. 🙂


  3. Ayan Abdulle

    It’s crazy how the “professionals” that are suppose to help you can just dismiss you irrespective of your input.It is as if you don’t know your own body and or you’re just imagining things.


  4. Windy Mama

    Hi Shelley, Another follower for you! Susanne (aka Windy Mama) Don’t feel obliged to follow this other blog of mine. I’m just trying to boost your numbers!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. bospatt

    I agree with other commenters — what a great book this would make! Food for thought. In the meanwhile, I am struck by the grit and sheer determination you drew on to go through all this and still live a full life at the same time.


  6. Hani Zamel

    Hi Shelly,
    I have to admit that you are a very strong women. Not just because you fought and still fighting maybe, but because the way you are writing, It is impressive. I am following your blog.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Shelley Page Post author

      Hani, thanks so much. I have long wanted to write my story, but never imagined the opportunity would come in a Digital Strategy class! Thank you for following.



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