Loving My Way Back from the Edge

My Recovery from What I Thought Was the Flu

Dec 30, 2019  by Zoë Kors

I am telling the story of my recent health crisis after much consideration, weighing the importance of my privacy and my wish to be of service. If there is a chance that my experience can help others in some way, I am moved to share some of the details. If you don’t know me personally, let me start by saying that I am a 55-year-old woman in good health. I live in Los Angeles with my husband and son. I eat a clean diet and am privileged to have access to clean water and proper shelter. I meditate, exercise, and count wellness as a priority. This is my recent adventure with what I thought was a simple case of the flu.

On Monday, November 25, I had planned to attend an event in Hollywood, about 25 miles from my home at the beach. I spent the day lying on the sofa so tired it took a heroic effort to shower, dress, and make the trip. I didn’t stay long before I turned around and headed home. I slogged through the next 48 hours wondering if my thyroid meds needed adjusting. By Wednesday evening I was running a fever and by Thursday morning I recognized my symptoms as the flu. I had a had a flu shot in September, but my achy limbs and headache were the unmistakable signs that I must have been exposed to a strain from which the vaccination didn’t protect me. It was Thanksgiving weekend, so apart from the disappointment of not gathering with my family, I had a few days cleared to ride out the plague.

By Thursday night I was having episodes of extreme chills and body aches so bad I was writhing and moaning. My fever was surfing temperatures between 99.5 and 102.5. Friday brought more of the same. When Saturday morning arrived and there was seemingly no progression towards wellness, I entertained the notion that I should be seen by a doctor. It wasn’t an easy decision to make. It was a holiday weekend, and I have an HMO health insurance policy. It’s a great policy but my beloved primary care physician is part of an unusual medical group and none (not a one) of the urgent care facilities in the area accept my insurance. That meant going to the hospital emergency room—the one in which I had spent many hours on many occasions with my father in the last decade of his life. There were many reasons not to go to the ER that day that included the following:

  1. Hospitals are filled with sick people. There are a myriad of germs I would be exposed to in my vulnerable state. I wouldn’t want to catch a secondary infection.
  2. I had no congestion, no cough, no sore throat; just a headache, fever, and aches. I was certain it was the flu and there is nothing they can do for a virus.
  3. The flu can last for a week or even more. I had only been sick for three days.
  4. There are plenty of natural remedies that could help me boost my immune system and fight this bug. I am well-resourced in alternative healthcare providers (acupuncturists, intuitive healers, naturopaths, shamans, biohackers). Is this really a case for Western medicine?

It was like flipping a coin. It could have gone either way. By noon I was in my husband’s car on the way to the hospital. The waiting room at the ER was crowded but not packed. I sat with the lower half of my fevered face protected by a paper mask and waited my turn. The triage nurses determined I needed bloodwork, urine specimen, influenza swab, and a chest x-ray. My blood oxygen percentage was low, and my pulse, blood pressure, and temperature were high. Chest x-ray surprised me only because I had no discernible congestion in my lungs or anywhere else, but having had asthma a child, I was used to a routine order for “chest films”, which they took immediately followed by a big blood draw, and a chance to pee in a cup. Then they returned me to the waiting room where I reunited with my husband until they called me back and put me in a room. Once there, they stuck an eight inch cotton swab up my nose and hooked me up to an IV bag of hydrating fluid.

When the nurse practitioner walked in and announced I had pneumonia in the lower lobe of my right lung, my jaw fell to the floor. How could I have pneumonia and have had no idea?! Even the NP sounded surprised. She mentioned sending me home with some antibiotics, but was waiting for the rest of the test results. The next time I saw her she told me that she was admitting me. The blood test showed a lactose level of 4.8, which means I was septic. Sepsis is a condition that occurs when your body has trouble fighting an infection. In fact, it indicates that your body is losing the battle. It causes organ failure, complicates everything, and it’s often fatal.

Sepsis is a condition that occurs when your body has trouble fighting an infection. In fact, it indicates that your body is losing the battle. It leads to organ failure, complicates everything, and it’s often fatal.

Everything got serious at that point. Before they transferred me upstairs to my room, they pumped another bag of fluid in my veins, gave me a breathing treatment with some medicine in a nebulizer, and gave me an initial dose of intravenous antibiotic.

Once upstairs in my private room (the nature of my illness determined I should not risk infecting a roommate), the nurse checked my vitals right away. In this particular hospital (as in many others, I am sure) your vitals are graded and if they fall below a certain number, a “Rapid Response” is issued over the hospital-wide PA. She warned me that about 15 people would arrive in my room shortly. Sure enough, specialists from various disciplines flocked to my bedside. With a lot of energy, they peppered my nurse and me with questions. Pulmonology, respiratory therapy, cardiology, intensive care, emergency medicine, and phlebotomy were all represented. As a team, they determined I was stable, said some encouraging words, and retreated. This was the first of four Rapid Response events I would inspire in the coming days.

By then it was Saturday evening. I remained in that room for the next six days. Each day, they drew blood, checked my vitals, x-rayed my chest, injected me into my abdomen morning and night with a blood thinner to prevent blot clots, fed me oxygen through a nasal canula, gave me breathing treatments every two hours, and pumped antibiotics into my veins. And every day the doctor came in and said, “You’re getting worse.”

And every day the doctor came in and said, “You’re getting worse.”

In 48 hours, the pneumonia went from a spot on the lower lobe of my right lung to my entire right lung and most of my left lung. I was not responding to the medication. The good news is that the level of lactose in my blood had dropped quickly indicating I wasn’t suffering from organ failure. The sepsis wasn’t progressing and it wasn’t eclipsing the pneumonia. Additionally, I did not have the flu. Over those six days, I saw a pulmonologist each day, an infectious disease specialist and his team, and my regular internist, who at one point said to me, “You have a lot of people scratching their heads.”

I answered the same questions over and over again: Had I been travelling? Had I been near anyone who was sick? Had I been on a plane? Had I been in a hospital or nursing home? Had I been gardening? Was I exposed to some sort of pesticide? Had a breathed any kind of fumes? Was I near a fountain or a hot tub? Was I near and air conditioner? Had I been drinking from a lake or stream?

My husband and I had spent a week in Santa Fe, New Mexico and had returned a few days before my exhaustion set it. We had gotten married in September and travelled to Santa Fe for a slightly delayed honeymoon. We participated in a four-day program at a Zen Center there that involved hours of meditation and discussion, and also an hour each day of service. My husband was assigned to housekeeping while I was assigned to grounds crew. I raked leaves and worked in the garden with my bare hands. For this reason, it was suspected I might have Valley Fever, a fungal infection that lives in the dry dirt of the desert. New Mexico is in the danger zone.

They started me on a different anti-bacterial, and added an anti-viral and an anti-fungal medication. I continued to decline. In the wee hours of Friday morning—almost 6 days since I had been admitted—I got up to pee and had a crisis. I can’t describe exactly what happened, but I could barely make it back to bed. I spiked a fever of 103, my head was splitting, and I couldn’t breathe. This triggered the fourth and final Rapid Response. Apparently my chest was filling with fluid. They gave me a diuretic to help my body pee the fluid out, and a narcotic to lower the fever, relieve the pain, and help me relax. They also replaced my polite little oxygen tube with a “high-flow” version which pumped oxygen up my nose with the force of a jet enginei

I spiked a fever of 103, my head was splitting, and I couldn’t breathe. This triggered the fourth and final Rapid Response. Apparently my chest was filling with fluid.

I was scared. Later that morning my pulmonologist came in and told me he wanted to move me to the ICU. I could tell he didn’t want to scare me, but he was not happy with the way things were going. No one felt good about what was happening with me. To be honest, I was relieved to be transferred to the ICU. Clearly I needed a higher level of care. I’ll spare you every detail, but I felt like I had been moved from the Holiday Inn to the Four Seasons Presidential Suite. In the regular room, there are 6-8 patients per nurse. In the ICU it was 1-2 patients per nurse.

It was at about this point in the journey that I started to reach out to specific people to counsel me about anything at all that could help me—a perspective to stand in, some kind of prayer or mantra, a message from beyond. In that ICU, I did some of the deepest soul work I’ve ever done.

The next day a CT scan revealed pleural effusion, or what one of the infectious disease docs called an alarming amount of fluid in the pleural sack surrounding my lungs. He expressed concerned about it turning into gel and creating what is called a “trapped lung”. Because they hadn’t identified what was making me so sick, there was talk of a  bronchoscopy to reach down into my lungs to extract and biopsy the actual pneumonia.

This would mean I would be intubated and placed on a respirator for a couple of days, which would require sedation to tolerate the breathing tube. I felt myself getting weaker and weaker and I intuitively knew that spending a couple of days sedated on a breathing tube would be hard to come back from. It was a line in the sand I did not want to cross. It was time to take a stand. Feeling quite powerless, I wasn’t sure what I could do to help myself, to support my body in overcoming this infection. I am a big believer in the mind body connection and the ways in which our mental state can help or hinder healing.

With the help of some incredible friends, mentors, spiritual teachers, and saints, I listened into the mystery. I am not sure how else to say it. I had conversations with my body, with the universe, with entities and energies I don’t know what to call. I disengaged my mind and opened my heart to receive messages that I needed to hear. I apologized to my body…for taking it for granted, for taking advantage of it, for blaming it, for criticizing it. I opened the flood gates of love and affection for it. I found gratitude and respect for this spacesuit that has housed my soul for over half a century. How did I have the nerve to complain about the size of my waist or the loosening skin on my neck? In what reality was it okay to curse my sensitive digestive system? I had once felt betrayed by my body for producing cancer when I was just twenty years old—and a million other things. In this moment I felt the truth of my own betrayal of my precious body. For the first time in my 55 years of life, lying in the Intensive Care Unit hooked up to a dozen machines, I fell in love with my body—every organ, every cell, every vessel, every muscle, every chunk of flesh, every expanse of skin, every wrinkle, every curve, every eyelash, every everything. I embraced with loving awareness the microcosm and the macrocosm of my miraculous body. I felt joyful, I felt ecstatic, I felt free; and then I slept a solid eight hours for the first time in ten days.

For the first time in my 55 years of life, lying in the Intensive Care Unit hooked up to a dozen machines, I fell in love with my body…

The next morning I turned a corner. I stopped getting sicker. I was more alert and less uncomfortable. My fever was lower. My blood oxygen percentage was higher. By the following day they moved me to the “step-down unit” or Palliative Care. I continued to improve slowly and steadily. Physical Therapy came and got me out of bed. Occupational Therapy had me brushing my teeth. They weaned me off the jet propulsion oxygen and put me back on the gentle flow. Every night I closed my eyes and opened my heart to my body, my soul, and the universe. I remained in a state of loving awareness as I slept, available to receive wisdom, to love and be loved.

On Day Ten, the infectious disease specialist walk purposefully into my room and tossed a sheet of printer paper onto the bed tray in front of me. It was a diagnosis: Legionella. I asked him if that was the bacteria that causes Legionnaires Disease. He nodded. I was as shocked as I was when the nurse practitioner told me I had pneumonia. I am old enough to remember the initial outbreak of Legionnaires in the summer of 1976 in Philadelphia, when 182 people were sickened by a mysterious illness, of which 29 died. All the cases were people who had been associated with an upscale hotel where members of the American Legion (for which the disease is now named) were staying while in town for a conference. The story is sensational and was all over the news in the following year. On the anniversary in 2006, The New York Times published In Philadelphia 30 Years Ago, an Eruption of Illness and Fear, a fascinating account. The bottom line is that an air conditioner cooling tower placed on the roof of the building was spraying mist infected with the offending bacteria onto the sidewalk below and the pedestrians entering the hotel. Some people succumbed to the bacteria, many were not affected.

In the next two days, I had many conversations with my various doctors and even a college friend who is now an epidemiologist. The incubation period of Legionella has me in Santa Fe when I contracted it. The obvious culprit would be the Japanese Bathhouse and Spa that we spent several hours in one evening. Unless there is an outbreak, it is nearly impossible to determine the source for certain. Thusfar it remains a mystery.

I stayed in the hospital two more days post-diagnosis. After nearly two weeks, I was strong enough to go home. I am told it will take a few months until I am 100%. I have been home for two and a half weeks and I get stronger each day. Sleep, gentle yoga, pranayama, meditation, breathing exercises, hydration, massage, and walking are all part of my healing, but above all else, I actively love my body all day long. It’s a choice I make. It’s a practice. When the old tapes start playing I flip the script. I change the narrative. I choose love, over and over.

Above all else, I actively love my body all day long. It’s a choice I make. It’s a practice.

It’s worth saying that as I recover physically, I have some emotional and mental healing to do, as well. One of the things I keep saying with disbelief is that I had no idea how sick I was. If you take my story as a cautionary tale, here are some things to consider:

If you are sick or simply feel something is not right, go to the doctor. Even if you think you couldn’t possibly be that sick, you can. I am living proof. If I had delayed going to the ER even a few more hours, there is a good chance I would have died of sepsis.

Stop pretending you don’t have time, money, or other resources to take care of yourself. Whether you are putting others’ needs first, telling yourself a story that no one will survive without you, or that you somehow don’t deserve care and nurturance, just stop it. Before I got sick I would have told you that there was no way I could take even one day off. I am now on the other side of taking one month off and I survived. So did everyone else.

When our bodies are ill or in crisis, there are always two stories occurring simultaneously. One is entirely physical: our symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis. The other story is existential in nature and not as easy to articulate. These tender moments bring opportunity for reflection on how we live, the choices we make, the beliefs we have. At times when we feel the least amount of control over our physical being, it’s natural to search for agency in our non-physical being. This is why we often hear about people in physical peril bargaining with God. In moments of fear and pain, my most powerful tool is consistently gratitude. It’s impossible to feel grateful and victimized at the same time.

As I lay there in the ICU, searching for wisdom and meaning, it was gratitude that unlocked the door. I could only feel love for my body through the presence of gratitude. The love that I accessed, I believe, was the key to my healing. My body had one opponent in the Legionella bacteria, it didn’t need an enemy in me. Was it was the love I discovered that healed my body, or the illness that allowed me to access a deeper level of health? Perhaps both. What I know for sure is that I am grateful for the opportunity to have had to stop everything, be still, and receive. Next time I need that kind of break, nothing will have to force me to comply. And it will look more like receiving an umbrella drink while lounging in my seaside palapa in paradise.