Happy to be here: Grateful for the years I almost didn’t get

Published 4:07 am Friday, November 3, 2023

As a young adult, I wasn’t making enough money for ends to meet, but occasionally those ends got close enough to shout to one another. My employer provided basic health insurance, which did not cover dental care.

When my wisdom teeth became impacted, the clinic I visited said there was nothing to do short of extraction. A dental school in a small city about an hour’s drive away seemed to be the only affordable solution, so I signed up and had those pesky teeth pulled. 

Not long after, the pain started. I called and asked about it. They told me it was probably a dry socket. They recommended an over-the-counter pain reliever and told me to wait it out. 

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The pain got worse. They told me to increase the dose and stop being such a sissy. I tried to comply, but the pain continued to intensify. I was told to take even more of the medication and to stop complaining. Fortunately, the medication was an aspirin-based compound so I did not suffer the risk of addiction that so many recent pain patients have faced. The aspirin did build up in my system, however, and aspirin toxicity led to a ringing in my ears that continues to this day.

The aspirin failed to solve the problem. My face swelled to the size of a pumpkin and my temperature hit 104 degrees. At that point, my aunt wrapped me in cool towels and drove me to the dental school demanding action. I heard the tale after the fact. I remember nothing.

What I do remember is waking up in a hospital. A nurse hovered over me and asked if I knew where I was. I knew I was in the hospital, but for some reason those words wouldn’t come out. All I could say was, “There’s a light on the ceiling.”

I spent some time in the intensive care unit. I saw miles and miles of ribbon candy. Whether this was related to equipment in the room or a fever-inspired hallucination, I can’t say. I heard the sound of trickling water. I’ve been told it was probably related to the cooling blankets in which I was wrapped.

The source of my problem was not a dry socket. I had an infection. Untreated, it led to an abscess. A surgical procedure drained it, and my body’s immune system tried its best to cope. Some years later, a dentist looking at my X-rays asked if I knew that roots from a wisdom tooth were still in my jaw. No, I hadn’t known that, but it explained a lot.

While I was in the hospital’s intensive care ward recovering after the surgery, my temperature had continued to climb. Apparently, it peaked at 106.5 degrees. One of the nurses who cared for me explained that was dangerously high. She claimed it was the highest temperature she had personally seen in a patient who survived.

A survivor. I had survived. 

When I was discharged from the hospital, the world felt renewed. I was glad to see the sun, the ground, the birds. Even traffic. I had been given a second chance at life, and I was grateful for each lung-full of air. 

I didn’t meet the man who would become my husband until a year later. We’ve been together for more than four decades at this point. We have three wonderful adult children and three cherished grandchildren. Some days I remember that I came within just a fraction of a degree of never experiencing any of it. On those days, I am grateful for every moment.

But, there are days when I forget. I get angry over inconveniences. Because the microwave oven stopped working. Because the store was out of my size. Because, well, traffic. I get upset about the price of gas, electricity, and groceries. I get frustrated when elections favor politicians with whom I disagree. I feel discouraged when I read the news. I get annoyed when the weather interrupts my plans.

On those days, I try to reconnect with my sense of gratitude. Every day is a blessing. Every day is one I almost didn’t get.

Karen Bellenir has been writing for The Farmville Herald since 2009. Her book, Happy to Be Here: A Transplant Takes Root in Farmville, Virginia features a compilation of her columns. It is available from PierPress.com. You can contact Karen at kbellenir@PierPress.com.