All my life I’ve been lucky with my health. Some illnesses, of course, but nothing life threatening. Even when a doctor said I had cancer, it was a small tumor, removed with no recurrence. Not once was there concern that it could be fatal.
That kind of luck can make you feel almost invincible. Last week, though, an incident occurred that could have been fatal. It made me appreciate as never before that none of us are invincible, that good luck can change in an instant when we least expect it.
The incident involved prescription drugs. My doctor recently prescribed one for a mild case of peripheral neuropathy. He said to take it every night at bedtime.
No problem, until one night last week when I couldn’t get to sleep. Frustrated with tossing and turning, I got up and took a pill to help put a stop to that.
You’ve probably known people who are forever popping pills. Not me. I take them as infrequently as possible and am borderline neurotic about checking drug interactions.
Except on this particular night. The pill to help me sleep was one I’d taken before with mild, almost unnoticeable effects. It seemed so gentle and harmless that it didn’t occur to me to check what could happen when taken after the neuropathy medication.
Until I got to thinking about it, decided to check just to be safe and read the online drug interaction warning:
Concurrent use can result in extreme sleepiness, slowed or difficult breathing, coma or death.
Death? Could that really be possible?
I read it again.
It hadn’t changed.
I checked some other sites.
Suddenly it seemed unbearably hot in the room. I was sweating; my stomach was in knots.
Death? Really? Had my good luck run out? Run out because of a careless oversight? I could see the headline:
“Newspaper columnist dies of terminal stupidity.”
What to do?
There was only one thing to do – get the pill out of my system if possible. It had only been a couple of minutes since I’d taken it. Maybe it wasn’t too late for the old finger-down-the-throat maneuver.
Nothing came up that looked like a pill. It may have already dissolved, which wasn’t encouraging.
It was after midnight. My wife, who is recovering from surgery on her Achilles Tendon, was asleep and would have been as flummoxed as I was about what to do next. What was needed was an expert. I looked up the toll-free number for the National Poison Control Center and called it.
“You vomited?” the woman who answered said.
“We don’t recommend that. You could have aspirated into your lungs.”
Well, yes, if we were talking about a bottle of poison. This was a pill smaller than a BB.
She asked me the dosages of each drug and asked me to hold while she checked on the interactions.
“Are you alone?” she asked upon returning.
“No, my wife is here.”
“The danger is that you could fall asleep and not wake up. Try to stay awake for the next three hours. If you fall asleep and can’t be aroused, your wife will need to get you to the nearest ER immediately.”
Right. My wife who had one foot in an orthopedic boot and wouldn’t be able to walk for another three weeks.
“Don’t worry,” she said after being awakened by her increasingly anxious husband. “If you go to sleep and I can’t wake you, I’ll call 911.”
By this time it was nearly 1 a.m. Determined to stay awake, I went downstairs, turned on a bright light and started reading. That worked for about an hour. Then my eyelids got heavier, heavier … Time to go back upstairs.
We set the alarm clock and a timer to wake me up in half an hour and an hour respectively. They did.
I set the timer for another hour. Same result. By then the three hours the Poison Control woman recommended were over, and I was – to my boundless relief – still alive.
The day before, a car had come inches from running over me on my bicycle. Was God trying to tell me something?
It reminded me of a dream I had years ago: My wife, our son and I were standing on the steps of my old high school with a tsunami bearing down on us. It swept us into the school, where, with seconds left to live, my last thought was that I should have done more to help other people. It wasn’t long after that that I happened to meet a director of a homeless shelter and began volunteering there.
That was just a dream; the pill incident was real. Frighteningly real.
A natural result of such experiences is a desire to make the most of whatever time we have left. The night I thought I could die made me want to spend more quality time with friends and family, to do things my wife and I have been putting off, to try to be kinder and more helpful to people.
The homeless shelter where I worked, and my wife later worked, made us stop volunteering until the pandemic was over so I’m looking for some other way to help people. We’re not just here, after all, to pursue our own ends. Ideally, we spend at least some of our time trying to make our part of the world a little better.
If you have suggestions on ways to do that, I’d love to hear them. Please email them to the address below. The results will be in a future column.
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.