It's very disturbing when your body starts doing things it's never done before. Adolescence, pregnancy, and older age are all times when this happens to us. A little mental preparation goes a long way here, but not everyone is so lucky. How could anyone find themselves in a situation like this and not be at least a little embarrassed? I sure was.
But more than shock or embarrassment, I felt an intense need to get some answers — fast. What was causing the dog's breakfast of symptoms I was experiencing, and what if anything was the connection between them?
My doctors had ordered a brain MRI, which they explained would at the very least rule out "the scary stuff." I scheduled the first appointment I could get, which was early April — a month away.
Concerned by what "scary stuff" might entail, I consulted Dr. Google, narrowing the most likely explanations down to three:
- Neurodegenerative disease such as Multiple Sclerosis or ALS (Lou Gherig's Disease)
- Brain tumor
All struck me as both horrifying and implausible at the same time. I seemed in pretty good health, rarely drank, avoided caffeine, ate lots of fruits and vegetables, avoided processed foods, never even tried a recreational drug other than ethanol and even then in moderation, never smoked, was not overweight, had normal blood pressure and unremarkable cholesterol levels, exercised daily, and for the last several years hadn't even worked in a lab. I had eliminated most of the risk factors for serious disease that it seemed I reasonably could.
Along the way, I discovered a helpful new word: "proprioception," defined by Wikipedia as:
… the sense of self-movement, force, and body position. It is sometimes described as the "sixth sense".
The question of how we know where our body parts are positioned in space without looking at them isn't one I remember thinking about before. But this exact question seemed to have something to do with my symptoms. I've seen proprioception deficits referred to as "ataxia". Reading the Wikipedia page on the topic filled me with dread.
The doctors who examined me also ordered some blood work because apparently Vitamin B12 deficiency can cause ataxia among other symptoms. The results came back quickly as negative. I wasn't getting out of this with anything as simple as a vitamin supplement.
Given the symptom progression since I saw the doctors, including a fall flat on my face, a month seemed too long to wait for an MRI. Brain MRI was the most reliable way to get at a root cause. I called my healthcare provider main line, and a representative there connected me with a nurse. She mentioned that one way to expedite the MRI might be to go to the Emergency Room.
I didn't like this idea for several reasons. First, I had never been to an ER for myself. I had seen my share of ERs, but just to take other people. The Emergency Room was something that other people needed, not me. Second, I thought it would just be a waste of time. Those times I had taken others to the ER involved a lot of waiting. Finally, I had been experiencing these symptoms for several weeks. A few more weeks didn't seem like a big deal, at least assuming a linear scale.
Nevertheless, my symptoms had gotten bad enough that I decided burning a few hours to finally rule out the "scary stuff" would be worth it. My wife and I walked through the automatic doors the ER on the morning of March 23.
The lobby wasn't packed, but it also wasn't empty. Seated behind us was a woman who was in a lot of pain due to "third degree" stomach burns. Seated to our right was someone who had cut his thumb open on a flooring job. A few people coughed through masks.
My name was called by the triage nurse within five minutes of entering the ER.
If you ever want to blow past ER triage, the word "fall" works wonders. I'm not suggesting that you make something up. But if you happen to have fallen, saying so gives your case a special urgency that few other symptoms can. While you're at it, consider repeating the word a few times. "Fall" means you're at risk for further injury. "Fall" means there's an underlying cause and unless you're on drugs, are elderly, or were doing something stupid, these reasons tend to be serious.
I knew none of this then. I was so certain we'd be leaving the ER at best with a recommendation for rest and fluids that I didn't even pack an overnight bag. It would be the first of many mistakes.