IT HAPPENED TO ME: A Routine Tonsillectomy Nearly Killed Me

I started to laugh and then cough. Blood spattered across my laptop screen.
Publish date:
February 26, 2016
surgery, hospitals, ptsd, Tonsils, Tonsillectomy, Complications

My throat has always been my Achilles heel. As a kid, I missed countless days of school holed up in bed with tonsils like golf balls lodged in my throat. Doctors advised that glandular problems were a "teenage phase," and like being a goth, I'd eventually grow out of it.

I didn't. If anything, my tonsillitis (and clothes) got worse. By age 20, I woke up sick after every night out, or whenever I felt the slightest bit rundown. I was becoming immune to all antibiotics, and so the date for a tonsillectomy was set.

As a glass-half-empty kinda gal, I prophesized to all that this routine operation was going to go horribly wrong, only to be met with eye rolls. I lived in dread, reading up on the horror stories online (normally a terrible idea, but in this case, what advice I read probably saved my life). The night before the surgery, I went out boozing with friends, half-joking about how "it may be my last night out ever." We partied until 5 a.m. and fell into a gross cowboy-themed club (in Dublin) complete with hats, hay bales and a stripper pole myself and my friends liberally made use of while the only other three people in the club booed our tragic efforts.

True to form, I woke up on the big day with swollen tonsils. My mother was pissed with me, and the operation was very nearly called off, which subconsciously was probably what I'd been hoping for. But the show must go on, and so my tonsils were forever scooped out.

The initial surgery went well, and I woke up high as a kite thinking I was in an episode of Scrubs, shouting: "Dr. Turk! Dude, will you go see The Chemical Brothers with me? The fucking Chemical Brothers, man."

One week later, while curled up in bed watching The Peter Serafinowicz Show around 10 p.m., I started to laugh and then cough. Blood spattered across my laptop screen.

My worst fear had come true.

I nearly died from a series of complications and seven heavy bleeds within the space of a month. It was the scariest time of my life — a blur of pain, fear, exhaustion, emergency surgeries, and most vividly of all, blood. It would always begin late at night as a trickle in my throat followed by a spluttering cough, and within seconds, it would be pouring out my mouth like a tap.

The thing about hemorrhaging from your throat is that you can't put pressure on it to slow it down like you can with external wounds. It's spilling out your lips, up your nostrils and onto your soaked sheets, leaving a halo on your pillow that poor brother is left to mop up as you're bundled into an ambulance, slipping in and out of consciousness.

Don't even get me started on choking up blood clots the size of my fist, or spewing black goop from the pit of my blood-filled stomach, like The Exorcist. I essentially didn't eat anything for a month because of the searing pain, and for fear of causing yet another hemorrhage and emergency cauterization. I shed a ton of weight, which would normally have been the one small light at the end of the tunnel, but I just wound up looking like a Victorian invalid.

When you spend that much time in a hospital, you notice things.

The 18 hours I spent in A&E one night waiting for a hospital bed in Ireland's underfunded, overcrowded system, the man next to me died from a heart attack. I watched the doctor who tried to save him cry on the shoulder of her colleague, who reassured her there was nothing else she could have done.

The cocky ENT doctor who kept on calling me by the wrong name and could never find my vein (they'd collapsed from blood loss), poking my arm like a pin cushion, his heavy Rolex banging against my wrist — he told me he ultimately wanted to branch out into plastic surgery. God help anyone who ever goes under his knife.

The Saturday night nurses too busy dancing to the radio to notice my emergency button go off so that I had to drag myself and my IV stand into the hallway to beg for medical attention, though I couldn't speak because of the blood gushing down to my ankles.

There were, however, funny moments, like the medical attendant who told me he was taking me to the Neurology Ward and started wheeling me away, while I explained in a flap that I was there for tonsillectomy complications — "and was there something wrong with my brain now too?!" The man stopped, sheepishly scanned my chart, realized he had the wrong girl, and swiftly moonwalked out of the room.

There were touching moments, too. Across from my bed was a pretty old lady who couldn't speak or move, but whose husband took the bus every single day from the old folks home to visit her. He would arrive in his dapper suit with his hat and walking cane to perch for an hour, holding her hand, proudly telling anyone who'd listen that they'd been married for over 60 years.

After a month of being confined to bed in a geriatric ward, a young person starts to go a bit crazy.

I think what set me most over the edge was the not-knowing, the total lack of control of my situation. None of the experts knew why this kept happening to me. Complications on such a disastrous scale are incredibly rare, I'd won the "shit-luck lottery" so to speak. I kept on being released home for a day, thinking I was finally in the clear, only to bleed again that evening, collapsing on the bathroom tiles and waking up to medics strapping an oxygen mask to my face.

I returned to A&E so many times, the doctors would greet me with: "OH NO, not you again!" It was a seemingly endless anxiety-riddled waiting game, and I grew tired of being treated like a porcelain doll.

So I threw a hissy fit, of course.

As my long-suffering mother visited me one day, fussing over my meds and lack of eating, I rolled onto my side to look out the drizzly window, feeling pretty sorry for myself.

"If I'm going to die," I announced dramatically, "it won't be here. I want to come home."

Obviously, I needed to stay under close medical supervision, but by this point, I had basically resigned myself to the fact that no one seemed to be able to do anything, anyway. Mum tried to reason with me, but I went into full nervous-breakdown mode, roared at her that I wouldn't spend another second in that ward, and hobbled out into the hallway, where I sat down on the floor in silent protest. Mum followed me out, and I mustered enough strength to enter the lift. I padded barefoot all the way down to the lobby before I began bawling my eyes out. I'd simply had enough.

A psychiatrist was sent to see me.

"Your mother said that you'd expressed a wish to die, and we take threats of suicide very seriously."

I lifted my streaming eyes up to her face, concern etched into her brow.

"What?! That's not what I said. I told her that I feel like I might as well have died. I can't start to feel grateful for surviving because I'm just living in constant dread of the next life-threatening bleed. I just want to go home, and spend time with the people I love if I'm going to die."

The psychiatrist understood my perspective perfectly and went to relay my feelings to my mother, who was going demented herself by this stage.

Fifteen minutes later, the psychiatrist returned looking flustered.

"Your mother sure is one intense lady." She raised her eyebrows knowingly. (She had no idea.)

A moment later, Mum appeared, her eyes glassy. I'm not used to seeing my mother cry, so it was hard to meet her gaze.

"I'm sorry that you felt I was treating you like a patient, and not like my daughter. I will ease up from now on. But you need to stay here in case anything happens again. Please, Leah."

It broke my heart to see my mother so distressed by my outburst. I ended my juvenile protest and returned to bed.

Three days later, I was released home, and I never bled again.

What followed was this: sobbing with relief, withdrawals and night terrors from all the strong meds, nightly panic attacks, and a year of insomnia.

I wanted things to be normal again for me as quickly as possible, so I returned to university in London as soon as my body allowed me. My law-trained mother wanted me to sue the hospital for malpractice (one nurse had poisoned me early on — that's a story for another day) but I wanted to move forward.

My anxiety went through the roof that year. The sight of a dark puddle resembling blood could trigger a panic attack, or even just the mention of a stranger's death in the news. If I started feeling like I couldn't cope with something, like with deadlines or crowded social situations, my heart would start beating out of my chest, and I felt like I was dying all over again.

Late at night, I'd fall into despair over the prospect of my future living like this shadow of my former self. It was hard to imagine enjoying anything ever again, whether it was making art or eating food (my taste buds were so damaged from all the surgeries, it took nearly three years to be able to properly taste sugar again).

I lied to everyone that I was so happy to be alive, that my horrible experience had changed me for the better, when really, I just felt guilty because the truth was that I no longer wanted to exist. I felt totally alienated from all my friends who still relished the invincibility of their reckless youth and (unfairly) angry at them that they couldn't see that I was crumbling apart.

I stopped doing all the things I once loved. Trapped in my bedroom, it was no different than being confined back in that cold hospital bed.

Eventually, I had to go back to a doctor because I was having sharp bee-sting pains in my throat's scar tissue. The moment the doctor laid a hand on me, I started to shake and cry — such was my distrust of medical practitioners after everything that had happened. The doctor realized I was a traumatized mess.

"I think you might have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I can prescribe you beta-blockers to alleviate the panic attacks, and recommend you get Cognitive Behavior Therapy."

Just having someone recognize what I was going through was a weight off my chest. I went to therapy, but after five sessions, I felt like this was something that only I was going to be able to work on myself.

I spent so many hours healing in solitude that I started to dissociate and split myself into two versions: my brain, and my body. My brain began to look down at my shell almost from the outside, and I learned to look upon myself with sheer empathy, as a flawed but ultimately well-intentioned person who was simply trying her best. I later explained this split of personality to a mental-health nurse and friend, who told me that it sounded like my time alone became a form of meditation, inducing an epiphany of sorts.

Slowly I began to get better: the panic attacks going from once a day, to once a week, to now only when I'm under huge amounts of stress. I started being able to sleep at night again. Food regained its taste.

The changes were so gradual, I barely noticed it, until just this year really, when I realized that the idea of not existing anymore frightened me — that I'm very grateful I'm still here.