As my boyfriend and I drove to the emergency room, traveling just a few miles per hour above the speed limit, I calmed my nerves and looked up at the sky. The clouds were so vivid, even seen through the glass of the sun roof. I took a deep breath and relished in the expansion and contraction of my lungs. I felt lucky to have them functioning. We flew past the trees, but I saw every leaf in brilliant green reflecting the sun. This may be my last day to live. My last hour, last moment. I will enjoy it.
I had just awoken half an hour earlier to one of my best friend’s face staring down at me, her voice soft and soothing. “Kelsey, can you talk to me? You need to wake up.” She held my hands in hers and her soft fingers rubbing my palms brought me back into consciousness. “Alright, we called 911. They’re on the way.” I sat up fast and as my eyes welled up I begged “No, no, no. Please, call them back.” I was scared. Scared of my family finding out that I had done something illegal. So scared of the, now real, consequences of something I had seen as harmless for so many years now. Harmless.
They called 911 back and cancelled the emergency, but after 15 minutes of explanation from my friends, and due to their urging, I knew I had to see a doctor. They said that I had passed out. My eyes rolled back into my head, I was convulsing on the floor, and choking on my tongue. They asked if I’d ever had a seizure before. I felt myself start to hyperventilate. A seizure? It was completely unexpected, completely new, but when my friend reminded me of my habitual night twitching, I was beyond frightened. Was something wrong with my nervous system? Was I going to die?
The truth was that I had almost died. I couldn’t move my tongue out of the way to get air. If I had been alone, I might not be here now to tell you about it.
I called my boyfriend, Zain, to take me to a clinic, but by the time he got to my friend’s house I was so shaken up, so disturbed by the fact that my face was pale, my lips blue, and my body slightly numb, I was convinced I might have another episode and insisted on being taken to the Emergency Room.
Zain’s presence during the drive calmed me. He said that he knew everything would be okay. I didn’t believe him. In fact, I was slightly upset by his lack of urgency, but even still, I was able to overcome my fear and embrace life. Every sensation seemed wonderful to me. Beyond the wind, trees, clouds and sunlight, I was able to laugh and adore the flock of ducks blocking the entrance to the Emergency Room parking lot.
Zain dropped me off at the door. While he found a place to park, I approached the front desk. My courage was draining quickly. Saying the words was a surreal experience. “Hi….I just had a seizure about half an hour ago.” The receptionist motioned to the clipboard. I wanted to fill it out quickly so that I could make it in to see the doctor before I had another episode, but my shaking hands and thoughts all in a haze made it so that I was only a quarter of the way through by the time Zain came into the waiting room to meet me. He finished the form, and although the wait seemed like eternity, Zain assured me that it was actually very quick. After completing paperwork and answering some questions for the technician on duty, I had electrodes stuck all over my upper body in order to monitor my heart rate and perform a EKG scan (which measures the electrical patterns of the heart). After that, they drew some blood for testing. I’d had blood drawn before, but my current state must have amplified the pain, because I don’t remember ever having to clench my teeth to counter the pain before that day.
Next, I was transported to another room so that the hospital could complete a CAT scan of my brain and lungs. This part was the most frightening to me, partly because I had never had it performed and also because of the radiation exposure necessary to complete the scan. The radiologist asking if there was a possibility of pregnancy only elevated my level of fear. He told me that he would inject iodine, which would heat up my body, and I was in such a state of dismay that I actually imagined he might be poisoning me. After I returned, the technician told us it would take about 45 minutes for the results of all my tests, but that the doctor believed I had actually fainted as opposed to having a seizure. Apparently the symptoms are quite similar, and lay people often misdiagnose syncope as a seizure.
While I felt relieved that I probably hadn’t had a seizure, I also felt a bit foolish. I had gone to the emergency room to perform a slew of expensive, time-consuming tests and Zain believed my passing out was likely due to the fact that I had smoked marijuana before my fainting episode. I didn’t want to believe it. I had been told by my friends and even looked up studies that said smoking marijuana was harmless. It had been prescribed to cancer and glaucoma patients, and I had heard over and over that it never caused any deaths. Plus, I had done it before with no passing out. Why would it be the cause this time? I didn’t say anything about it to my ER doctor. He came in later and confirmed the diagnosis of syncope. My CAT scans and blood tests had all come back normal, though the EKG of my heart lining was a bit irregular. He released me from the hospital, but recommended I check in with a primary care physician the next day and wait for his approval before I drove again. I felt drained for the rest of the day, and the idea that my smoking might have caused the fainting episode began to gain credence with me and caused some guilt to build up. I remembered the last time I had smoked with my friend I began to feel strange, like the room was spinning and my vision was blurring. After I went outside to get some fresh air, I told her I thought their might have been a gas leak due to the earthquake earlier that day. After a few minutes of resting and fresh air I began to feel better and I put what had happened out of my mind. Now, though, I couldn’t ignore that what I had felt that day was remarkably similar to my impaired hearing and vision experience right before I fainted. I promised myself, and Zain, that I would never smoke again.
When I went to the primary care physician the next morning, I decided to tell the whole story. The nurse who started my appointment seemed overly concerned when I told her I had been smoking. “I feel so bad for you. That stuff is horrible for your health. Not only is smoking weed doing the damage to your lungs that 10 cigarettes would, but it’s full of antigens that trigger reactions in your body, some of those very negative. Also, because it’s illegal, it could always be laced with a stronger drug. People do that in order to get you hooked on something more expensive. I’ve worked at some seedier places before, caring for people who had some horrible reactions and whose friends just abandoned them at the ER. You’re lucky to have someone who cares for you so much.” What she said was shocking to me. When the nurse first started talking, her reaction seemed over the top. I thought, “Oh, she’s just some prejudiced person whose against marijuana use due to the War on Drugs propaganda.” I soon realized that I was the one who was being small-minded. This woman is a healthcare professional and I was just believing that marijuana wasn’t harmful because it was more convenient to me. She decided to do another EKG test and more blood testing (I’ll get the results soon). Afterward, she sent the doctor in.
I wasn’t asking for or expecting a lecture, but that’s what I got, and I honestly think I’m better for it. “So, I heard the full story and I just want to tell you that there are other ways to get high beyond using drugs. Exercise. Listen to music that moves you. Ride some roller coasters. But really, Kelsey, it isn’t worth it.” He told me that he had done his thesis in South America on marijuana use. He felt it was an understudied subject, due to its illegality in the States. “I’ve seen similar reactions to yours– even people who feel they are going crazy after using it. It was hard to cope with; all we could do was give them some Valium and wait for their reactions to subside. We had all sorts of people in this house we were studying, even children as young as twelve. Sadly, the results were that 60% of them went on to use harder drugs afterward. You shouldn’t feel bad, though. Really, who hasn’t tried it? As long as you learn from the experience. I know that you are saying now that you won’t do it again, but please be careful. People often forget the bad things that happen to them, as much as it shakes them up at the time. You mustn’t forget.” And I won’t. He went on to compliment my low heart rate and encourage me to keep exercising and to create a healthy diet for myself. By the end of this lecture, I felt immense respect for Dr. Gonzalez and an even stronger determination to stay away from the things I don’t really need in my life.
My aim in writing this is honestly not to tell anyone they’re wrong for doing what they do, but to share a real experience so that you can see both sides of the story. I am not going on an anti-drug crusade, but I have made a promise to myself to stay away from marijuana and get my kicks in a more badass manner, doing things like breakdancing, weight lifting, and roller coaster riding. I’d even like to venture out and try activities I haven’t done before. Maybe mountain climbing and sky diving! Though these activities do involve some risk, they build me up instead of tearing me down. I’ll have a stronger body, bragging rights, and memories that won’t fade. I am truly grateful for this experience because I never have to argue with myself about smoking again or stress out about the consequences to come. I am free. I am alive. I am seizing life.