When it comes to my personal life and my professional life, I try to keep them separate as much as possible. It’s not an easy thing to do when you’re in marketing and you tend to be an open and somewhat social person. Over the years, I created a list of rules for myself to follow to help remind me how to keep these two worlds separate. Needless to say, I break a rule here and there. Today I’m breaking a big one and in a big way, but it was such an experience for me that it’s cathartic to talk about it.
Some MPCC patrons may remember that our annual cleaning week began on August 20th. Many of our part-time staff members did an excellent job kicking off cleaning week on a Sunday as most of our full-time staff, including myself, don’t regularly work weekends. So, Monday rolled around and I did my usual morning routine which includes going to the gym near my house. This workout, however, felt especially difficult where everything felt heavier and I got tired much easier. I brushed it off thinking I was just tired or I didn’t sleep well and carried on with my day.
As a former baker, one of the tasks I’m asked to help out with during cleaning week is cleaning the catering kitchen. Over the course of cleaning on Monday and Tuesday, I found myself frequently getting tired and needing to take a moment to catch my breath. I also had a persistent headache that I was able to control with Advil (thanks Amelia!), but as the medicine wore off the headache would come back. To me, this was especially unusual since I rarely get headaches.
Tuesday night things took a turn for the worse. Since I was so tired, I went to bed early but a few hours later I awoke with a fever of 103.8 degrees. Since this temperature can be potentially dangerous, my spouse drove me over to the NOVANT hospital in Haymarket. After being in the ER for a few hours, they were able to get my fever down and my headache under control. They weren’t able to specifically diagnose my illness, but they had a strong feeling it was a viral infection.
I rested all day Wednesday just trying to concentrate on feeling well enough to go back to work. My appetite was slowly recovering (on Monday and Tuesday small portions of food were enough to make me feel full) and I even took my dog out for a walk to get some fresh air.
Thursday morning was a shocking contrast to how I felt Wednesday. I woke up with an unbearable headache and dizziness, which led to dry heaving/vomiting nearly every 15 minutes. We rushed back over to NOVANT and they ran many more tests including a lumbar puncture (also known as a spinal tap). They were finally able to diagnose my condition as meningitis.
While the doctor was fairly confident that it was viral, since the bacterial strain can have permanent damage and be potentially fatal they treated me as if I had bacterial meningitis. This meant lots and lots of antibiotics. I had two IVs, one in each arm, one pumping fluids (remember, I hadn’t eaten anything) and the other with the antibiotics. Eventually, they called an ambulance and had me taken over to Prince William hospital where I was put into ICU (which I didn’t realize at the time).
The staff at both hospitals were great. They were friendly, patient, helpful, understanding, and responsive. Yet with all that, all I could think about while I was lying in the hospital bed was how much I just wanted to be at home (or at work, anything normal). I couldn’t sleep because the IVs kept me from turning over and I already have a difficult enough time falling asleep in a place I’m not familiar with. Plus I’m one of those people who basically needs complete silence to fall asleep – and you’re just not going to get that at a hospital. Going to the bathroom was always a process because I was hooked up to three machines. Really, everything felt like a process. It took so much energy to even look at my phone and it was so uncomfortable to text (I think because of the IVs). The few people who knew I was in the hospital were sending me well wishes, and I just didn’t want to respond. Even though my headache and dizziness were under control, and despite the fact I hadn’t eaten in almost 24 hours at that point, I didn’t feel hungry. I just really wanted all the tubes and wires out of me and off me and I just wanted to go home.
The next morning I met with the Infectious Disease Specialist, who reviewed the test results, which confirmed that it was viral meningitis. He stopped the antibiotic treatment and said he’d speak with the doctor who supervised the area I was in to see about my discharge. Not even an hour later, that doctor came by and spoke with me and said he’d work on getting me discharged. Less than a couple hours later, I was walking out of the hospital.
I slept all weekend and I tried to keep steadily eating because I knew I needed the nutrition and energy to fight off the infection and get better soon. I’m sure I slept probably 19 hours at least one of those days. I asked for Tropical Smoothie as much as possible to make sure I was getting a high amount of nutrients since I still didn’t have a strong appetite. Even when I felt hungry enough to eat I could only sit up for a few minutes before my headache became unbearable and had to lay back down.
That following Monday, I wasn’t at 100% but I felt obligated to go to work. Not because somebody told me I had to come to work, but because in all the time I’ve ever worked I’ve never taken one sick day – and also because I had scheduled a meeting that day. I actually thought that being at work would be fairly close to being at home since I can work in my office all day. What I didn’t realize is that being at work can actually be really draining and difficult, even in an office. Everything is designed assuming that you’re at peak health, so even trying to rest your head for minute is nearly impossible.
After taking Tuesday off, I attempted to try one more day of work on Wednesday. After an hour of feeling awful and having people point out how pale I looked, my Director insisted I go home and take the rest of the week off – and since it was Labor Day weekend I’d have an extra day to rest.
So, I went back to sleeping mostly all day and feeling marginally better. Sometimes it took an hour to eat a bowl of cereal – which to me at the time felt like a huge accomplishment. There were definitely points where I didn’t think I’d ever get better or feel 100%, and I worried that I wouldn’t be better by Labor Day. As the days passed, however, I did start feeling better and better. We would go on short trips to the grocery store or to Target to see how long I felt well enough to sit up and stand, noting that each time got longer and longer. By Saturday I was confident I was near 100% and on Labor Day we even went to get brunch in Occoquan to celebrate my recovery.
Even though I felt well enough to work after Labor Day, it was probably another week until I truly felt 100%. I worried that sleeping for nearly 19 hours a day and hardly eating anything could have a long lasting impact on my fitness. I noticed immediately when I finally went back to the gym that I couldn’t handle the same weights I did prior to feeling ill, and even today I’m still not completely back to where I was (though part of that is a conscious decision to not push myself too much). I even worried that all those antibiotics would have a serious negative impact on my gut bacteria – my microbiome – so on Sunday we got Korean food so I could eat kimchi hoping to seed some helpful bacteria back inside of me.
The whole process really put a lot of things into perspective for me. First, even though I wasn’t ever in danger of dying it made me realize how important it is to take advantage of the time – and the health – we have now. Second, no matter how healthy you are, something – anything – can happen and you just don’t know when it will happen. That’s why it’s important to have things in place. I have a primary care physician now (something I didn’t think I needed at my age) and I have plans to put an emergency plan in place at work. This plan would provide a step-by-step guide on how to keep the Marketing Division afloat without a full-time Manager in place. It’s a big process and I’ve barely made a dent in it, but I’m hoping to finish it by January (once the hectic special events season is over).
Lastly, it put into perspective how important health insurance and sick leave are and just how unfair it is to people who work part time, who can’t afford it, or who don’t have good benefits. I am so fortunate to have a job that not only provides sick leave but also allows it build annually. Some people don’t get to carry over their sick leave year after year. A friend of mine doesn’t even get true sick or vacation time even though he works full time – it’s time off, but it’s unpaid. It horrifies me to imagine what would’ve happened to my finances if I didn’t have insurance or sick leave. The out-of-network estimates were astronomical. If I had to pay the full amount immediately, it would’ve blown my entire savings leaving me hardly anything to cover my bills. If I didn’t get paid for that time I was sick in addition to not having insurance, I definitely would not have been able to pay my bills.
And this was just a case of viral meningitis where there was really no actual treatment other than bed rest. Some people get sick and it could take them out of work for months at a time and possibly racking up medical bills. Nobody chooses to be sick. Nobody wants to be sick. But the financial consequences of being sick can be so punishing, that you could convince yourself it was your fault that you got sick. This is just taking temporary illness into consideration. Chronic illness or disability can have a long lasting and severe impact on your ability to work – or even the options available for you to find and keep work.
I am very fortunate to have an extremely supportive spouse who stayed with me at the hospital in the ER for hours upon hours as well as a great team here at Parks and Recreation who handled the Marketing Division as best as they could while I was out. I’m extremely lucky to have an understanding boss who checked in on me via text throughout the whole process and encouraged me to take the sick leave to get well. I’m grateful for the great staff at NOVANT Haymarket and Prince William who did their best to get me well and keep me comfortable. There are a lot of good people in the world, but I think our area has a disproportionately high number of them. Get to know your neighbors in the area – you might just need their help one day. Parks and recreation is a great way to bond and build friendships! #marketing!
Jason Shriner is the Marketing Manager for the City of Manassas Park, Department of Parks and Recreation. He can be reached at 703.335.8872 or via email at J.Shriner@ManassasParkVA.gov.