Friday, April 25, 2008

Sweet dreams are not made of these...

So I had what was quite possibly the most frightening incident of my life last week, a near-death experience of sorts. I say "of sorts" because, in retrospect at least, it was not actually a near-death experience - at no point was I actually in danger of losing my life (or so Randal has reassured me) - however, it was quite possibly the only time thus far in my life that, instead of thinking that I might die from something or that a certain event could kill me[1], I actually thought that I was, in fact, possibly dying.[2]

Anyway, it was the middle of the night, one night last week; Monday night, I believe. I had been woken up by the dog who needed to pee, so I got up and let him outside. His business done, we went back upstairs and I quickly fell asleep. It was about 3 a.m.

I fell asleep, and soon, I began to dream. I dreamt I was in a hospital. The room was smallish, and was painted white; it was very bright with the lights on. I was lying on a bed, wearing just a hospital gown; half-sitting, actually, since the bed was in a partially-raised position. A nurse was prepping me for something; perhaps I was in there to undergo some kind of surgical procedure, I don't know. Anyway, I had one of those white pinchy things[4] on my left pointer finger, the thing that I believe they can use to monitor your heart rate. At the moment, the nurse was fitting me with some kind of tube in my mouth, that was supposed to help me breathe more easily during the procedure that was coming up.

There were two other patients in the room with me. Next to me, on another bed, was a female patient, asleep. i don't remember much about her. In a third bed, facing mine but over to the right a bit, was a man - tall, thin, slightly balding. Doesn't really matter. He was also asleep, or, more likely, under some kind of general anaesthetic. A nurse was working on him. She had a small table with a tray full of various surgical equipment by her side.

My nurse had finished fitting my tube and had moved off to a corner of the room by this point, so I was able to clearly watch the other nurse at work. It was both weird and fascinating to see. She picked a knife up off the tray - not, I might add, a proper surgical knife or a scalpel or anything like that, but what looked more like a butter knife that you'd find at the dinner table. She then pressed the blade of the knife to the man's forehead in a series of quick and precise motions. There was no slicing; she just pressed the blade to his forehead again and again, in a series of parallel lines, forming the outline of a rectangle. Then she took the tip of the blade, inserted it gently at one corner of her incisions, and quickly peeled an extraordinarily thin, translucent rectangle of skin off his forehead. She lay this in a dish on her tray, then wheeled the table over to the corner where the other nurse was standing. As I started to feel drowsy (assumedly, in preparation for my procedure, I had been given some kind of anaesthetic), I could hear them murmuring to each other in low voices.

That was when the tube in my throat slipped. I started to gag. I couldn't breathe without choking on the tube. Half-knocked out from the anaesthetic or whatever it was the nurse had given me, I was not really able to move, so I lay there, gagging, and with what little muscle-power I was able to gather, I tried moving my right hand a little bit in the direction of the nurses. Though surely they must be able to hear me gagging, I thought. I desperately needed the nurse to come re-adjust my tube. But she just continued chatting with her colleague, as I struggled to make myself heard.

Then I became aware of Randal speaking to me: "It's okay, Julie; it's just a dream." He said that many times. The bright, white hospital room faded away and was replaced by our dark bedroom. I was awake but not awake. And I couldn't breathe. Every time I tried to breathe normally, something caught, and all I could produce was this awful, ragged sound, like a snuffling (but not in a happy-dog-snuffling-the-ground kind of way). I would try to inhale, but couldn't, and then suddenly, desperately, I would intake air, mostly through my nose, in ragged succession, gasping for air. Then, after perhaps eight such rapid snorts in a row, I'd force myself to be calm and try to exhale, but it would just quickly resort back to more gasping. And I wasn't awake, or at least I wasn't sure if I was awake or not. I was dimly aware of my surroundings, and I could hear Randal talking to me, telling me to relax and that I was just dreaming, but I couldn't move or speak to him, though I wanted to. I lay there, gasping and listening, and I was trying to tell him to touch me, to tell him that touching me would get me out of this. But I couldn't move my hand to him, though I was trying, and I couldn't get any words out.

So as I lay there, dimly aware of the white lamp hanging in the corner of the room[5], but unable to speak or move or even breathe, that's when I thought, "I'm dying. This is what it's like to die. If I don't manage to get another breath in, I will die." I honestly thought that this was going to be it for me. There was no panic, just a sense of disbelief that this could be happening, and a struggling urge to not give in, to focus on getting another gasping breath in. It was truly frightening and wholly surreal, especially since, while I knew Randal really was talking to me (i.e., it wasn't just part of a dream), and while I knew I really was doing something strange with my breathing, I couldn't tell whether it was all part of some vivid dream or whether it really was happening. I was trapped in this in-between stage where I couldn't do anything to get out.

Eventually, after about 30 seconds to a minute of this, I finally woke up, or, to be more accurate perhaps, the rest of me woke up. According to my alarm clock, it was 3:33, so barely a half hour after I had last fallen asleep.

Randal reassures me that I was never in any actual danger - while my breathing was irregular and ragged, I never actually stopped breathing, nor did I actually appear to be choking on anything. Still, as you can well imagine, it was rather unsettling, and it took me quite a while to be willing to fall asleep again. I've slept fine since then.[6] Randal says I have never shown any signs of sleep apnea or anything like that, which would seem to be a logical cause of this event, so for now, I am treating it as an aberration.[7]

[1] More on those another time.

[2] I feel compelled to add the word "possibly" because, even at the time, there was a little part of my mind saying, "Of course you're not dying; you can't be dying," but then again, I wouldn't be surprised if most people who die in some sudden, traumatic way think that as they are dying (provided, of course, that death is not instantaneous, that they have a moment or two to become aware of their predicament).[3]

[3] My, my, hasn't this post become cheery?

[4] I don't know my hospital equipment terminology, sorry.

[5] It wasn't on, of course, but, as a white lamp hanging against the backdrop of a dark brown wall, it shows up quite clearly even in the dark.

[6] Well, about as "fine" as I ever do, which is never quite as good as I'd like.

[7] I have a number of weird quirks with my sleep habits, which I have been aware of for a number of years now, and I will get into that more in a post sometime in the near future. However, sleep apnea is not one of them. I also have certain dream habits or patterns - this is possibly my first hospital-based dream, which is certainly interesting, considering its not-so-rosy outcome.


Mark Reynolds said...

I lay there, gasping and listening, and I was trying to tell him to touch me, to tell him that touching me would get me out of this. But I couldn't move my hand to him, though I was trying, and I couldn't get any words out.

Oddly enough, Amynah and I were talking about just this phenomenon a couple of days ago - I was having a nightmare where I was trying to scream, but couldn't open my mouth to do so, meaning I was making these weird muffled noises which woke her up. Amynah (who's knows a lot about this sort of thing) says that we lose motor control when we sleep and that some poor souls don't always get it back when they wake up - they'll be in that "in between stage" where they're conscious, but unable to move or communicate. It can last for quite a while apparently.

Freemount said...

Yes, that's lack of muscle tonus, aka "sleep paralysis", which is what keeps you from hurting yourself when you're dreaming about scoring that winning goal. It can follow you into wakefulness, but even more startling, so can dreaming -- hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations. Jules has experienced all of this. But here, she was asleep.

Jules, I think you're experiencing the sensation of drowning in footnotes. ;) You'll be ok.