How to Be A Helper
*Trigger Warning: Blood, hospitals, and medical descriptions
“Help! Grab a paper towel,” I tell my husband as my hand rushes to my face, feeling hot blood starting to pour out of my nose.
“Can you help my wife?” My husband frantically asks the woman at the front desk of an urgent care, as I wait in the car, bleeding into a bright red plastic bucket that belongs to my toddler. “No, we can’t help her here. She needs to go to the ER,” she says.
“Help. Help. Help!” I am saying, not loudly enough to garner the attention of the nurses and administrators, as I hold a giant wad of paper towel and tissues under my face, as blood streams out of my nose onto my lap and the floor. It’s hard to talk because it’s hard to breathe and I’m choking on my blood in an ER waiting room begging someone to take me back to triage. My husband is waiting outside the hospital because he is not allowed inside due to Covid restrictions. The only advocate I have is myself, and she is doing a real shit job, bleeding out, trying not to traumatize the children in the waiting room.
A young male nurse with kind eyes and a soothing voice rushes to my side. “You need to stay calm. It will help the bleeding.” I nod, tears streaming down my face, meeting and diluting the bright red blood gushing under my nose. “Apply pressure. More pressure.”
“She’s really bleeding,” a nurse says, sounding a bit distressed. This is the first time in my life I’ve really thought, “Is this how I die?”
Whether it’s out of genuine concern or someone not wanting to clean up a mess, I’m finally taken back to triage, where I’m given a giant pad and nose clips that divert the rush of blood into the back of my throat, which ends up being spit out onto my thighs and into my shoes. The nurses and personnel move about as normal, as I sit in a small plastic chair wondering if this is how I die.
“Come on back,” a nurse says. The bleeding has subsided for now, but I know it’s precarious. Instead of a bed to rest in, I’m shown to another small plastic chair in a room where it’s clear a bed once stood, but is now gone. A mother and her pre-teen daughter sit on the opposite side of the room, also huddled on small plastic chairs, but under what feels like luxurious hospital blankets. The three of us sit uncomfortably for three hours with minimal small talk. I eavesdropped enough to learn that the girl had a migraine or panic attack, or something else equally benign, but scary enough for a 13 year-old to decide it was an emergency. She is mostly concerned that this episode wouldn’t derail her from seventh grade orientation the next day, or prohibit her from going to Kaitlyn’s birthday party that weekend. She is given ibuprofen and sent home.
I remain in the room alone, bleeding on and off for another two and a half hours, interrupted only to have a medicine flushed into my nose to unsuccessfully try and stop the bleeding, and to be delivered a backpack full of essentials dropped off by my husband by way of a nurse. I change into the sweatpants and socks, and plug my phone into the charger. I wait more. Because of Covid restrictions, I’m alone for for this entire experience.
An insensitive, nervous physician’s assistant comes in and tries to shove a “rhino rocket” up one side of my nose. I immediately start sobbing from the pain. “How long will this have to be in my nose?” I ask.
I start sobbing harder. He yanks it out of my nose. I’m bleeding again. I don’t know what’s happening. I don’t know why no one will help me. I’m finally moved to a room with a gurney. I meet an ER doctor who makes me feel human. She can’t be much older than me. She tells me she is also a mom, and that if I can give birth I can do this.
“This” was a bloodbath in my own lap, as she attempted to figure out what was causing the bleeding. “Just close your eyes,” she instructed firmly. “Don’t open your eyes. Trust me. I got you.” I shut my eyes. I squeezed them tightly, every other sense on the highest alert.
“How do you get this nose ring out?” She asked abruptly. Oh yeah, my nose ring.
“You need pliers,” I reply in between spitting blood from my mouth. A few moments later I feel a harsh tugging in my right nostril as she twisted the beautiful rose gold jewelry I bought for my wedding into a gnarled piece of junk metal.
She couldn’t figure out the source of the bleeding or how to stop it, so she decided to shoot more nasal packing up both sides of my nose. I’ll never forget how she let me squeeze her arm as hard as I wanted. Then it stopped. The bleeding stopped. I opened my eyes after they had mostly cleaned me up, noticing the blood stains on my bra and hands.
“I’m going to keep you overnight and you’ll need to see an ENT tomorrow,” she told me.
“Can’t you be my ENT?”
“No, I’m an ER doctor. But, I can be your mom friend,” she says kindly.
I genuinely want to take her up on that, but it’s 3am and I’ve just bled all over her. So, instead I watch Frasier reruns until it’s time to bring me to my room upstairs. I know I’ll never see her again, except in my memory every time I tell this story.
I barely sleep. You can never sleep in a hospital. Someone is coming in to check your blood pressure, temperature or check your levels at all hours. The next day, I wait for hours in the hospital room to see a doctor while I watch Mamma Mia 2, The Greatest Showman, and Bohemian Rhapsody. I video chat with my husband and son, and start sobbing when my son says, “Mommy’s in the hospital.” I finally see an internal medicine doctor and an ENT. They are both unable to give me an explanation, but are encouraged that I’ve stopped bleeding enough to send me home. I’m supposed to go see the ENT at her office five days later to remove the packing.
However, my body doesn’t want to wait that long. That night, at home, I’m up all night with intermittent bleeding through the packing and vomiting up blood I swallowed the day before. I call the doctor’s office in the morning and they tell me she wants to see me immediately.
I am relieved to be seeing the doctor but terrified knowing I will likely have to relive last night’s red wedding when she takes out the packing. I tell my husband to leave the room, but he refuses. It’s as bad as the night before in the ER. It’s worse. I remember the ER doctor’s words and shut my eyes tight. I don’t dare open them. All I hear are concerned voices. All I taste is blood. All I feel is lightheaded.
“This shouldn’t be happening.”
“Can I get help in here?”
“Just apply pressure.”
“She needs surgery.”
“Heather, we’re putting in bigger packing. It will hurt.”
“Call the paramedics.”
“Can you hold up her feet?”
The bleeding stops. My head is filled with the most immense pain and pressure. My body is limp from lost blood and trauma. I’m transferred to a gurney and wheeled into an ambulance, driven no more than 500 feet to the emergency room, and put into a room to wait. I think I’m about to go to surgery any moment but instead, I wait. I don’t know why I’m waiting. The attending ER doctor comes in and tells me that my ENT is trying to get a hold of my OB to talk about surgery.
“I want surgery.”
“She’s speaking with your OB to discuss the risk to the baby.”
“Tell her I want surgery.”
I ask for pain medicine. I get morphine. I hazily watch It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I wait for hours. My doctor finally arrives.
“We have a few different options. One is surgery with general anesthesia, and the other is a procedure where you stay awake, and we go through an artery in your brain. Not pleasant but you don’t need general anesthesia.”
“Which is more effective?”
“Surgery, but there is a risk while you’re pregnant. We don’t like to do general anesthesia in the first trimester, but you’re at the very end of it, and I think the risk is low.”
“I want the surgery. I want this fixed. Me first.”
“Great. I booked an operating room for 3pm.” I glance at the clock. It’s only 11am, and I am in the most discomfort of my life, and not allowed any food or water.
I’m given an ultrasound. The baby looks great. We’re ready for this to be over. I’m moved upstairs to a room to wait for my surgery. I obsessively watch the clock, as 3pm comes and goes. I press the button for a nurse to help.
“Do you know when my surgery will be?”
“Unfortunately, I don’t. You were an add on, so it’s whenever they can squeeze you in.”
I wait. I watch bad TV. I wait. I ask for more morphine. I drift in and out of consciousness. Finally, at 6:30pm, they tell me it’s time to get ready for surgery. I’ve never wanted to not be awake more in my life. An hour later, after another nervous nurse bursts several veins to give me a new IV, I get my wish.
I groggily wake up around 10pm from a delicious drugged sleep feeling instant relief. I know it worked and I am going to get better. I ask for nausea medication. I ask how it went. I’m given another ultrasound but I’m too sleepy to look, but I know they’re ok too. My doctor finally comes in and tells me it all went well. She could never find the source of the bleeding, but she brought in a sinus expert and they both decided to cauterize and kill the major artery in my nose. I shouldn’t have to worry about nosebleeds anymore.
Why did this happen? A perfect storm of factors. I have a history of nosebleeds, including a pretty major, and unsuccessful it seems, septoplasty surgery when I was 24 years old. The inside of my nose is a bit of a scary place (verbatim description from the doctor), and was really a ticking time bomb. Pregnancy increases your blood flow and expands your blood vessels, and these two factors created an unstoppable, completely unlikely event. The packing I had inserted during my first ER stay works 99% of the time. Never thought I’d hate being in the 1% so much.
Throughout the almost 72 hours of the ordeal, plus another week or so of recovery, I have never felt more helpless. A few years ago, I underwent an eye surgery that put me into an uncomfortable and foreign state of stillness. Not able to do much in recovery, including computer work or washing my own hair, I was forced to sit still –– something that does not come easily for me.
While the stillness felt familiar this time, something else did not –– asking for and receiving help. Just as difficult as it is for me to not be in constant motion, it’s equally hard to reach out for assistance. I don’t think asking for help comes naturally for many people. Look at the culture in which we live. Rugged individualism rages as the morally right way to live more than ever. If you can’t do it yourself, you aren’t trying hard enough. The responsibility of the greater good rests of the shoulder’s of the individuals.
Nothing has felt more humbling you than having a child, where we’re expected to leave the hospital with some extra diapers, a pep talk from the nurses, and a little prayer. New motherhood is the most isolating time in a woman’s life –– especially in America –– up at all hours of the night consulting Google for basic information that should be generously provided by a supportive and experienced community of women. There’s a reason the phrase, “it takes a village” has been echoed for decades. It really does and, yet, it seems like we spiral further and further away from this fundamental human necessity by relying more blogs, books, and Instagram accounts instead of the friends and family around us. We’re taught to not want the help, that we shouldn’t need the help. If you can’t figure it out or fall in love with parenthood immediately, maybe you shouldn’t have had kids in the first place. I know I’m not alone in feeling the urge to resist having any family or friends come help out when my son was born. I wanted to do it all myself. I expected to do it all myself. I had maternity leave, after all, ample time away from my other job to learn a new one.
But, that is unrealistic and unsustainable. Unfortunately for many, including myself, it takes months to understand this from experience. Once you have a child to care for, help becomes your most precious commodity. It was when I finally feel what support really means. Oftentimes, you’re left with no choice –– which is where my husband and I found ourselves in the wake of a medical emergency.
I am very aware of the perils social media poses to everything, from self-worth to our country’s democracy. But, through the years, I’ve always remained a staunch defender of the power of good it holds. I’m a Charlotte! I can’t help but remain hopeful, and this experience only reinforced that belief. My husband and I have always been very open and willing to share our personal experiences, both on and offline. It’s how we connect. Social media becomes a toxic place when everyone self-selects to only share the shiny, happy bits of life, but its positive power comes from being willing to also reveal hardships. People don’t know to come to your rescue unless you put up a flare, which is easy to do with social media in today’s fragmented world, where it’s commonplace to physically move away from your support systems. Even if social media isn’t your thing, sending text messages, making calls or sending emails to let your people know what’s going on can enable your community to rally. We were both surprised at who showed up, how that act of service transformed relationships. People we thought were close might not have be there in a moment that matters, whereas a previously surface level relationship have blossomed in a vulnerable moment.
During recovery, we took everyone’s kind offers to help watch our son or bring us meals. Some friends didn’t even ask; we just saw gift cards for food delivery magically appear in our emails and donuts at our doorstep. It felt uncomfortable to say “yes” to babysitting offers from friends with who were not particularly close, and even more so to actively reach out and ask for physical help with day-to-day tasks like babysitting, laundry, cooking, and even just requesting that friends keep their phone ringers on all night in case we needed to go to the ER and found ourselves without someone to stay with our son. What choice did we have? I was incapacitated. My husband was at the end of his rope. We still had to make our toddler’s life as normal as possible.
Speaking of my son, he loves Daniel Tiger. If you’re not or haven’t been the parent of a toddler in the past few years, Daniel Tiger is an animated PBS show that expands on the world of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood to center around his character, Daniel Tiger. It’s not the Mr. Roger’s of my youth, but it’s still a conduit for the valuable lessons that Fred left on the world of children’s television programming. After watching hours of episodes this year, the idea of finding helpers is something that’s been top of mind for the past six months or so –– mostly because I can’t get the songs, and subsequent messages, out of my head.
This experience has given me many things but, most of all, it taught me not only how to ask for helpers, but how to be one in the fullest sense. I’d consider myself a helper when it comes to connecting people to the right resources and people, always being a supportive ear with sound advice. But, helping in the physical, communal sense has never been my strong suit. I realize now, it’s because I didn’t have a good blueprint of where to start. Like many children who grew up in a big city, I lacked a sense of community. I am an only child, my extended family wasn’t particularly close, both in distance and emotional connection, my parents’ social network was small and not terribly family friendly, we weren’t religious, and I was moved from my school every four years.
I’d craved a sense of community my whole life, which is probably why I ended up in a sorority. It’s taken a few decades, and two truly difficult years as a parent (most of which was in a pandemic), to understand what it was I was actually longing for all this time, and how I could get it. I never had a strong model of community support growing up, but it’s clear to me that it’s possible to create at any point. And, in these emergency moments, I’m taught what it means to be supportive and how to show up for the people in my life. I’ve learned that saying “Is there anything I can do,” often puts more burden onto the sufferer which usually results in a response, “No, I’m fine, thanks for asking.” Though they likely do appreciate the thought, they are not fine. They just don’t have the capacity to figure out what you, specifically, can do for them. Being on the other end, I have a fuller understanding of which acts of service or emotional support offer the truest form of help. Mostly, it’s taking the labor off the sufferer and just deciding how you’re going to help. There are never enough meals, offers to babysit, commitments to be on call, or even emotional check-ins. Pick one, and just do it. Don’t ask. Just come over … literally!
You don’t need to be hero for everyone, all the time. No one needs emotional burnout. Like most things in the 21st century, support is a spectrum that ranges from an Instagram DM to a text message to sending a meal to staying overnight with your child. It all matters, and it’s all appreciated. You can’t give all of yourself every time, but whatever you can in the moment means something. I only wish it hadn’t taken over 35 years, one child, and to emergency room visits in 48 hours to make me realize it.