by Ariana Nakhla
On a sickly humid evening in August of 2006, Ellen Sheffrey, a family friend and my personal doctor at the time, frantically called my mother. “Go back to the city,” Dr.Sheffrey told her. “You don’t have a choice at this point. Things will only get worse if you keep her here.” My mother, following Dr. Sheffrey’s desperate advice, approached my room, where I lay helplessly attempting to suppress my frequent bloody coughing attacks. I sensed the urgency in my mother’s movements as she amassed the necessities for the journey home to Manhattan, moving to the monotonous whir of the ceiling fan. I did not ask questions as she tenderly guided me to our garage, away from my room infested with sleepless nights and the pain of unrest. It had been evident for weeks that my initial feeling of unease was more than a stomach bug, and significant action had to be taken for my well-being.
I remember the weak streetlights guiding our car to NYU’s emergency room entrance. I remember the pitch-black interior of our car as we hurtled into the brightly lit city. I remember the nurse holding a needle to my arm, as she drew vials of blood despite my protest. I remember lying on a hospital bed, eyes glued on the sterile ceiling lights, as I was wheeled beside a medical team to a surgery for multiple IV tubes. I remember seeing my family, struck with terror, followed by complete obscurity.
My sickness was identified as E. coli O157:H7, a fatal strain of Escherichia coli that leads to kidney failure. I acquired the infection from hamburger meat in Bridgehampton, an innocent beach town now stained with the disturbing days of uncertainty leading up to my admittance to the hospital. I spent thirteen days in the intensive care unit, concealed by a mass of tubes from IVs and a dialysis that were sustaining me throughout my journey- a journey whose scars still mark my body, but whose images do not my grace my memory.
My godmother told me how by the second day, all of my family and friends were crowding the hallways and waiting room of the ICU, overcome with concern and a willingness to help in any way. She told me how she would collect the cellphones of those visiting, and protect them in the waiting room, answering calls, both personal and business, on my mother and father’s phones. She told me about coming at four in the morning, with a stack of fashion magazines and a tray of muffins and coffee in hand, and seeing a blurred image of my mother ambling the hospital’s desolate lobby. She told me of my grandpa, arriving in the ICU without warning, hitting himself with disbelief, a situation, she noted, she had only encountered in movies.
My father told me how he had ordered a pizza from a store only a block away from our hospital room. He told me the pizza, which should have only taken fifteen minutes to arrive, arrived two hours later, completely mangled. He told me how he opened the box to find cardboard muddled with cheese and tomato sauce, and the pizza itself completely overturned, an unenticing sight. He told me everyone couldn’t help but laugh, a memory that momentarily melted the tension stifling the ICU.
I have been told countless stories about my experience with E. coli. These stories are the only token I have of my journey, coming from places of sadness, strength, and humor of those that stood by me. My experience with E. coli has become a collection of memories I have received. I can paint the images in my head that my loved ones provide me with, yet I cannot insert my emotion into these stories and tell them as my own. Although these images piece together the experience, I do not feel as though these memories, that this journey is my own. I am not overcome with emotion when I reflect on the fateful summer of 2006, nor do I get lost in the memories when my mind wanders. I feel disconnected from my own story, as though all of my loved ones were profoundly impacted, except for me.
It is difficult to have such a monumental experience in your life, but only feel its importance because of how others convey it to you. My illness has shown me the difference between remembering and being told, and what it means to be truly affected by an event. Simply because I was the vehicle for the experience that shaped many memories does not inevitably mean that I, too, must be intensely affected in the way my family and friends were. Through my experience, I have realized that the memories of others are not by extension my own due to my presence, and that a memory cannot simply be made remembered. My near brush with death changed my family, both friends and relatives, in ways even a tearful retelling cannot fully capture. The memories they individually give me are less about me, but about themselves, and a moment of transition in their lives.
I remember the glow of bodies in my hospital room, no matter the hour of day. I was told by many that people came from far and near to visit, bearing gifts and support. What I know is that although I cannot remember the experience that profoundly shaped the memories of my loved ones, I have developed a different image of my illness. The memories my loved ones have gifted me provide me with vision through their eyes, while mine were closed. They have helped me develop an image of my difficult days in the ICU that represents my mother’s desperation to see me well, my brother’s disbelief, my father’s unparalleled fear of loss, and my present state of uncertainty, of trying to determine what the event means to me. My unconscious battle with E. coli has shown me the importance of engaging with an experience and having ownership of your memories, as those around me did. And although the scars of this battle may have faded for me, the emotional impact on my family has created memories that will always remain.
Author Biography: Ariana Nakhla is a sophomore at Riverdale Country
School in New York City. She enjoys creative writing, writing for her school
newspaper, and visual arts. She plans to study journalism and political
science in college.