“You could die from this.”

It’s just a sentence containing five words, really. When you really think about it.

The day is Friday, July 1st. I am at work and in the middle of writing an email, when I receive a phone call from my doctor’s office. Just two hours or so ago, I had left work for an appointment for a CT scan.

The Physician Assistant (PA) asks, “How are you?” I answer that I’m okay.

She continues, her words slow and deliberate: “There is a blood clot in your lung. It’s called a pulmonary embolism. You need to go to an ER immediately, because you could die from this. Do not hesitate. Go now.”

I don’t hesitate. 

I ask her for the language I should use when I go to the ER. I write her words on a yellow sticky note. I hang up the phone, collect my belongings, put my computer in “Sleep” mode. Turn out the lights.

I rush to my car, trying to look on my phone for the nearest ER as I walk. I’m in a panic, my hands are shaking, and I am crying.

What if I’m too emotional, and I cause an accident? What if I stop breathing while driving?

I call my friend who works in the office next to mine. I explain as best I can and ask if she will drive me to the ER. She agrees.

“You could die from this.”

I hear those words over and over. 

I am 38 years old. I’m not ready. I want more time. I have just now really begun to love being alive. My puppy is at home alone, and she’ll need to be walked soon. What if I don’t come back? She’ll wait all night for me, but I won’t come back. I should’ve told my family I loved them more often. I’m not ready. I’m going to miss my friends. I wish I hadn’t wasted my life. I haven’t traveled to Paris. I haven’t seen Taylor Swift in concert. I’m going to miss dancing and laughter and music. I’m 38 years old. I’m so young. I don’t know what I believe in. What happens if everything I was taught to believe about the afterlife is true, and I made the wrong choices? What happens if it’s not true, and there was a different choice, but I just didn’t know it? What if there’s nothing? What do I believe in? I’m not ready.

I had more thoughts, but I don’t remember them now.

The first call I make is to my mother. I’m standing in line in the ER waiting to be checked in, holding my yellow sticky note. My mom picks up the phone, and asks if I’m okay. I’m not. I explain to her what I’ve learned and where I am.

“I’m really scared,” I say. 

I don’t say things like this. I don’t admit feelings such as this. I will tell a room full of strangers about the most embarrassing details of my life, no problem. But admit that I’m scared? And to my mother, with whom I have a complicated relationship? Absolutely not.

But I am scared, and I am not going to withhold my feelings during what could potentially be the final conversation I ever have with my mother.

This is possibly the most vulnerable I have ever felt in my life. And I am standing in line in the ER, strangers on all sides, holding a yellow sticky note.

My mom has the information she needs. She’s on her way. 

I am going to miss my mom. It means something that she’s the first call I wanted to make. I wish I had treated her better. Why am I so ungrateful? She’s going to miss me so much. What is it like for a parent to outlive their child?

As I stand in line, my mind begins to sing the words of “What Sarah Said” by Death Cab for Cutie. I try not to sing the song, but it’s so hard to resist. The song is too good. Unfortunately, it’s also fitting.

And it came to me then 
That every plan
Is a tiny prayer to Father Time…

…And I looked around 
At all the eyes on the ground
As the TV entertained itself

‘Cause there’s no comfort in the waiting room
Just nervous paces bracing for bad news
And then the nurse comes round 
And everyone lifts their heads
But I’m thinking of what Sarah said:

That love is watching someone die

So who’s gonna watch you die?
So who’s gonna watch you die?
So who’s gonna watch you die?

— Song excerpt from “What Sarah Said” by Death Cab for Cutie

I was just listening to that song the day before. 

I don’t want to die alone. If my family doesn’t get here in time, and no one is with me, will a nurse hold my hand?

So much happens next. The short version:

Tests and scans and questions. The staff in this ER determine that I am “low risk,” prescribe me blood thinners, and tell me to follow up with my primary care physician if I experience [a whole range of symptoms I don’t recall right now]. I stay with my mom and Nana at their home so I’m not alone. On Sunday, I visit a different ER, because I am experiencing one of those aforementioned symptoms. Tests and scans and questions. I’m admitted to the hospital for observation. Tests and scans and questions. I am discharged on July 4th (I would not blame you if you have the urge to make some meaning from my being released from the hospital on “Independence Day”). I’m given follow-up instructions. My to-do list grows. I will need to follow up with multiple specialists to determine why this clot happened. Take leave from work.

I had a follow-up appointment yesterday (July 11th). The PA sat on the stool across from my chair and said, “So…you’ve been through a lot. That was wild! I mean, you could’ve died. You could’ve died. Wild!”

There are those words again.

Here’s something I haven’t told you yet:

On June 10th, my doctor referred me to get a CT scan because I had been experiencing chest pain and back pain, which worsened when breathing deeply. My doctor mentioned that she suspected I had a blood clot in my lung and that I needed to get a CT scan—Computed Tomography Angiography (CTA), to be precise. 

I added the scan to my mental to-do list. It was in the back of my mind to do.

In an appointment on June 29th, the PA asked if I had scheduled my appointment yet for the CTA. I had not done so, but I planned to. She pulled up the doctor’s chart notes from my appointment on June 10th and read, “Referred for urgent CTA. Urgent.” She pressed her index finger to the screen to point to each word as she read. Her finger slides across the word “urgent.”

Urgent. Somehow, I had missed the urgency. 

She made me promise I would schedule the CTA without delay. I promised. And I did.

Urgent. But I had waited more than two weeks to make the appointment. Another two days would pass before I had the CTA on July 1st.

I put an urgent procedure on my mental to-do list.

What other things were on my to-do list? 

  • Do laundry
  • Load and run the dishwasher
  • Donate some items I no longer want
  • Go grocery shopping
  • Submit Target Drive-Up order

For too long, I have not prioritized my well-being. I have sacrificed my health to focus my energy and time on work, romantic relationships, hobbies, passion projects.

I won’t do that anymore. 

I can’t.

Because I will never forget those words.

“You could die from this.” 

Here’s something else I won’t forget: 

I love. And I am so loved.

My friends and family showed up for me in ways that felt precious and terrifying and, again, vulnerable. I have tried to do life without needing anyone. I don’t typically ask for help. Doing so was hard, and it was beautiful. A friend of mine drove almost 70 miles from her home to mine simply to walk my dog, because I was just released from the ER and was on painkillers. Her daughter made me this note.

A drawing of a rabbit colored in red crayon. Below the rabbit is a child's handwriting that reads: "To Danielle: I hope you feel better. Love Cara. xoxoxoxo."

I love. And I am so, so loved.

How should I end a blog post such as this? With an admonition to not take life for granted? With a reminder that life is short? With a plea to rethink what you prioritize?

Haven’t you heard those words before? Don’t you kind of know that already?

This is but the most recent event in a series of events that have forced me to confront my mortality and to sit with the emotions that arise as a result. I have heard so many people and sources urge us to show gratitude to the lives we have and the time we’re given to live them. These pleas are held in the back of our mind or consciousness, perhaps.

Items on a to-do list.

But if you’ll permit me to join this chorus and urge you, once again, to honor the life that you have, I will be brief:

Do not hesitate.

Make it urgent.