The Stabby Chronicles

A year ago today, I was undergoing one of the most bizarre episodes of my life to date.

Somehow I managed to catch a cold ...
that turned into an ear infection ...
that morphed in a raging beast that became known far and wide as 'Stabby' ...
because when you tell people you have mastoiditis, they think you mean mastitis and look at your breasts and are generally confused. If they are the receptionist at the local ER, they might even attempt gently to correct you when you come in for your head CT and tell them you're there because you have mastoiditis. "Mastitis? Do you mean mastitis, dear?"

In any event, here is me in the hospital last Nov. 26, on IV antibiotics to kill the infection that had moved into my mastoid process and the temporal bone in my skull.


(I am smiling because it is such a relief to be on medication that's working. And also because I am on a lot of drugs. )

I was a big hit in the hosptial, since I was on the orthopedic and trauma surgery floor with a bunch of patients who were recovering from various surgeries and did not have bathroom privileges, and I could even take a shower on my own if I wanted. The staff was also very supportive of my stated 'goal to reach before leaving':

kill stabby

How did things come to such a pass? Just in case you were wondering, I give you, collected in one place for the very first time ever,

The Stabby Chronicles

(spoiler: I survive!)

November 3, 2013:

Warning: complain-y post! Since Wednesday, pretty much the only time I have not been in constant, searing pain from my stupid ear is when I'm hopped up on both painkillers and Sudafed and lying flat on my side. I can make it for an hour or two upright, and then it feels like a squirrel is trying to claw its way through my eardrum from the inside. Plus, moving around makes me feel dizzy and nauseous, so there's that. I will be begging an ENT to poke a hole in my eardrum on Monday to relieve the pressure. (And yes, I'm on antibiotics.) On the bright side, I am finally working my way through the bottle of Motrin I bought when I moved into my house in 2002!

(There is some great discussion in the comments to this status about whether I should still be taking Motrin that expired almost a decade earlier; general consensus is that it won't kill me, but that I should consider purchasing some new meds. As fate would have it, the next eight weeks would involve my going to the store so many times for different meds that the phramacists would know me by name and inquire about how I was feeling.)

November 4:

I have a doctor's appointment at 10:20!!! I have never been so excited to see a doctor...or possibly anyone, ever. The doctor is going to make my ear feel better and we will be best friends and braid each other's hair and I will be able to hear again and there will be rainbows coming out of unicorns' bums and New Order will be playing and I will be able to hear it!!!!

Highlights of the comment thread:

David: "Mom, I think you're setting your expectations too high." Me: "I DON'T CARE. OUR LOVE IS REAL."

Eric: What's the Calvinist line on unicorns, anyway? Predestined?

Christina: Eric, all good Calvinists believe that the elect get their very own unicorn in heaven. After the fall, they lost their magical powers and went extinct, but in heaven all will be redeemed. Jesus will ride a dinosaur if both he and the dinosaur think that would be fun, and the animals will be like they are in the Narnia books.

The trip to the first doctor was, in fact, extremely frustrating.

Christina: Who's got two ears and infections in both of them?? ...Dude was all, "Well, you've got antibiotics in your system for another five days yet. The real problem is that your Eustachian tube needs to drain and it's not draining. You should take decongestants, apply humidity, and swallow a lot." I was all, "Um, I've been doing all that for the last SIX STRAIGHT DAYS and it hasn't done a THING. Can't you drain my ear??" and he was all, "Poking a hole in someone's ear drum is not sound medical practice", and I hated him with every fiber of my being. Just for the record, I will not be braiding his hair any time soon. But he is calling in some prescription ear drops, so he might be allowed to listen to New Order. Also also, I went through 25 hours of labor without pain meds. If I tell you I am in more pain that I can handle, do not tell me to just SWALLOW A LOT. Just...don't.

24 hours later, this was me, fresh home from a visit to the ENT, with titanium tubes in both my ears:


(The ENT took one look, said, "Wow. Your ear is a HOT MESS," and rearranged a bunch of appointments to put the tubes in and relieve the pressure immediately. I will love that woman until the day I die.)

Unfortunately, the tubes didn't take care of the problem with my left ear. By the end of the second week in November, I was a total mess: I couldn't hear much of anything on the left side, I was in craploads of pain, I was having a really hard time concentrating, and I was completely exhausted. One of my colleagues tried to play a practical joke on me by telling me he'd just seen my car getting towed, and I started crying and couldn't stop. (I cannot stress the extent to which this was unusual for me.)

This was, in many ways, the worst part of the whole ordeal. People from church had started bringing me and David meals. I was sad.

(One of the photos I took while lying in bed with ear drops in. I call it the Despair Collection.)

Both my department chair and my mother demanded that I go back to the ENT. (For the uninitiated, this is like having both the Prime Minister and the Queen tell you to do the same thing.) At this point, I'd been on two different kinds of antibiotics and two rounds of steroids, ear drops, and decongestants. The result of the next ENT appointment was official confirmation that my hearing had dropped even further (to, um, nothing), and that the infection -- now officially named 'Stabby' -- was spreading.

UPDATE: the ENT has diagnosed me with an infection that's spread into my tympanic antrum and is moving into my mastoid bone. I've got 48 hours to start kicking this on the maximum dosage of oral antibiotics and a serious steroid or they send me to the hospital for a CT and IV-antibiotics. But I'm good with deadlines, so I think I've got this.

Ever the academic, I managed to stretch that deadline out for another 12 days before being admitted to the hospital. And by then, things were pretty trippy. The infection had started to affect my vestibular nerve, which meant that I felt dizzy and nauesous all the time: like when you've had one drink too many, but all the time. I couldn't read more than a few paragraphs of text at a time, and I couldn't focus or engage in any sort of higher-powered thinking. (Like, say, my job.)

The bonus was that I'd lost the ability to care. It happened almost overnight, like someone flipped a switch in my brain. That constant voice that tells you what you're supposed to do and cares whether you're doing it or not? GONE. I knew that I used to be able to read and do interesting things, but I just couldn't make myself care. It was a truly bizarre sensation.

lying in bed

(Seriously. I am soooo past caring at this point.)

Whether it was the vestibular neuritis or something else, the inability to worry was a welcome change. It also made for some really awesome FB updates. Take, for example, the following, which I posted from the hospital after my MRI:

Hellloooooo all you peoples!!! If you are reading this, then you are a shiny, beautiful, wonderful point of light in the universe and I looooove you. You are reading this. Therefore, etc. Awesomest modus ponens EVER.

This update is followed by a string of comments, most of which are me babbling happily:

Christina: I'm going to eat chocolate cake now. With my FACE.
Also, the MRI was fun like a spaceship with weird sci-fi noises and Joan Jett and Blackhearts playing and a blindfold. And there was a part where the noise was all "busybusybusybusy" and I had to hold really still and not shout "BEE!" when it stopped.

Kathryn: I want whatever drugs you're taking.

Christina: And Ruth Groenhout brought me a happy balloon and it is lovely!

Kevin: you didn't have to take them ALL at once

Christina: THEY gave them to me! I am at their whim and fancy. Faaaaannnnccccyyyyyy.

Chris:'s like you wrote this post just for me!

Christina: Chris, I did! "Just for me" can be said in many, many ways.

Christina: Also, Lisa brought me hand lotion right when I needed it, and Anne brought me coffee, and Laura brought me treats from the whole department and it has a chocolate letter "C" in it for "Christina". CCCCCCCC??????? And Natalie brought me here and got me all settled in yesterday, and Andrew brought me a cozy blanket, and my mom played cards waiting for the MRI. Because peoples!!!


My personal favorite, in retrospect, involves my trying to figure out how to care for my neighbor in the next room:

Christina: There is a grumpy, beepy person in the room next to me. I want to bring her chocolate and love. But I will not. Because she might not like chocolate or love. MOVIE! It is time for a MOVIE!!

All told, I got three rounds of the IV antibiotics, and they were amazing. I felt better than I had in a month. For instance, I was able to stay awake for hours at a time when I got home! Downstairs!! But I still was unnable to worry about how sick I was, or how far behind on all my work I was, or how very close the end of the semester was getting. Instead, I posted happy things like the following:

December 1:

You know how people get really sick/ suffer some sort of horrible misfortunate, and then they publish inspirational books/ tracts/ posters/ blogs about the Valuable Life Lessons they have learned?

In that spirit, I offer you "Things I Have Learned from Stabby", Installment One:

  1. My child makes an excellent service animal.
    He guides me around places and lets me hang on to his arm and walk slowly for balance. He fetches things like power cords and water and blankets for me when needed. He also drives me places while I'm on indefinite driving restriction (which even most service animals can't do). And his coat is shiny, and his nose is warm, and sometimes he even lets me snuggle him. Thanks, Stabby, for making me see my child in a new light.

The next day, I managed a second installation, but that was as far as my powers of concentration could get me at that point:

"Things I Have Learned from Stabby", Installment Two:

  1. I would make a horrible heroine in a period drama.
    Serious and protracted illnesses in said heroines always result in their becoming increasingly pale, delicate, and slender, as they drift about and/or faint gracefully. They remain articulate, non-ironic, and wistfully hope for recovery. (See ANY MOVIE EVER.)

In my case, serious and protracted illness has resulted in my body's hoarding calories like diamonds in the event of, you know, an actual emergency, messing with my sense of balance, and seriously compromising my ability to think clearly. As a result, five weeks into this thing, I'm staggering about like a chubby toddler who's in a constant state of frustration over not being able to do the things she wants to do. Thank you, Stabby, for making it clear that a poetic death via consumption will never be the right end for me.

It took another four weeks before I regained the ability to worry ... or walk in a straight line without bumping into things. But finally I was heading in the right direction. In the meantime, I had a LOT of time to think up new status updates, since I could stay awake for up to four hours at a time but still couldn't make the right sort of sense of my visual field to read anything longer than a paragraph or two. I was still teaching, though (having managed my entire hospital stay over Thanksgiving break). This was an endless source of bemusement to my students, since I had to use a cane to avoid spontaneously tipping over while lecturing.

December 3:

Well, friends, as most of you know, Stabby and I have been trying to reconcile our differences for some time now. Sadly, Stabby still wants me to die, and I still prefer not to. Fortunately, Stabby seems willing to make certain concessions now. He appears to be gradually moving all of his crap out of my skull, and although he's still retaining custody of most of my hearing on the left side, he's been willing to give me a bunch of energy back. We're still working on the final negotiations--e.g., he insists I retain custody of the vestibular neuritis, which I have been trying to get him to take with him. But the time has come for me to post a new profile picture in place of the one where Stabby and I were still cohabiting on an equal basis. So here it is!


(That walking stick came from Al Plantinga, who understood my need to balance myself with something Awesome.)

By December 9, I was confident that Stabby was (eventually) going to go away.

An Ode to Stabby

Stabby, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
Those cells whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Stabby, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy symptoms be,
Much healing; then from them much more must flow,
Though granted, some hearing with thee doth go,
Rest of its noise, and sound's delivery.
Thou are slave to fate, chance, meds, and ENTs,
And dost with MRSA, strep, and virus dwell,
And norco or tea can make us sleep as well
And better than thy poke; why swell'st thou then?
Some short time past, I wake all healthily
And Stabby shall be no more; Stabby, thou shalt die.

(an honor guard of the meds I'd been prescribed on Stabby's behalf)

My child was pretty amazing throughout this whole ordeal: his enduring memory is getting to play video games as much as he wanted (because I was sleeping) and having friends bring us his favorite meals. He also found the effects of the vestibular neuritis pretty amusing.

December 12:

Says David to me after I accidentally ran into yet another doorframe trying to walk through a door: "Hey, Mom--we were watching Much Ado About Nothing in class, and there's this part at the end where they're all dancing and Claudio bumps into a tree and then just keeps dancing. It made me think of you."

By the third week of December, I was finally starting to be frustrated by things (like the fact that I wasn't allowed to drive while on Valium, which was still the only thing keeping the world from spinning around me until I barfed).

December 19:

This morning I saw an obstacle, moved to avoid the obstacle, and didn't even run into anything else!

Further confirmation that I'm rocketing from toddler stage of recovery to adolescent stage provided by increasingly whiny levels of frustration over my continued driving restriction: "Everyone else gets to drive when they're on narcotics…and I'm only on a little bit. I'd be fiiiiiinnnnnnne. I never get to go ANYWHERE."

Fortunately, I regained the ability to read just in time to grade final papers and exams. (I'd gotten special help from student T.A.s for shorter writing assignments [one of whom had been assigned to drive me to and from campus], but Calvin has strict [and reasonable] rules about professors grading papers and essay exams. And I may have been unable to worry, but I did still have standards!) I managed to submit grades the day after Christmas, right as they were due ... the same day I had work-panic-inspired insomnia again. And it felt like returning from a journey through someone else's mind to my own skin.

December 26:

Final grades due 12:00pm EST. Final set of grades submitted 12:00pm EST. Fall semester 2013 (aka Stabbicon) is officially OVER!

One year later, I've fully recovered. I still have tubes in my ears, and it looks like I'm going to need to keep them. Toddler solidarity!! But my hearing's back, my balance is back, my ability to read is back, and my superego has returned. I've developed a healthy respect for prescription medications and modern medicine. (Esp. after finding out this past summer that two of my female relatives on my mom's side died of mastoiditis in the early 20th century!)

And so, with all my faculties intact, I say: "Hellloooooo all you peoples!!! If you are reading this, then you are a shiny, beautiful, wonderful point of light in the universe and I looooove you. You are reading this. Therefore, etc."

Still the awesomest modus ponens EVER.

Author image

Christina Van Dyke

scholar, mother, and proud owner of the largest couch in creation
  • here and there
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