Taking my life in my hands, or my feet

Mini Grover in bush overlooking Bahai gardensCuriously, over the past week, I decided to focus on my vacation rather than writing my blog. Sorry to leave you hanging, but I’ve been busy showing Grover the sights in this glorious country.

Several friends expressed concern when I mentioned I was going to Israel. “Is it safe there?” they asked. “Aren’t you worried about terrorists?” “Not at all,” I said. I lived here previously during a time of high conflict, so I know how safe Israel actually is. The highly skilled armed forces ensure that citizens are protected from harm. Security is ever present.

Unlike in Canada, Israeli men and women are conscripted at age 18, barring circumstances such as a physical or psychological impairment, a criminal record, or religious observance. There is a significant military presence all over the country, and a much higher level of vigilance than in Canada. There needs to be.

Mini Grover resting by the Sea of GalileeIsraelis may be safe because of the measures in place to protect them, but tourists are another matter. I quickly learned that I am taking my life in my hands by crossing the street here. Israeli drivers are insane. That whole notion of passing on the left is foreign in this foreign country. Those using the smallest vehicles are the worst. Imagine a motorised scooter (I’m talking about the two-wheeled, push-off-with-one-foot variety that children take to school) or a motorised skateboard overtaking a bus from either side at high speed. And why wear a helmet when you could risk your life? I am grateful to not have seen any of these daredevils thrown from their vehicles. The result would be ugly.

I have learned to cross the street with caution, and so far have not been hit by any moving objects. There have been several close calls, however. I feel like I am in considerably more danger crossing the street in Israel than I was in the UK, where I never quite mastered the direction of oncoming traffic.

The sidewalks are just as or even more dangerous than the streets. Forget the distracted walkers glued to their telephones; those imbeciles are wreaking havoc on sidewalks world wide. Not only are two-wheeled vehicles taking over the roads here, they expect me to share my sidewalk space with them. Israeli sidewalks are flooded with any fast-moving vehicle that needs to circumvent a traffic jam (I use the word “need” loosely here). Patience may not be a virtue of our people after all. Considering how much walking J. and I have done over our first week here, I can’t believe that I am still intact. I’ve long insisted leukemia would not be the death of me, haven’t I?

We have five days left here, assuming we survive. We have seen so much of the country already and have so much more to explore. I am so glad we came to this marvellous place. I promise you will have an experience like no other if you vacation here. Make sure you bring sunscreen, good walking shoes, a bathing suit for the Dead Sea, and your helmet. Even if the two-wheeled-vehicle risk-takers don’t wear them, you still could don one as you’re walking. The Israelis will keep you safe from terrorists; it’s up to you to keep yourself safe from their vehicular shenanigans.

Grover at Beit She'an overlooking the ruins

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My irritability knows no bounds

crying baby in bed

Much appreciation for the three kind and loyal fellow bloggers who liked my last post, which could have benefitted from considerably more editing. Thanks for seeing beyond its many shortcomings, you generous souls. I’ll aspire to do better today.

Because I volunteer in a nursing home, where influenza can spread like wildfire, I scored an early flu vaccine. Shots start today for the general public, in case you weren’t aware, but some people get to jump the queue, including those who who work in facilities housing people vulnerable to infection.

Did I happen to mention they’re predicting a bad influenza season here based on Australia’s rates of illness? I thought you’d want to know.

Last week, following our PALS shift at the retirement home, I lined up with Jelly so I could get my shot. Except there was no line. The immunization clinic was set up for nursing, administrative, and other support staff, and volunteers, but no one was attending. Had no one noticed the mini chocolate bars for the newly immunized?

I sat down beside the immunizing nurse, who seemed overly excited to have a subject, while Jelly gladly endured the other bored nurse petting her. Everyone was content.

[Warning: Keep reading only if you plan to continue to the end of the post.]

The shot hurt from the moment the needle entered my arm. As she put a bandaid over the insertion spot, the nurse mentioned that many people were complaining of pain this year. Thankfully she didn’t disclose this before she inserted the needle since I am highly suggestible.

In the past, I have a sore arm for a few days following the shot, like a heavyweight fighter has punched me, but this time I thought I’d skip that part. I was unscathed until day 3, when I woke up in discomfort, trying to remember what the heavyweight champion looked like. The arm felt better after a few days, as it always does.

J. also scored an early flu shot as a volunteer at the children’s hospital. She received her injection the day my arm was the sorest. After the shot, she denied any pain on injection. She’s such a show off. To add insult to injury, nobody even punched her arm the next day. She felt nothing.

After last year’s shot, I was irritable. Irritability is a potential side effect of the shot, and I’m suggestible, remember? When J. suffered no ill effects, I immediately got cranky, but it had nothing to do with my flu shot; I was cranky because of J.’s suggestion that I am a baby. I may be a baby, but J. still shouldn’t have called me one. A loving partner knows when to fudge the truth.

You will likely react to your flu shot like J. did, i.e., you won’t feel a thing. If you’re irritable, blame it on me for telling you about my adverse reaction. You too can consider my reaction as a function of my sensitive temperament.

Maybe I’m irritable because we’re leaving for Israel tonight and I can’t decide which hoody to take. My life has no end of stresses. It’s a wonder that I can function at all.

Introducing the emotional hangover

Have I ever defined the post-Bar Mitzvah (Bat Mitzvah, in my case) blues? When someone gears up for something for so long, and it’s fantastic, but then it’s over? That’s what today feels like for me.

After months of anticipating yesterday’s Light the Night Walk in downtown Calgary on a beautiful fall evening, it’s over. My special support team walked the full five kilometres with me–a kilometre for every year–to celebrate my enduring good health. The evening was perfect.

I’ve described the walk before but allow me a medically inaccurate and absurd analogy. Imagine each walker as a blood cell. There are the white blood cells, the largest in size but fewest in number. Those are the leukemia (and other bloody disordered) survivors holding our little white lanterns. Then there are the red blood cells, which are smaller but more plentiful than the white cells. The red-lanterners are those walking in support of the white lanterners.

Platelets are small fragments of blood cells. They are represented by the gold lantern holders, who are survivors in their own way, walking in memory of someone who has died. They may feel they’ve lost a part of themselves.

Finally, let’s not forget the plasma, which carries nutrients, hormones, and proteins through the body. Consider the plasma all the amazing volunteers who registered all the walkers, distributed t-shirts and lanterns and coffee and hotdogs, and lined the pathway cheering us on.

We of many lanterns walked along a narrow pathway, clustered together but hopefully not clotting. We white lanterns were surrounded by our devoted red-lanterned supporters. One group followed after another, each its own community of red-lanterened support for one little white lantern. The gold-lanterned folks formed their own groups or were sprinkled amongst the whites and reds (we had two golds on our team) because blood disorders touch too many people. Along this narrow pathway–an artery? a vein?–walked all these blood cells, supporting one another, guided by our plasma support staff.

At moments during the walk, I looked around me and saw my little group, distinguished by their absurd team attire–perhaps next year you too could look sharp in a multicoloured Dr. Seuss hat–and I realized how not alone I am. While I searched for my own team, I saw so many similar groups ahead of and behind me, reminding me that we’re all in this together.

I’m blessed by the people who walked with me and the people who sent their regrets and wished me well. To the team members who hunted down my ridiculous 5-year pin, which I finally received from a kind volunteer, a 5-year survivor himself. To the two very handsome firefighters, the retired one who appeared on site unexpectedly with his beloved partner, the other one in uniform who handed me my survivor’s rose at the end.

Today I am spent, drained, hungover, but in a good way. You must know this feeling. I look forward to next year’s event. If you too aspire to be a red blood cell in colourful clown attire, know there’s always next year.

Crowd picture at Light the Night Calgary 2017

A microscope may help you see our team.

Hangin’ at the hospice

Small dog on hospital bed being petted by patient

Twice a month, my PAL Jelly and I go to visit the seniors at a retirement home. Adjoining the home is a hospice, and often we stop in there along the way. Because Jelly is vertically challenged, it is hard for her to visit with people who are bedridden, but she does her best, seeking out chairs and couches so she can raise herself up within reach.

I admit that entering a hospice isn’t easy. I never know who I’ll meet and what condition they’ll be in. Others must feel the same because somedays there are very few visitors, if any. Some of the patients are so close to dying that they are not up to company.

The past few visits, we’ve been watching a dog-adoring hospice patient become increasingly frail. From the pictures hanging on the wall, I can see he was once a strong and vibrant man. On the wall, there are several pictures of him with his dog. Over time, he is having more and more difficulty moving his body and speaking clearly. Imagine the frustration of not being able to communicate easily. Despite his challenges, he greets the PALS dogs with a broad smile, even if he needs to be woken from sleep to visit.

Since this patient is missing his dog terribly and is unable to reach down to pet our dogs, we lift our dogs up onto the bed with him. When Jelly’s turn on the bed came yesterday, she was more than glad to oblige. She snuggled up to the patient and kissed his face repeatedly. He laboured with his little remaining muscle strength to raise his hand to pet her. I was moved watching his effort to be with the dogs.

While we were visiting, two granddaughters walked in to see him. One of the girls immediately started crying when she saw the dogs and bent down to pet them. She told us she had had a bad day and she was so glad we were there. She didn’t elaborate, but I was glad seeing the pups comforted her.

I tried to imagine how hard it would have been for these young girls to enter the hospice not knowing what condition their grandfather would be in that day. From one visit to the next, like us, they have been watching him die. What would they find to talk about? Would they even be able to decipher what he was saying? Could they find some way to communicate? Hopefully the brief PALS appearance facilitated their visit, which I’m sure wasn’t easy.

This experience reminded me that we bring our dogs to the hospice not only to see the patients. The staff caring for these patients day in and day out–the nurses, the aides, the cleaning staff–anticipate our arrival. The family and friends who arrive when we’re there appreciate the wagging tails as well. Some even schedule their visits when the PALS dogs will be there. I’m happy knowing that the dogs make the day a little bit easier for many of these people. They deserve at least that.

Getting back on the therapy horse

Bride trying dress with group watching on Say Yes to the Dress

Since I am expecting a hoard of new clients to swarm my office any day now, I felt it was time to brush up on my therapy skills. I considered reviewing some of the books on my office shelves or going to a family therapy conference or ten, but I’m taking the easy route instead: I’m watching television.

I’ve admitted previously that I have an odd fascination with Say Yes to the Dress, and not just because J. and I both wore jeans to our home wedding. Before I started watching this show, I did not realize that brides-to-be took entourages to shop for the special dress. Makes sense, I guess, to seek input.

I imagined that the bride’s opinion would take precedence in the end. If the bride said yes to the dress, who would care if her mother or best friend or clothing-designer cousin or long-deceased grandfather who spoke through her aunt the medium said no? A lot of people care, it turns out, especially the bride.

I’ve witnessed many a bride crying in her dressing room, afraid to exit for fear of the entourage’s reaction to her choice. Many a narcissistic mother has forgotten that the appointment is actually about her daughter the bride. And many the oblivious father is unaware that his daughter is more concerned with pleasing him than pleasing herself. Because I am a psychologist and not a medium, I can’t speak for the wishes of long-deceased grandfather.

I marvel at the sales associate-cum-family therapist who, while helping the vulnerable bride-to-be find her perfect dress, manages the needs of the highly opinionated crew she has brought with her. Consider this a glimpse into family, and group, dynamics. (Turns out we often play similar roles in groups as we do in our families.) Ms. (or Mr.) Dress-a-Bride manages to keep the entourage happy while ensuring that the bride’s needs are met. This often involves skilled negotiation with widely varying personalities.

Now let’s consider another favourite nap inducer, Chopped. The chefs who participate on this show are a product of their family upbringings, as are we all. There are the only-child competitors who won’t share ingredients vs. the eldests who unscrew their competitors’ unyielding bottle tops, if you believe in that birth-order baloney.

I’ve also learned from Chopped how many adult children are tormented by their parents’ disapproval of their professional choices, despite their successes in their careers. This needing-to-please theme sounds oddly familiar. (See above.) The chefs pray a Chopped win will foster their parents’ acceptance, finally, after all these years. Will these contestants ever understand that what matters most is how they feel about the path their lives have taken and not how their parents judge that path? I fear not, barring help from someone like me.

You too can hone your therapy skills from television shows like these. Who cares how to incorporate cinnamon hearts into an entrée or whether a princess gown or a mermaid would better suit the bride? Focus on what really matters, like I do: how people are getting along.

Once you master the complex dynamic issues in these shows, we can move on to 90 Day Fiancé or even Big Brother. On second thought, maybe not. Even I have my limits.

To be a Jew who sees a Jew

Necklace with Hebrew word Chai on itI grew up amongst Jews, and I don’t mean only my family. The students in my elementary school were predominantly Jewish, and I hung out with fellow Jews in the neighbourhood and at the Jewish grocery stores and bakeries where we shopped. I even went to synagogue for many years, and I studied all things Jewish right through university. I was immersed in Judaism way back when.

I’m still Jewish, as evidenced by my excellent challah-baking skills (FYI: brioche ≠ challah), but, besides my few local Jewish friends, there aren’t many of us in town. I am largely to blame for my isolation from the small Jewish community here. I do not attend synagogue or visit the local Jewish community centre. I once caught a film at the Jewish Film Festival. There is an annual Jewish film festival here.

I miss being part of a Jewish community sometimes, just like I miss smoked sablefish and blintzes for brunch and my grandmother’s chicken soup at Friday night dinner. So imagine my surprise yesterday when I spotted a member of my tribe entering the grocery store as I was exiting. I spied, with my little eye, a Jew.

How did I know the lass was Jewish? She was wearing a big Chai (pronounce this not like the tea but with a guttural ch) around her neck. This necklace screamed, “I am Jewish.” There aren’t a lot of Chais or Stars of Davids or other Jewish symbols to be found around necks in this city, so I was surprised by the unexpected sighting.

This young woman had her earplugs in and music blaring so she could see my look of surprise, followed by my lips moving, but she had no idea what I said. No, I did not caution her on the permanent damage she was causing her hearing. That was my inside voice. Rather, I said, “Chai!” which kind of sounds like “Hi!” if you, like me, can’t pronouce the guttural ch properly. Chai is not a greeting. It means “life” and is an important symbol amongst our type. Remember Fiddler on the Roof singing “To life, to life, l’chaim!”? L’chaim commonly precedes a toast (not the kind with bread, but the kind with alcohol).

This young woman, who wondered why a stranger was speaking to her, stopped, took out an earplug, and said, “Excuse me?” I pointed to her necklace and said, “Chai!” (which again probably sounded more like “Hi!”) Then I said, in case she thought I’d said “Hi!” while pointing to her chest, “You have a Chai!” This was code for “You’re Jewish too!”

She smiled with understanding and wished me a Chag Sameach (Happy Holiday), which is how we Jews greet one another this time of year. The day we met, Sukkot, our holiday celebrating the bounty of the harvest, was ending, and another less familiar but no less important festival was soon to begin. We Jews are in full throttle holidaying this time of year.

That woman must have thought I was crazy. I am a little meshuga, as we say. But you already knew that. Meshuga + poor impulse control = Annie. I make no apologies for who I am, even though some days maybe I should.

Celebrate your milestones, whatever they are

3 Light the Night walkers with their Survivor t-shirts

We leave on our big vacation in 12 sleeps. When we were first planning this vacation, J. told me her rush of fall weddings would end immediately following Thanksgiving. We could be on the plane already, except I didn’t want to miss the annual leukemia walk. Which would you choose, a trip to Israel or a leukemia walk? Don’t answer that.

This decision to delay the vacation may not make sense to you; I’m a little bewildered by it myself. Going on this annual walk, hanging out with my fellow leukemics, wearing my guest-of-honour SURVIVOR t-shirt, has become a significant event in my year. I’ll try to explain.

My definition of a milestone has changed over my five years with leukemia. After I became so sick, I was proud of being able to walk unassisted and to tie my shoes without falling over. I vividly recall my first post-diagnosis yoga class, which I survived despite falling over a few times. I remember cooking my first real dinner post diagnosis, and seeing my first client. Being alert enough to drive again was another milestone.

As time passes, the goals have shifted. There’s the annual Cancer Centre’s Christmas gift-basket draw, which means I’m alive to lose my money again for a good cause. I don’t hate my birthday anymore, and the importance of cancerversaries is self-explanatory. For whatever reason, this leukemia walk has taken on an odd significance in my annual calendar. It’s my prize for getting leukemia and not dying from it.

This year’s will be all the more special because I will finally receive my 5-year pin. Now you know the real reason I delayed my vacation: I wanted a silly little commemorative pin. Frankly, I could have lied about how many years I’d had the illness and received this pin anytime–no one asks for a doctor’s letter–but I’m too honest for such deception.

This coveted pin is nothing to speak of. It’s the shape and colour of a drop of blood with a 5 on it. The blood-drop symbol is almost identical to that used by Canadian Blood Services. When I wear my pin proudly, people may well assume I am a blood donor (I selfishly only take blood), and not a leukemia survivor.

Does it matter that the pin will have meaning only to me? Of course not. If anyone asks, I can always set them straight. (Ha ha. “Gay person sets unknowing one straight.” And they say we’re out [no pun intended, truly] to convert people!)

When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I never envisioned reaching goals like these. Now, planning for my next milestone keeps me hopeful that leukemia is not going to take my life. No wonder cancer-related goals, however insignificant, have become so important to me.

Then, two days later, J. and I will leave for Israel. Who ever thought I’d get any doctor’s blessing to travel so far? Yet another cause for celebration. That and anticipation of the best hummus and falafel anywhere. I can almost taste it….

A plate of hummus with falafel balls in the middle

Sometimes it’s best not to keep score

Newspaper on doorstep

First, let’s get the Facebook page out of the way. To those of you who have kindly sent me Friend requests, I am not ignoring you; I am simply paralyzed by my ineptness. I learned the hard way that there is a difference between a Facebook account and a Facebook page, and had to shut my first attempts down. I will get back to you when I manage to sort my page out.

Now a question for those of you who have your paper delivered: did your newspaper arrive at your doorstep this morning? If it did not, I think I can explain. I received it. Ever since I left those stale banana chocolate chip muffins out for Mr. RAK, we have awoken to one or sometimes even two newspapers on our doorstep. I may have to rename Mr. RAK Mr. DAK (as in “Daily Acts of Kindness”) because he has been so generous with us.

You can imagine that I, who am prone to guilt in much lesser circumstances, am overwhelmed with this current situation. This man receives no financial compensation for his generosity toward us, and I genuinely believe he is not trying to encourage us to reinitiate our subscription. My gratitude is killing me.

Of course I keep a mental tally of the give and take in any relationship. If I feel I’m giving too much over time, either I try to address the inequity with the person directly (when I’m in a grown-up mood) or, if I’m feeling more child like, I withdraw from that person. According to my usual tally system, I’m always in the red. Always. So a situation like the one with Mr. DAK, where I’m getting a lot more than I’m giving, torments me.

I am trying to practice allowing someone–in this case, Mr. DAK, to be kind to me. But in order to rebalance things just a bit, as soon as I finish this post, I will be baking a batch of oatmeal cranberry cookies to leave for him tomorrow morning, when he will be dropping by with an extra newspaper for us. I give thanks to you, Mr. DAK.

I was discussing the newspaper situation with a neighbourhood friend who happens to pay for her daily paper delivery. She mentioned that every so often, maybe once a month, her newspaper does not arrive. As she was discussing this with me, she said, “Hey, wait a minute….” We agreed that maybe Mr. DAK, in a Robin-Hoodish manner, is stealing from the subscribers and giving to the nonsubscribers. So if you’re my neighbour and your newspaper doesn’t arrive, feel free to take ours. God knows we haven’t paid for it. Consider it your way of assuaging my guilt.

Happy Thanksgiving. May you all have much to be grateful for this weekend.

 

P.S. I’ve had a few enquiries about this year’s Light the Night Walk for Leukemia on Saturday, October 21. You are more than welcome to join us. The team name is Annie’s Anemic Leukemics, and the registration link is here. If you are interested in celebrating my fifth cancerversary with me, come on out. All the better if you’re an Olympic weightlifter: you can carry me over the finish line if I get too pooped to walk.

Necessity is the mother of my Facebook page

Picture of fingers walking on Yellow Pages phone directory

My office phone has been hopping lately, and not just with free cruise offers and other robocalls. I have had a few new-old clients finding their way back to my office. All have come via a few family physicians who used to send me referrals, until I told them I was out of commission five or so years ago. Remember that brief spell when I abruptly closed my office and abandoned all my clients? Yeah, that. And, more recently, my endless moaning and groaning about missing my work? Someone has been listening to my internal pleas.

Yesterday I met with a client I hadn’t seen in 10 years. She somehow tracked down my number and gave me a call. I realized, upon checking the old file, that she’d initially been referred by one of these family physicians. After our session, I asked the client for written permission to send the doctor summarizing our contact. It would also be a way of telling the doctor that I was not dead.

I scripted a quick one pager. After the half hour it took me to recall business formatting, and the additional half hour spent printing an envelope, I finished the letter and dropped it in the mail. As they say, she who hesitates forgets.

Upon awakening this morning, I realized that I’d omitted my letterhead completely. No address, no phone number, no email address, nothing. If the doctor wanted to contact me, she’d be completely at a loss, unless she’d recorded my number somewhere or had held onto an old business card. How long do you hold onto someone’s old business card?

I am an idiot. When I told J. what I’d done, she said, “Are you sure you’re ready to go back to work?” That seemed a bit harsh. I’ve been doing the odd bit of therapy, but I haven’t scripted a business letter in five years now. I forgot how it’s done, but I believe I’ve learned from this experience and will never forget to include my contact information again. Tomorrow, in my I’m-still-alive notes to other family physicians who’ve recently made referrals, I’ll most certainly include a business card or two.

In my panic this morning, though, I asked J. to google me. Googling myself would force me to accept I’m invisible on the internet, and I don’t need that humiliation. She did a search, and found my telephone number from an office I left a decade ago. I couldn’t believe my current work number of 10 years was completely absent on line so I was forced to google myself. I discovered that a) I really am invisible; and b) my current number and my old number are equally represented. At least clients seeking me have a 50/50 chance of choosing the correct number. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so quick to cancel my Yellow Pages account.

I need to create a web presence pronto. For now, I am creating a business Facebook page, complete with my correct telephone number and email address. I hope potential clients are able to find the right Annie, since there are two Annies with my last name on Facebook. FYI, in case you can’t tell from the picture, I’m not the Annie from Fresno, California.

Believing something doesn’t make it true

I don’t really believe in anniversary reactions. I’m referring to the emotional upheaval people may experience around the time of year of a previous traumatic event. If you were in a terrifying car crash in the fall, you may become more nervous about driving around that time, for example. These reactions may sometimes reflect post-traumatic stress disorder.

Whether or not I believe in anniversary reactions, I seem to be having one. I was out of sorts last week and my sleep became disrupted (tired J. can confirm that), yet I had no idea why. You’d probably expect me to figure it out because I’m a psychologist, but I didn’t.

I hadn’t made the connection with what was happening five years ago at this time. Remember my height of attention seeking when I almost died? The whole period is a blur, but September 27 stands out in my mind. On that day, I was moved from the ICU to a private hospital room. I have three distinct memories from that day.

On the wall by every hospital bed, there is a white board with the patient’s name, the patient’s nurse, the admitting physician, and the date. I recall looking at the white board in my room and being sure that the date was wrong. It was September 20th, not the 27th, I thought. When my liver was failing, my brain fared poorly too. My grip on reality was tenuous at best. I was confused and disoriented and hallucinating. No wonder I didn’t know the date.

Later that day, for the first time in weeks, I witnessed how much my body had changed over my hospital stay. (The ICU doesn’t have a lot of mirrors, for obvious reasons.) My legs and arms were spindly from weight loss, and my skin was yellow with jaundice. I was unrecognizable. In that moment, I realized how sick I’d been.

My anxiety peaked that night. In one day, I went from having a nurse assigned solely to my care, her desk positioned so she could see me at all times, to a secluded hospital room with only occasional monitoring. I was sure I would die in this room and no one would realize it for hours. I was a wee bit anxious.

I hadn’t been aware I was thinking about that period of time, but while I wasn’t sleeping one night, I made the connection. My anniversary reaction snuck up on me unexpectedly. I may have to reconsider my belief in the whole phenomenon.

Five years ago, as I regained awareness, I was hit by how close I’d come to death. Did I ever address how scary that realization must have been? I can’t recall. And even if I did deal with it at the time, sometimes such intense emotions resurface when you least expect them. Or maybe I should reconsider this whole anniversary thing and accept my reaction as predictable.

I feel a bit better already. Last night I even slept. Today’s anniversary is truly celebratory: on October 2, 2012, I was finally discharged from the hospital to recuperate at home. Had you seen me then, you wouldn’t have thought I’d still be alive today, but here I am. I can only thank God for that.

Person in hospital bed, staff saying,