It’s 5:15 am on a Sunday. I’m standing in the hallway of the emergency room of a Swiss hospital. Next to me, the hospital’s surgeon on call holds up my partner’s MRI images for me to look at. He was called in from his home by the emergency doctor who examined my partner when we got here in the middle of the night.
“Jesus Christ” I say a little too loud, shocked, when I see that a large part of the image of my partner’s right upper leg is covered in something white. “Yeah,” the surgeon nods. “What is that?” I ask. “And how bad is it?” “Have you heard of flesh-eating disease?” he replies with a question, but doesn’t wait for my answer. “We’re going to have to take him into surgery immediately, before it progresses any further.”
I feel my legs shaking. I’m suddenly incredibly cold, even though I didn’t even have time to take off my jacket yet. My partner, the love of my life, is laying in the next room. We go there. The surgeon is stern – he’s not trying to embellish things – but kind. He turns to my partner: “This is very serious, and we will do our best to save your leg; but if it’s a choice between your life and your leg, we will choose your life.” Wait, what? We were having dinner at this beautiful lakeside hotel restaurant only a few hours ago. We were in the middle of a romantic weekend; a birthday surprise I organized for him. How can this be happening? My head is spinning. I can see he’s terrified – he knows what his diagnosis means. If not caught on time, it can kill you; even if it doesn’t, it can maim you terribly.
The system moves swiftly, with Swiss precision. They prep him for surgery. We sign all the paperwork, I’m his next of kin now. He hands me his phone and valuables. I say goodbye to him at 5:45 am, as the sliding door of the operating room opens and the nurses are about to roll him in. He tells me that I will always be his one true love. I’m trying to stay calm, for him, but my eyes are welling up. I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again. I must look terribly scared, because one of the nurses stays behind and takes my hand. “He’s going to be all right.”
Even though we’ve known each other for almost 20 years, we’ve only been together a few months and now suddenly I’m his emergency contact – his only contact in this country, as he doesn’t know anyone else here outside of work. If something happens to him, I’ll be the one who will have to tell his family back in the US. They take me to an empty hospital room, where I will wait until the surgery is done. I’ve given the surgeon my cellphone number and he’s promised to call me as soon as he has news. All I can do is stare out the window as it becomes progressively lighter outside. And pray.
I jump up when the phone rings, almost three hours later. He’s alive. They had to take out as much of the dead tissue as they could, but the surgeon is hopeful that he will recover fully. The next 24 hours will be critical. I visit him in the intensive care unit. He’s battered but he’s with me. His eyes are open. He jokes around with the ICU nurses. He smiles.
He keeps smiling, for the entire five weeks that follow, even though he has to stay in his hospital bed, largely unable to move for most of that period. He doesn’t complain once. Every day, I go to hospital immediately after dropping off my kids at school and stay until the late afternoon, when I have to pick them up. Often, I go back later in the evening or after dinner. Weekends are tougher because I’m with the kids. I’m his person – he doesn’t have anyone in this city.
As he can’t really move, the first couple of weeks I do everything for him. I talk to the nurses on his behalf (they only speak German and he doesn’t); order his meals; fill out the insurance paperwork. My favorite part is when I help him shave. I’ve never done that for someone before. I love that he trusts me completely. I used to tease him and call him ‘my general’ because he can be such a control freak. But now, he’s not trying to control anything, he just lets me take care of him.
This traumatic event is like a ‘love bootcamp’; it brings us even closer to each other than before. We joke that, after this, we can handle anything – we’re that resilient and we’re a good team.
Next week it will be three years since this happened. We’re married by now, and living together, but the memory of those days hasn’t left us, of course. It still comes up from time to time. While I’d much rather not have had to go through it, I feel grateful for everything I learned from it. Like the fact that I am capable of handling most things that life throws my way; or that I have the strength to focus and function under extreme stress. I learned how to take charge and figure things out; how to manage on my own; how to be someone’s support.
I learned that it is possible to be a strong, reliable, independent person – like my husband is – and still have trust in others and allow yourself to be taken care of. I also realized how much delight there can be in taking care of another person – especially the person you love. Whether it was helping him eat his lunch when he couldn’t sit up or massaging moisturizer on his dry hands, all of it brought me joy. I learned how little things can bring so much pleasure, like watching our favorite series laying side by side on his hospital bed.
Finally, I’ve learned that, in order to be anyone’s support, I have to first support myself. I need to be kind and take care of myself by doing the things that nurture my body and my spirit. I wouldn’t have made it through those challenging days if I hadn’t made sure I slept enough, ate healthy and got some exercise, despite my extremely full days. Most of the time, I didn’t feel like doing any of these things, but was committed to doing them anyway.
That time of year around my husband’s birthday still feels bittersweet. I sometimes find myself feeling nervous for no particular reason, as if worrying that something bad is about to happen. But I’m also, more than ever, determined to celebrate life – his and ours.