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Jessica on Campus

By Jessica Santemma

Hello!  Welcome to Jessica on Campus.  This is my second year writing for International Family Magazine, as well as my sophomore year at The George Washington University.  Being at college and depending on myself for everything from getting a healthy meal to making a doctor’s appointment (though I admit still calling my Mom on occasion to intervene), I have learned a lot.  I went to the same small school from age three to age eighteen, where faculty, students and parents knew each other pretty well. Now I attend a university with over 9,000 undergraduate students and what seems like limitless staff.  Professors here don’t know “trivial” personal information that my grade school teachers knew, like that in fifth grade my dog died, or my reputation academically or socially.  The entire student body here at GW is in the same position - everyone has a clean slate.  You can be exactly who you want to be and be involved in exactly what you want to be involved in.  It’s a very refreshing feeling that can be applied to any new experience - a new job, relationship, friendship or town - experiences are precisely what you make of them.  These changes, or parts of life, are all about choosing what to pursue and deciding what works and what doesn’t work, for you.  That’s a beautiful thing.

Second semester, senior year of high school is supposed to be the most relaxing, crazy and fun time of primary education.  For me, everything was looking according to plan.  I had been accepted to GW first semester and no longer needed to worry about college applications, so really all I had to do was keep up good enough grades for GW not to rescind my acceptance – in other words, anything above fail.  January was fabulous – my friends and family threw me a big surprise birthday party, I finally mustered up the courage to break up with my boyfriend (our relationship had been dead for a few months), and was co-captain of my cheerleading squad.  I was looking forward to spending winter break in the sun at our vacation house in a resort community in Florida with my mom and a friend.  I was happy, and everything was going great.  But when February rolled around, I got a cold.  My doctor thought nothing of it, but I just couldn’t shake a bad cough for two weeks.  Then came time for the vacation, and I arrived in Florida ready to lay in the sun and Vitamin-D myself to health.  But after just one-day poolside, I felt awful.  I was shaking and shivering and sweating profusely, so we called the medical center inside the resort.  I got an appointment, and was told that I had the flu.  I was sent home with Tami Flu, but I started throwing up repeatedly, and had terrible back pains. I went back to the medical center five out of the seven-day week, and was told it was the flu and to just let it run its course. Twice they gave me IV fluids for five hours because I was dehydrated.  By the end of the week, I could no longer walk.  My friend went home to go back to school, but I stayed resting on my couch, feeling my heart race while I exerted no energy. I then started hallucinating that actors and actresses were walking out of the TV and standing around me.  My mom finally called my doctor back at home, and he asked about a chest x-ray. My mom said we hadn’t gotten one, and my doctor was outraged.  He said to go back to the medical center and demand an x-ray.  She carried me to our golf cart – they’re like cars there – and bundled me in blankets despite the 85-degree weather, and demanded the x-ray.  A different doctor saw me, and said there was no time for a chest x-ray, that my left lung wasn’t producing any breath sounds, and my right lung was barely producing any.  He guessed my left lung had collapsed, and I was rushed in an ambulance to Baptist Hospital in Miami, an hour and a half away.  I remember how nice the lady was in the back of the ambulance, how she just kept talking to me.  I took another IV, and when we got to the hospital they wheeled me past so many people and into my own room.  My mom and I thought it was because she had called our family friend who pulled some strings, but it wasn’t just that.  My heart rate was skyrocketing, and my blood wasn’t carrying much oxygen.  More nice and friendly doctors came in, and fastened oxygen masks to my face.  Every hour or so they’d upgrade my mask intensity, and said that if I couldn’t learn how to breathe with the new masks, they’d have to intubate me.  They explained this meant they’d put a tube down my throat, and since that sounded terribly unpleasant, I was motivated to work with the new masks.  By then, my dad had flown down from New York, and they thought things were under control.  My heart rate was still very high, but I was doing better.  Then suddenly, it jumped to nearly twice the normal rate for my age, and continued to rise.  I remember being wheeled away, into what I hallucinated had colorful walls and was the children’s unit, and the doctor’s told me calmly they were going to intubate me, but explained I would have to be put to sleep for the procedure.  I remember thinking, “Great I won’t feel a thing!” When I voiced this thought, everyone just held my hand and told me it would be okay.  I didn’t understand why everyone was being so serious, and I remember one of the doctors came and sat next to me, told me to relax, and put a needle into my arm.  The room was dark and cold, and I was elevated, I remember feeling like my bed was the only thing in the room.  I remember not being afraid, because I wanted to be intubated to feel better.  I remember that it didn’t occur to me that being intubated meant I was no longer able to breathe on my own.  That was Monday.

I was put into a medically induced coma while the doctors searched for what was wrong with me.  They did countless tests and found I had double pneumonia.  My left lung wasn’t collapsed, it was completely filled with fluid and had no room for air, and my right lung was 80% full of fluid, so I was literally drowning in my own body. The hallucinations were a result of being deprived oxygen for so long, and the doctors told my parents that if I ever did wake up, I would have brain damage.  After being so sick for so long, my body had gone into septic shock; one in every three people who goes into septic shock dies.  My liver stopped working, and bone marrow stopped producing.  My mom swears she felt my soul floating around the room, unsure if it was going to come back to my body or fly away.  The priest from the hospital chapel had heard my case, and came to read last rites.  In Catholicism, when a person is about to die from sickness, a priest blesses them to absolve them of their sins before they go to heaven.  I made it through that night, and he came back the next day to read them again.  My parents were forced to sign DNR papers, and waited.

I woke up late in the day on Thursday.  One of my brothers and my two sisters were there, along with my parents.  My sister Suzie had flown in from New Mexico, along with my brother and other sister from New York, with black clothes for my funeral.  Although I hadn’t seen Suzie in months, I didn’t feel like I was seeing her for the first time.  I felt like I woke up from a really long nap – I knew I had been asleep for a while, but I had no idea how long.  I remember waking up, and being in so much pain.  I was huge when I woke up, as a result of experimental medications and retained water weight.  I found holes in my body, and learned what had happened by overhearing bits of conversation and inquiring.  My lungs had been drained with a syringe and a port was sewn into my neck for pain medication.  I was in the ICU for a week, and the pulmonary unit for another.  My muscles atrophied, and I had to relearn how to walk.  I was on oxygen masks for twelve days, huge ones that strapped around my entire face and prevented me from speaking or eating.  Friends sent pictures and my mom decorated my room.  My mom showed the doctors pictures of what I looked like when I was well, and none of the doctors or nurses could conceal their disbelief.  I was a completely different looking person, and no one could believe that a healthy, active 18 year- old girl could get so sick.  By some unknown chance, my brain was completely fine.  One month later, I was well enough to return home, and to school in April.

A few weeks later I was diagnosed with an autoimmune deficiency.  My body doesn’t produce the appropriate antibodies to fight off infection, particularly respiratory illnesses.  I have since been treated, and am now monitored carefully. 

Here’s what I’ve learned from this near death experience: 1) Live every moment to the fullest, take advantage of every opportunity. 2) Be honest, and be nice.  3) Anything can happen in an instant, ANYTHING.  Whether or not you believe in God, fate, or some type of over ruling presence, whatever is up there throws some really big curve balls.  I’m not sure why things like this happen, but they sure do make you think, don’t they?

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