Spare Change News
I can talk about it now — the pain, the fear, the shock. All gone.
On Thanksgiving night, I nearly died. Only those close to me and some within the organization knew about it.
This isn’t one of those stories that you see on television — no bright lights or out-of-body experiences — it’s just a story. But it’s a story that has a beginning.
As many of you know from some of my writings, I spent most of 2011 homeless, and I guess you could say that’s where this story begins. Being homeless again after so many years can be pretty depressing. I struggled hard with it. Just trying to keep my hopes up was a tough assignment.
Still, I kept going. But I wasn’t taking care of myself properly. When I ended up in the hospital last May from stress, that should have been a major hint, and for a little while I took things a little more seriously. But even then I was pushing it, trying to keep things going at Spare Change and dealing with my own personal issues at the same time.
Finally, just before Labor Day I took some time off and checked myself into the hospital for some much-needed rest. I left the running of the paper to others. While in the hospital, I met someone, and for a moment things began to look up. But only for a moment. My new friend had issues of her own and even though I had my own to deal with I put them aside to help her. I put everything else including the organization on hold and threw myself full time into helping my new friend.
That turned into an emotional rollercoaster. The more I tried to look after her, the less I had to think of my own problems. In October we both moved to Lynn with some old friends of mine. I was happy because I wasn’t looking forward to spending winter in the shelter system, but things weren’t going well. My new friend was having a difficult time and we went back and forth to hospitals. My kids and a few of my friends didn’t exactly warm up to her, either. She and I began arguing a lot and it began to put a strain on me. I had started smoking again, and began to drink heavily. I was under a lot of stress.
I was also selling papers in cold and rainy weather. I have COPD (a lung disease), so when I catch a cold it’s an event. Everyone worried about me. My daughter told me that I looked old and worn. I told her and everyone else that I would be fine.
I woke up not feeling well on Thanksgiving morning; my friend and I had had a big fight the night before. She was headed to New Hampshire that day to see her brother, or so she claimed. Anyway, she left without saying goodbye, and for a good part of the day I moped around. I went over to my son’s mother’s place to have dinner with them and her new husband (nice guy). Not liking the way I looked, my ex asked me to stay over. I did, but I couldn’t sleep or breathe.
I asked my ex to call an ambulance. Suddenly, I couldn’t get any air at all. I couldn’t get dressed or even put my shoes on. I went into the hallway figuring I was allergic to something in the house. That’s when my lungs shut down. I couldn’t get any air and my whole body just let go. I knew what was happening.
My ex was holding on to me while her husband stayed on the phone with 911 and went downstairs to meet them. “I don’t want to die,” I said to my ex, or I gasped it. She held on to me and said, “You’re not going anywhere.” The next few moments happened in a flash. The fire department showed up and they put me on oxygen. They said something I couldn’t quite understand, and then they put me on a stretcher and carried me downstairs. They worked on me in the ambulance for a while (my ex said 20 minutes), then it was off to the hospital.
As it turned out, one of my lungs had partially collapsed, and also I had pneumonia. I was in the hospital for a few days, then I went back to Lynn — end of story, right? Wrong, the doctors at the hospital gave me a prescription for a steroid for my lungs and after a couple of days of taking it I began to blow up like a balloon.
My daughter said I looked like the Pillsbury doughboy. I thought it was funny and I figured it was just the medication, but little did I know that there was something else going on. I woke up one morning and looked in the mirror and was shocked at what I saw. My face was swollen, big time, and I couldn’t even put my shoes on. I knew something was really wrong and had my friends call another ambulance.
I got to the emergency room and they told me right away that my body was retaining water. They gave me a pill that made me go to the bathroom. After examining me some more they found that I was suffering from congestive heart failure. At first I panicked, but the doctors told me that this was something I could live with, and that I just needed to take care of myself. I was in the hospital for a week or so as they drained the extra water out of my body.
While I was there, they offered to put me in touch with a clinic that specializes in CHF. I jumped into it whole- heartedly, determined to get my health back. I found that my diabetes and my blood pressure were out of control as well.
I had a lot of work to do. For the next few weeks I did everything the doctors told me to do. I dieted, exercised, made all my appointments, gave up the smokes, you name it. Last week, I got a clean bill of health. That doesn’t mean I can stop doing what I’m doing; on the contrary, I feel pretty damn good. Being healthy has its strong points.
So what have I learned? A lot. I don’t take anything for granted anymore. I’m grateful just to wake up in the morning no matter how the day turns out. I’ve also learned that it’s OK to put myself first. I can’t be there for everybody all the time. It’s OK to say no. It may sound selfish, but it keeps me alive. I’m living with great friends right now, until I get my own place. They and the rest of my family don’t want me in a shelter, so I stick to my pride. It’s OK to let others take care of you. As for my new friend, I found out while I was in the hospital that she was lying to me about a lot of things. She is no longer part of my life. I’m happy and healthy for the first time in a long while, and I intend to be that way for a long, long, time.
JAMES SHEARER is a co-founder and board president of Spare Change News.