Vertigo for Christmas


I don’t take many sick days except to spare colleagues some bug and I have always prided myself on a pretty stolid constitution that doesn’t give cause to much hypochondria or abuse of over-the-counter remedies. But this year Santa gave me an interesting “present” which I have to rank as the nastiest affliction I’ve ever endured.

The morning of Christmas Eve, I’m in the kitchen at 5:30 am waiting for the coffee to finish brewing, reading glasses perched on my nose, reading the New York Times on my tablet. I look up to peer at the bird feeders and become vaguely aware of a rotating feeling, a sinking stomach twinge of vertigo. I take a deep breath, read another story, and when the coffee maker beeps I look up and am greeted with another spin of the wheel. Damn reading glasses, I think, having left my usual set on my desk and not sure if the back up set are 2.0 or 2.5 or stronger.

I pour the coffee into the mug but the smell makes my stomach do a little flip. Motherf$%et, I think. You should have gotten a flu shot you idiot.

I walk into the room where my wife is reading, and it spins hard and to the left. I set the mug down on a table, roll onto the couch beside her, and take another deep breath. I don’t want to get her concerned so I say nothing, but she knows something is wrong and asks what’s the matter.

“Just a little dizzy, gonna rest for a second.”

I close my eyes, take another breath, and suddenly know I’m going to blow lunch.

“Wastepaper Basket. Now. Please.”

She leaps into action and makes it in time for me to retch. “Whoa….What the hell?”

I make it upstairs, crawl back into bed, lay in a fetal position and start a cold sweat. Another wave of nausea and to the bathroom I stagger. I’m sick!

But three hours later, the sound of happy holiday people bubbling from downstairs, guilt over gifts to wrap, errands to run, food to cook, and I’m back downstairs feeling much better thank you.

That was the preview of the blockbuster that followed.

Three days later, I’m sitting with the family, evening time, board games are being played, movie times checked, and dinner an hour away when the room decides to spin again. This time I calmly stand up, excuse myself, march upstairs, get a bucket just in case, and climb back in bed. Where I begin to shiver uncontrollably, soak through my shirt and the blankets in a few minutes, and sink into a total fog of hallucinations, wtenching vomit attacks, and acute sensitivity to light and sound.

Downstairs my wife is online researching symptoms. We come to the same conclusion — this is emergency room level and the only question is a ride in the Cotuit Fire Department’s ambulance or a car ride. I vote car. My sons help me slide down the stairs and support me as I stagger outside, barefoot, dressed in a celtics t-shirt and jeans they helped slide over my arms and legs, into the back of the car.

Because of the vomiting I didn’t spend more than a minute in the reception area at the hospital. I was rushed into a bay in the ER, wired up with an EKG, and then the questions began. IV was started, things beeped. My wife answered and there was a long reliving of my visit to that same ER a decade before after I was hit by a car while riding my bike and clocked my head good with a concussion that messed me up for two years and gave me wicked vertigo and nausea.

I could tell the concern was whether or not I was having a stroke or cerebral hemorrhage. I was drugged with Ativan and anti-nausea meds that wiped me out, so the next 48 hours were a blur of vomiting, beeping machines, strangers asking the same questions over and over.

At one point I woke up and saw my phone next to me on the table. I hadn’t seen it for two days so I picked it up and my text messages were filled with concerned questions from siblings and friends.

One of those friends, my best friend in fact, is an amazing doctor. He graduated from Harvard Medical School, did his internship and residency at Mass General — Doctor Dan is sort of a Seal Team 6 command0-level physician, who is scary smart, with a true photographic-memory and an inventive streak that has him on the leading edge of his specialty. He was in my text messages and was the only person I had the strength or fortitude to answer.

Here’s what went down in the wee hours of Thursday morning. The IV in my left arm had an alarm that went off whenever I bent my arm. This made holding a phone and typing on it pure misery as the beeping of the alarm made me vomit. You can tell from my misspelling and typos I was not having a fun time typing. But the point is — in the space of a couple dozen text messages, Dr. Dan pulled a Doctor House and diagnosed me, told me what to tell the attending physicians (I handed them the phone at one poinr), and six hours later I was released and sent home with a prescription for Famocyclivir (an anti-viral used to knock down shingles, cold sores and herpes symptoms) and a diagnosis that made every one who had been scratching their heads at the hospital smile and agree with.

The malady is called vestibular neuritis. It is what happens when a virus gets into your inner ear and inflames the vestibular nerve — the main connection between your ear’s balance system and your brain.  Basically Satanic Seasickness caused by a virus related to cold sores and chicken pox. It’s not that common, but boy does it mess people up.

My favorite part of the exchange, the point where I smiled, is when his ego kicked in and he told me to essentially shut up and give him another case to solve. Tele-medicine at its finest.



So here I am, nearly a week later, and I’ve stopped vomiting. The world is still spinning, and it will be at least a week before I’m well enough to resume commuting to the office in Boston. My balance is very shaky, but my appetite is back, I’ve lost a lot of weight, and today is the first day I can sit down in front of a computer and type anything.

If you want to curse your worst enemy with something vile, consider asking the genie in the lamp to send them a case of vestibular neuritis

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

3 thoughts on “Vertigo for Christmas”

  1. get well, reduce stress and be thankful for good friends who are fabulous docs. While at my doc’s office last month to snivel about tightness in my chest from a cold, my doc diagnosed an in progress heart attack.
    glad to hear you’re better and experiencing less stress, Dave. Happy New Year–Jim

    1. Actually today (1/15) is a really good day. After two weeks of working from home I feel steady enough to head back to the office next week. Still a little dizziness when I move my head, but compared to the first assault, all is well.

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