KNAU commentator Scott Thybony always spends a lot of time outdoors, but that’s been especially true of the last 6 weeks during the COVID-19 pandemic. Scott’s been walking canyon rims, volcano craters and hollowed-out cliffs filled with rock art images. In between hikes, he’s been writing. And in this week’s Canyon Commentary, Scott reflects on his recovery from encephalitis many years ago, drawing some parallels to the current situation. He says being able to connect with others was part of the healing process.
The highway to the Grand Canyon, traveled by millions of people each year, stretched away nearly empty. At times I saw no one while driving it yesterday. The national park remains closed, nearby towns mostly shut down, and people continue to keep away from each other. In a time of isolation I find myself thinking more about healing than sickness, and draw on my own experience to make sense of it.
Back in high school I was being treated at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center for a football injury and nearly collapsed in the doctor’s office. He became alarmed when checking my eyes and rushed out to find a neurologist. They immediately placed me in the hospital for observation. Despite the unremitting pain in my head, they could not give me any medication until they knew what they were facing. They ran tests for several days without success and finally decided to do a spinal tap.
The doctor had me lie curled on my side as he inserted an enormous needle in my lower back. It looked like something a large-animal veterinarian might use. He had problems finding the right spot, and kept probing over and over before getting deep enough to draw the spinal fluid for testing. The doctor discovered I had encephalitis, a virus causing the brain to swell and press hard against the skull. It proved fatal in 34 percent of the cases in those days. They had no treatment for it, and didn’t want to risk giving me anything for the pain. Sleep came in fragments only after exhaustion, but I rapidly improved over the next two weeks.
Hoping to let me go home for Christmas, the doctor scheduled a spinal tap to check the white blood cell count. He had been doing these every few days to monitor my condition. The day before Christmas Eve he showed up late for our appointment looking troubled. They had run out of the anesthetic used for spinal taps on another patient, he told me, and would have to postpone the procedure. That meant staying in the hospital until after Christmas. But with some hesitation he gave me a choice. If I could handle the pain of having a needle inserted into my spine without anesthetic, he was willing go ahead. Desperate to get out of the hospital, I agreed. I had grown accustomed to a certain level of pain by then, and found it to be more of the same – and then some. When the doctor got the results back he gave me the good news. The white blood cell count was down, and he contacted my parents to take me home.
At dinnertime on Christmas Eve, the doctor called. There had been a mistake, he told my father. The samples had gotten mixed up, and it turned out my count had spiked instead of going down. My condition was extremely serious, and he insisted I return to the hospital immediately. My father asked him a few questions, then made a decision. No, he told the doctor, they would keep me home for Christmas. After that he could have me back. Christmas had always been a time of truce in our family when all troubles were set aside. It had always been a time of healing.
The next day my father drove me back to the hospital, and to the doctor’s surprise my count had dropped significantly. Within a few days he discharged me from the hospital for good. Isolation may be necessary at times, but it’s the human connection that heals.