She begs me to start her on the swing, even though she’s five, and even though she’s capable of doing it herself. We’re at a little park nestled underneath Los Angeles’ dry foothills. She is wearing a darling little dress and pink Converse. I push her to get started, and then I watch her pump her legs faster and faster, moving higher and higher, until she is shouting, “My legs are ALMOST touching the tree branches, Mommy! They are almost touching the tree!”
And of course they are nowhere near the tree at all, but in that moment of fast freedom and mama’s watchful eyes, she thinks she is closer than she actually is. In her mind, nothing can hold her back. I got her started, and then momentum carried her the rest of the way.
Legs stretching, heart beating, eyes focused, face smiling...she truly believes she might fly.
At five months pregnant I begin experiencing excruciating daily headaches. Every morning I wake up feeling fine, and within 15 minutes of standing the pain returns. I beg the kids to whisper while I miserably shuffle around the house getting ready for the day. My OB says this type of recurring headache, at this point in pregnancy, is mysterious. She says that if it keeps returning then she’ll refer me to a neurologist. I am terrified.
Unable to take any type of strong medication, I desperately turn to acupuncture. There’s an affordable place downtown where they lay me in a zero gravity recliner before inserting about 20 needles all over my body. I’m not supposed to move for a half hour so I lay there thinking about all the things that could be causing my pain. If my OB doesn’t think the headaches are pregnancy related, then it must be something serious. Very serious. A tumor. Cancer. The first signs of an aneurysm or a stroke or a seizure.
I think about what would happen if I collapsed at home when Jonathan is at work. Anna can unlock my iPhone but doesn’t know how to dial anyone. We’ve never told her about 911. I picture myself, unconscious, while the kids attempt to shake me awake. It’s a dark thought—one that will probably never happen—but I entertain the scene anyway. All day long they are in my care, followed by my watchful and responsible eyes. But who is looking out for me?
By the time I get in the car everything feels a little fuzzy. I start driving but can’t ignore my symptoms. I’m sweaty and tired, my head is killing me, and I feel weak. My heart races as I think about my options. I should call Jonathan. I should drive myself to an emergency room. I should pull the car over so I don’t crash when the seizure hits.
I decide to park in front of Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. With an hour to kill before preschool pick-up, I can’t be alone. What if I pass out in the car and no one finds me?
I must go inside. I must get help.
With legs trembling, I trudge into Coffee Bean. The stroke is going to start any minute, and I will cause a scene. “Did you hear about that pregnant lady who collapsed earlier today?” they will all say to their families at dinner. Someone might even post about it on Facebook. They will leave comments with sad face emoticons. Such a shame. That poor woman.
I sit at the tiny table in the back corner, open my laptop, and stare at the blank screen.
Head hurting, heart racing, armpits sweating, face flushing...I truly believe I'm going to die.
An hour passes. I use the restroom twice. I smile in the mirror, making sure that all sides of my face are moving. What is that acronym I’m supposed to follow if I’m monitoring a potential stroke? FAST? Are my arms weak? Can I still speak?
The mirror doesn’t lie: I look terrified. But also? I look totally fine.
I return to my laptop and Google a new phrase:
By the time I pick-up the kids my headache is gone and so are my irrational fears. The kids run to me with big smiles, and I return the affection eagerly.
“How was your morning?” their teachers asks.
“Just fine,” I say nonchalantly, as if I had simply spent a morning brunching with friends or going grocery shopping.
I let the kids play outside the classroom after pick-up. The children chase each other while I chat with my friend Carolyn. She's a physician, but I don’t ask her about panic attacks. If that’s what just happened, I really don’t want to talk about it yet. How embarrassing, I think to myself.
We pack the children into our respective cars, and I leave the parking lot first. I’m driving down a quiet street between the school and the main road when I notice a minivan parked haphazardly—the front is in a hedge of bushes and the rear of the car is blocking oncoming traffic. As I pass the van I look over my shoulder, perplexed. Something isn’t right. I pull over, tell the kids to stay put, and speed walk twenty yards back up the hill towards the minivan.
I hear the car running but don’t see anyone until I get closer. There’s a woman in the driver’s seat, slumped completely over to the right. I start pounding on the passenger window and she doesn’t respond. I run to the other side of the car and open the door. I can see her chest rising and falling, but when I shake her she doesn’t wake up. My cell phone is back in the car.
Carolyn was behind me when I left school so I walk into the middle of the road, willing her to come down the hill quickly. She’s a doctor; she’ll know what to do. Seconds feel like minutes but then I see the headlights on her silver Volvo. I start waving my hands above my head like my parents used to do at my childhood swim meets; as if she could miss me.
“There’s a woman unconscious in the minivan,” I say. “You go tend to her. Throw me your cell phone and I’ll call 911.”
She parks her car and jumps out to help. My voice shakes when the operator picks up but as I watch Carolyn spring into action, I become brave too. The woman has a pulse, I tell the operator. The floor of her car is covered in needles. At first I notice the empty car seat in the back—thank goodness it’s empty—and then, eventually, we notice a tattoo indicating she’s a Type 1 diabetic.
Much to our children’s delight, a police officer and fire engine quickly arrive, and we’re assured that with proper medical attention the woman will recover.
“You did the right thing,” the officer said, “Time is of the essence with diabetic shock.”
Carolyn and I give each other a relieved high five before parting ways, pleased with our teamwork but even more grateful for a happy ending.
A half hour later, once the kids are situated in their rooms for naps, I grab a glass of ice water and elevate my feet on the couch before calling my husband at work.
“I think I had a full blown panic attack this morning,” I say.
Now that’s it over, now that I’ve survived, the whole thing feels irrational. That’s anxiety, right? It felt so REAL in the moment. Just like my daughter sometimes thinks she can touch the sky with her feet, I sometimes believe the very worst things will happen to me.
But it’s not until I’m telling the story out loud to my husband that I see the real mercy in the mess of my mind. As I replay the panicked moments in my minivan and then compare them to the panicked moments outside her minivan, I finally see the parallels.
I was convinced I was going to die, and an hour later I was helping a mama who did actually pass out, in her car, on the side of the road, just like I feared for myself. And God chose me—fragile and scared—to help rescue her.
My headaches went away a few weeks after that minivan rescue, and then I delivered a baby boy a few months later. We’ve also since taught our five-year old how to dial 911—because I believe in God, and I also believe God uses people. Even at our weakest.
In his loving kindness, He used me in my weakness. In his loving kindness, He heard my cries for help and then focused me outward instead of inward. In his loving kindness, He reminded me that He sees us and knows us and watches out for us…sometimes in the oddest of ways.
Written by Lesley Miller.