10 September 2017
I was discharged yesterday, September 9th, 2017, from the United Christian Hospital (a public hospital) in Hong Kong after an overnight stay there. It started at a YOW! Hong Kong speaker dinner on Friday the 8th. The show was amazing, as you'd expect from any YOW! event, and I was particularly looking forward to the speaker's dinner with so many of my heroes and friends.
We arrived and slowly the food started appearing and I attacked it with my usual glee. First, the appetizers arrived. Lots of good choices and I tried them all. I particularly enjoyed the mushrooms and scallops. I ate a plate, and another besides. Dinner table conversation was, as you can imagine, world-class. I was sat next to Dr. Sengupta (a PhD, a hero and a genius, but not a medical doctor) and Joe Albahari. I turned to Joe and shared that my hands and feet were starting to itch. I'd felt such an itch on my hands before and didn't think much of it. Maybe I'd used an overly abrasive soap? Here, both my feet and my hands were suddenly burning! I even took my shoes off to rub my feet (in the socks i was wearing) on the carpet. I told Dr. Sengupta. We had a moments back and forth talking about how sometimes foods can cause mild reactions. I was Googling furiously, at this point.
I was OK for ten to fifteen minutes. I started feeling short of breath. But I'm used to feeling short of breath - I'm asthmatic! I don't leap to conclusions. If I have gas, I might be short of breath. I might pant from physical exertion. I might be short of breath. And besides, I always keep an emergency Albuterol rescue inhaler in my pockets. I never use it, though. My asthma is well managed thanks to daily intake of Dulera, a preventative medicine. The emergency inhaler was just that: for emergencies. So I took a few puffs. Nothing. The shortness of breath was getting worse. I raised the issue with Dave Thomas, the founder of the YOW! conference and a friend, and he had Cantonse- and Chinese-speaking aid Marlous Teh quickly get me some medical help.
We walked to the front of the restaurant. The ambulance was on its way. By this point I was super short of breath and my heart was pounding. I was struggling to take in oxygen so my heart was pumping harder. My extremities were tingling. I was dizzy. I was sitting there gasping for air, trying to answer whatever questions I could to make sure Marlous had enough context to talk to the medics when they arrived. Even if they spoke English, who's to say I would still be conscious?
I was terrified. I hadn't faced such an uphill asthma attack since I was a little boy. No matter what I did the airways closed. Apparently an antihistamine like Benadryl and an epinephrin pen would've been really handy then and there but I had left them in my backpack in the hotel.
I can't tell you how scared I was in this moment. Oxygen was thinning and there was no help in sight. There's a terror knowing that if I blacked out I might not wake up. What if the ambulance crashed just meters from the entryway and they all died? What if they were dispatched accidentally to the wrong mall? What if they arrived five minutes too late and I was too far oxygen starved, suffered severe brain damage after blacking out, and would never recover? What if?
The adrenaline was definitely in play, too. I feared my heart might give. It was pounding.
The medics arrived. Finally! They asked me if I had any allergies. I said that my mother had always told me that I had an allergy to Erythromycin, though I don't remember experiencing its effects. They said they were going to give me an epinephrine jab and I urged them to hurry. I asked again if they'd done it already. "Please, hurry!" They assured me they'd already jabbed me. I didn't feel anything in my arm. It was numb. No relief. I took puffs of whatever inhalers they gave me. They put me on a stretcher and rushed me to the hospital. I don't know how long I was in the ambulance but I was still, surprisingly, conscious. So while I was still struggling to breathe, it didn't seem to be getting worse. I was having a really hard time sustaining the deep breathing required to maintain, though. Anyway, time for a selfie!
We arrived at the hospital. I was swarmed by five or six doctors. They were triaging me. Oxygen masks and inhalers and injections. A flurry of questions. Lots of questions! Allergies? Medical history? Do I drink? Smoke? And yes of course, I assured them as I was gasping for air, that I knew that - as a non-resident - I was looking at a very steep medical bill of almost $26,000 HKD were I to be admitted to the ICU (intensive care unit) for the night. Wait. What? $26,000 Hong Kong Dollars!! Oh.. wait... that's $3,350 United States Dollars or so. It was the only time I laughed all night. (In the United States, the ride in the ambulance can cost thousands all by itself!)
Anyway, about 45 minutes later I had the most incredible headache but I was breathing. They were shallow breaths, but they were consistent and markedly better than whatever passed for breathing an hour earlier. The doctors said my oxygen saturation was rising, and that I could be moved to the ICU. They put me on a stretcher and moved me to the ICU. They'd wired my poor different veins and arteries three different ways to various drips, had me breathing from an oxygen mask and rigged to a few different monitors.
At this point I was alive. Shallow breaths. But I was alive! Marlous was still waiting for me. The staff had given her my glasses and inhaler (which I had in my hands when the medics returned). I'd given her my phone while I was being triaged. She was talking to my girlfriend, making sure she knew what was happening to me. My phone was loosing power precipitously and I wanted to make sure my girlfriend had someone to talk to for status updates or, gulp, whatever.
It's at this point that I want to take a moment - an hour even! - to thank Marlous for everything she did. She was, and I'm not using this term figuratively, a life-saver. She called the ambulance, consoled me as I was suffocating in wait, waited with me in the ambulance to the hospital and helped translate back and forth between Cantonese and English (and whatever it is I understood). She waited hours in the hospital. Liaised with my girlfriend. She was back the next morning, once I was moved to the general ward, with a power bank and an iPhone cable. Thank you SO SO much, Marlous. I'll never, ever forget your composure and grace as you saved my life.
That morning, the speakers were supposed to board a flight to Singapore but I was still in Hospital. "YOW!" founder Dave Thomas and Marlous, so concerned for me, stayed behind. They extended my hotel stay in the eventuality I'd need to stay an extra night. They changed my flight accommodations. They came to visit, too, and to escort me to the hotel after I was finally discharged. Dave runs an amazing show. I've had the privilege of participating in five YOW! events thus far and they are world-class. He brings amazing, legendary speakers (well, except for me, of course!) from all around the world together in one place and makes sure the speakers and the attendees have an amazing time. He's a great technologist, show runner and businessman. He's also an insanely kind human being. This week he's been anxiously worrying about friends and family afflicted by hurricane Irma while running an amazing show in two countries and - because that's not enough - he spared no expense or time in making sure I was OK. Thank you, Dave.
I wasn't too worried about the expense of saving my own life, either. I was not worried about a $3,500 medical bill. I am not rich but I am very fortunate and I had at least enough to pay that socked away if it came to that. But I knew it wouldn't come to that. You see, my Pivotal has graciously provided me with traveler's insurance. So I reached out to HR. I asked HR who to contact for the traveler's insurance. I called them, and they called their local Hong Kong partner who, when I last checked, were going to reach out to the hospital's billing department to provide a guarantee of payment. Lesson: make sure you've got traveler's insurance.
Where does this leave me now? I'm in Singapore, ready for the next event. I almost died and, if I'm honest, that still hangs over me. If you read this blog from the last week you'll see death and disease have hung over me a lot this last week. This close call didn't help. I find myself re-dedicated to the things I already loved. I want to make more friends. I want to learn more things. I want to share and grow in the communities that I love (like the Spring community). (I also want to secure an epinephrine pen and take a food allergy test as soon as I get back to the states!)
Relative to most other days in recent memory, this trip to the hospital wasn't my favorite. But it only serves to remind me how fortunate I am. I was a speaker at a conference in Hong Kong surrounded by people with a hundred+ combined years of experience pioneering software, some of whom I consider personal friends. The doctors said I suffered anaphylaxis - a severe, life-imperiling allergic reaction. But I was not alone. Good people and friends saw me through it. I have insurance and - failing that - the means to pay my meager medical fees. How lucky is that?