Early on a Wednesday morning, I heard an anguished cry—then silence.
I rushed into the bedroom and watched my wife, Rachel, stumble from the bathroom, doubled over, hugging herself in pain.
"Something's wrong," she gasped.
This scared me. Rachel's not the type to sound the alarm over every pinch or twinge. She cut her finger badly once, when we lived in Iowa City, and joked all the way to Mercy Hospital as the rag wrapped around the wound reddened with her blood. Once, hobbled by a training injury in the days before a marathon, she limped across the finish line anyway.
So when I saw Rachel collapse on our bed, her hands grasping and ungrasping like an infant's, I called the ambulance. I gave the dispatcher our address, then helped my wife to the bathroom to vomit.
I don't know how long it took for the ambulance to reach us that Wednesday morning. Pain and panic have a way of distorting time, ballooning it, then compressing it again. But when we heard the sirens wailing somewhere far away, my whole body flooded with relief.
I didn't know our wait was just beginning.
I buzzed the EMTs into our apartment. We answered their questions: When did the pain start? That morning. Where was it on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being worst?
"Eleven," Rachel croaked.
As we loaded into the ambulance, here's what we didn't know: Rachel had an ovarian cyst, a fairly common thing. But it had grown, undetected, until it was so large that it finally weighed her ovary down, twisting the fallopian tube like you'd wring out a sponge. This is called ovarian torsion, and it creates the kind of organ-failure pain few people experience and live to tell about.
"Ovarian torsion represents a true surgical emergency," says an article in the medical journal Case Reports in Emergency Medicine. "High clinical suspicion is important. … Ramifications include ovarian loss, intra-abdominal infection, sepsis, and even death." The best chance of salvaging a torsed ovary is surgery within eight hours of when the pain starts.
There is nothing like witnessing a loved one in deadly agony. Your muscles swell with the blood they need to fight or run. I felt like I could bend iron, tear nylon, through the 10-minute ambulance ride and as we entered the windowless basement hallways of the hospital.
And there we stopped. The intake line was long—a row of cots stretched down the darkened hall. Someone wheeled a gurney out for Rachel. Shaking, she got herself between the sheets, lay down, and officially became a patient.