It Wasn’t Just Pneumonia

'It felt like someone was stabbing me in the side 24/7'

Jackie Lewis, Staff Writer

“It felt like someone was stabbing me in the side 24/7 but the pain was x1,000.  I stayed home and out of school several days and then came the morning my mom and I went to IHOP.  I woke up and immediately started screaming and crying, the pain was the worst it had ever been.  I had been sleeping in the rocking chair in my house’s family room because it hurt too much to lie down. The screaming went on for about ten more minutes and then I felt a pop in my chest.  The pain stopped.  I sat up and moved around a bit to test the waters and finally decided it was OK.  I was so happy because I knew that no pain = back to school and back to being able to see my friends.  So I ran upstairs to where my mom was and told here the pain stopped.  She was happy too.  She took me to Patient First (to this day I have NEVER gone back there and I absolutely refuse to go).  A few days prior, a Patient First radiologist looked at an X-Ray of my lung and said that I had pneumonia.  I explained what had happened that morning to the doctor  we’d been seeing and he said that I was fine.  So we went to IHOP to celebrate. What occurred next happened so fast.  My mom and I were just sitting in IHOP and I started screaming. I vaguely remember the waitress telling me to shut up and then my mom practically snapped at the waitress to shut her own mouth. And then my mom had just left some money on the table for what we ordered and we were off to Cornwall Hospital,” explained Ella Cusack.

Ella Cusack was only at the age of ten in the fourth grade, trying to live her life as a normal elementary school student when suddenly she was overpowered by an alarming sickness.  She was a quiet girl who enjoyed reading and spending time with family and friends, but for some unknown reason a deathly sickness was out to get her.  It was out of nowhere, and the pain never stopped.  Routinely, doctors were hopeless to helping her situation, and without the help of professionals later on in her term of hospice, Ella wouldn’t have made it.

Empyema was the name of this illness, and it usually results from pneumonia.  While Ella was told that she had pneumonia, and was fine while actually having empyema, she was incredibly lucky to have lived or at least not need another surgery.  It is proven that 20-30% of people who have empyema will die or have another surgery if not taken care of within a year.  Empyema is characterized by pus or gunk in the lungs, and even to the doctors it’s a mystery as to how Ella got this specific illness.

“No one knows how I got it, although there were some theories that it had to do with either my heart murmur or my diaphragm.   My diaphragm is the exact opposite of what it should look like,” explains Ella.

At the age of ten, Ella was extremely young to have been experiencing the treatments required to nurse her back to health.  Because of the seriousness of having empyema, her treatment leaned more towards surgical procedures rather than simple antibiotics.  There were two doctors who were an enormous help when informing Ella about her condition.  Her doctors consisted of Surgeon Kim who specialized in the surgery she required, and Doctor Chester, a pulmonologist.

Her treatment consisted of a tube surgically inserted in her side and an IV and pic line.  Ella described having the tube, IV, and pic line in her all the time as “having a best friend that you do EVERYTHING with and take EVERYWHERE.”  Because of the tube and pic line, she was imprisoned to a boring day of laying face-up to the ceiling all day every day. When the time came to remove the tube and pic line, Ella needed to obtain a great amount of trust in her surgeon.  She had no trouble with the tube, felt no pain and it came out easily.  The process the doctors used helped her through the removal with ease.

“He’d count to three and I’d blow as hard as I could for a warm-up, and then he told me to act like there were a 100 candles on a birthday cake I needed to blow out and I blew as hard as I could.  I didn’t even realize that he’d pulled the tube out when I blew.”

Throughout her journey of going from hospital to hospital in search of the correct doctors, Ella believes she finally hit home at Fairfax Hospital.  These doctors didn’t see Ella as a child, but as a mature patient they could be open with.  With this attitude Ella was able to process everything clearly even at the young age of ten.

“I don’t think my age really affected anything about the experience.  Dr. Chester and Surgeon Kim explained everything to me in a way I’d understand.  That’s why I trusted them both so much, they didn’t talk to my parents. They talked to me – unlike the Doctor at Lansdowne Hospital who I could hear talking to  my mom out in the hallway. I actually remember them both drawing a diagram of my lungs and what  they looked like along with my diaphragm vs. how these organs should have looked like.”

While it was a tragedy that Ella had to experience this life-changing illness in fourth grade, she taught us all to fight against the odds; no matter if you know what they were or not.  She kept her cool and even learned during this heart-wrenching experience.

“I remember I was so scared to get the pic line pulled out.  They literally do it while you’re awake and as a ten year old that was terrifying to have someone pulling on a cord that seemed attached to you. That actually taught me not to overthink things too much.  The pic line slid right out.”