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My Worst Thanksgiving Weekend: 4 Days in Solitary Confinement

11/27/2013 01:54 pm ET | Updated Jan 27, 2014

On Thanksgiving in 2006 I wound up quarantined in a hospital room the size of a walk-in-closet.

The trouble started early on turkey day when I was cleaning the cranberries with my son Cary. I had some difficulty breathing and a tightness in my chest. After a while, at his insistence, we drove to a hospital ER.

There was an especially long wait because of short staffing, but I finally spoke to a nurse and my breathing problem got her attention. Heart tests first, then x-rays. Then more waiting for results.

A patch on my lung looked like an infection, so I was grilled about my recent travels, which included several third-world countries. My son joked about my risk-taking ways, and offhandedly mentioned the many possible problems of a globe-trotting mom, including tuberculosis.

Repeat after me: Do not say TB in an ER! (Especially on TG.) Within a couple of minutes the nurse placed us into a sealed room.

We waited on separate examining tables, confused, shocked and unsure of what was to come. Cary and I both took patch tests, sputum tests and blood tests. The doctors and nurses who attended us suited themselves in protective gear like extras in The Andromeda Strain. I could hear outside the sealed room that some of them didn't want to come in.

A neurologist, clearly unhappy about being yanked from a turkey-laden table, eventually gave me a spinal tap, and I now had to wait for the results of that. And I would have to take a CT/biopsy scan. So while my son got to leave the sealed room, I was told I needed to be put upstairs, in quarantine.

The hospital room seemed like a cage. Normally patients with similar possible diagnoses --a low level of TB-- would be allowed to leave the room and walk in the halls. But doctors wanted me to stay confined for the immediate future until they could perform more tests, because they were understaffed and couldn't monitor me properly. And tests were slowed because of the Thanksgiving weekend.

As the days passed, both my sons alternated coming up from NYC, suited up in protective gear with shower caps, gloves and masks. It was a warm and fuzzy family holiday scene. About all I could concentrate on was Boggle. The room didn't have wireless, and I didn't want to watch the family-oriented shows of Thanksgiving weekend with my hazmat-suited sons.

I paced around my bed back and forth like a caged lioness, for exercise and for mental relief. And what if I did have TB? I imagined spending weeks in that drab space with a high-tech vent and an ultraviolet light that killed the bacteria sucked out of the room. My only view of the outdoors was a wall.

The tests took forever. I felt like a prisoner jailed for some made up charge. I learned that some statutes had vague criteria for release ("no longer a danger to the public health") and some, specific (evidence in sputum tests that the person is no longer actively contagious). Ten states had no statutory limits on the time a patient could be held without discharge. I was afraid to ask what New York's policies were.

Even more: Several states do not require a court order or a hearing to commit someone to a facility. The hearing may be held with or without the patient. Only thirteen states explicitly grant the right to be represented by counsel in any part of the proceedings.

I didn't sleep or eat much. I became sure that this was all just a trick to lock me up.

Slowly my TB tests kept coming back negative, but the doctors still wanted to see a CT scan biopsy, and that meant I had to wait for the right doctor to do it, and he wasn't around. On the fourth day of confinement I was finally brought out of my room and rolled into the CT cylinder.

And then I rolled out a minute later. I didn't have TB, and I could leave as soon as I got dressed and filled out papers and had a doctor ok everything. A few more hours, and then, finally, a chance to give thanks.

I flew out of that hospital faster than a pardoned turkey, and gobbled that long-overdue holiday dinner at home. It had been a lousy Thanksgiving weekend.

And here's the kicker: that "patch" that wasn't TB, didn't go away, and turned out to be ... lung cancer. I found out a few weeks later and was operated on. So I guess it was lucky that I went through this after all.

And now, seven Thanksgivings later and still here, I'm really thankful for that horrible experience.