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  • Nicki Claeys

The Warrior Princess Within

Up to November, my family had weathered the shit storm of 2020 basically unscathed. We all remained employed, my youngest had been enrolled in a high school that was already set up for virtual classes previous to the pandemic, no one in my immediate family had been sick. Things were okay, mundane but fine.

Sporting my post-surgical compression socks.

I had planned a hysterectomy for early November and prayed that they wouldn’t cancel it due to the increased COVID numbers in my area. We had been planning for this surgery for months and I hadn't been able to do it until November because of my job. I had no apprehensions about losing my lady bits. I have two beautiful daughters, I am well over 40, and had been cursed by having more than your average number of periods each month for a year and a half. Surgery was a no-brainer decision. I was thrilled to come home and empty my cabinet of my feminine hygiene products. “Adios mutha-f***as!”.

Two weeks later I went in for my follow up appointment. When they called me in, I got up from my chair with ease and walked to the room. The nurse looked at me in shock and asked, “Didn’t you just have surgery like two weeks ago? You would never know it!” I laughed out loud and explained my week. She looked at me with sympathy and said, “Yep, that mom gene makes a woman strong as an ox when she has to be. You definitely have that.” I just shrugged and said, “just doing what I had to”. That was the fifth time that week someone called me strong.

When I was a teenager my favorite show was Xena, Warrior Princess. She was tough, mysterious, beautiful, and strong. She would easily fight a dozen men with her sword and a cool metal circle thingy apparently called a chakram. Looking back, there were a number of female Hollywood characters I admired. All shared a common theme; strength, independence, and a good amount of badassery.

Xena Warrior Princess. Image from Wikipedia

About 10 days after my surgery (the weekend before Thanksgiving) my youngest daughter Sammey got sick. It began with a headache on Sunday night that turned into severe head and neck pain and violent vomiting Monday. By Tuesday, the vomiting had slowed down some, but her head and neck pain were so intense she could barely move. All she wanted to do was sleep – or die (her words). We had a teledoc call (her doctor was out for holiday) who gave a few recommendations of heat and ice and alternating Tylenol and Ibuprofen. I took her to get a COVID test, which came back negative. When we got home I had her lay down with a heating pad and watched her immediately fall asleep. About 15 minutes later I heard her voice. I went in thinking she was having a bad dream. I flipped on the light and said her name. She didn’t respond. I walked to her bed and saw she was red and sweating profusely, my heart dropped when I saw she had vomited in her sleep and it hadn't woken her up. I sat her up and yelled her name. I kept demanding she wake up, but she remained unresponsive. I yelled for my husband and oldest daughter, Bailey to help.

We got a cold washcloth to try and cool her down, she was so hot. Finally, she opened her eyes but they were unfocused and she couldn’t speak clearly. Bailey called 911 and my husband and I stood on each side of her and walked her to our living room, her bed was soaked. He really ended up carrying her while she made a feeble attempt to put one foot in front of the other. Her legs were not working. I kept thinking that it was only minutes ago that I had helped her lay down. We sat her in a chair right as the paramedics walked through the door. Never have I been so grateful to live only a few blocks from the fire station. We watched as she tried to use her hands and arms, she had no fine motor skills. She struggled to stay upright. She would look at me, but her eyes never met mine as she couldn't focus. The paramedics monitored her vitals and asked her questions. One of them asked me if she had a history of seizures. My only thought was SEIZURES? What is she talking about…seizures??

Eventually, she was able to answer their questions correctly, even the trick question of “Who is the President?” She answered Biden. We all laughed in nervous relief. Though he wouldn’t take office for two more months, no one was going to argue. They recommended she get to an ER immediately and offered to take her. Thanks, but no thanks, we’ve been on that $3,000 ride before. Minutes later we were in the car on our way to the hospital, where she and I spent the next 4 hours. She was able to walk and speak normally by that time but still had tremendous head and neck pain. She was also physically and mentally exhausted. My mama heart was crumbling. But as moms do, I stayed strong. Right now she needed me to be.

ER waiting room

I explained to the doctor what happened at home and that the paramedics insisted we come to the ER right away. He asked her a few questions, gave her meds for pain and nausea, and we waited. He said he would scan her if I wanted but he thought we should wait and see how she does. While waiting we could hear a girl in another bed who was upset. It turned out she was a mental patient from another unit who had walked down to the ER. After awhile security tried to escort her back to her room. Long story short she refused, became combative, and was sedated. Her screaming was akin to a horror movie. The noise became overwhelming for my daughter who was in pain, exhausted, and was already feeling anxious. She started crying and covering her ears trying to block the noise. All I could do was hug and hold her until it was over. Later there was another patient who became combative and required security. What the hell is going on today? I started wondering if it was a full moon.

Eventually, the doc came back and asked her if she felt better. She said she thought so. I asked what he thought caused the episode at home. He said, “Well, we can do a scan if you want but she seems fine. If it was my daughter I wouldn’t.” I was a bit dumbfounded; did he not think the fact that my child couldn’t walk or talk a few hours ago no big deal? Well, he’s the doctor. As she got dressed she winced in pain. I called him back and he felt her neck and shoulders. “Well, I guess it is possible it's meningitis or something. But I don’t think so. Again, we can scan her if you want.” All I could think was I’m not the doctor, YOU ARE! She was discharged shortly after that.

By the time we got back to the car, she was in pain again. She refused to go back inside, she just wanted to go home to bed. I might have pushed for a scan if I hadn’t already been through the wringer a few years ago with Bailey when she was about the same age. She developed mysterious growths behind her ears that caused headaches and nausea. We went to a dozen doctors and specialists. We spent thousands of dollars trying to figure out what it was. After two years of scans, various medications, herbal treatments, even surgery. We never got a diagnosis. She was left with scars, both physical and emotional, and pain that never really went away. My faith in the medical system has never been the same.

After we got home from the ER I helped Sammey to bed, her faithful and lovable dog Sugar by her side. He’s a rescue dog that we picked up from a railroad worker in 2007 who found the sweet pup while on a job. They advertised him as a boxer puppy (we named him Sugar after Sugar Ray Leonard), but as he grew it was obvious he was a pitbull mix. As he got older, he turned sweet as sugar, so the name ultimately fit. Unfortunately, he hadn’t been acting right for weeks. At first, we thought it was because the weather was getting cold. But over the last three weeks he had been slowing down and day by day his breathing became more labored. Because of my surgery, we hadn’t been able to get him to the vet.

Sammey and Sugar 2013

That night I looked at him laying on her bed and knew his situation was bad. It was almost as if Sugar had put all his energy into nursing her and just had no more juice left in himself. So, at 10 pm, I put my shoes back on and while my girls stayed home, I found myself on yet another trip to the ER, this time the veterinary kind. My husband loves his dogs, we all do. But it nearly killed him when we had to put our first family dog down a few years ago. He cried for weeks. I could tell he was feeling the same torture as he sat in the backseat cradling and talking to our beloved Sugarbear. When we arrived, they came to the car to take the dog. My husband sobbed as he begrudgingly handed him over. They took the dog inside while we waited on pins and needles in the car. About an hour later we heard the news we had dreaded; a tumor was found on both his heart and spleen and he was full of fluid. They would drain the fluid tonight and give us a call in a few hours. We went home in tears. I felt like a jerk because I wasn’t crying as much as my husband. But I felt a ferocity inside that reminded me I had to be strong. For him, for my girls…for me. I couldn’t lose my shit yet. They needed me.

When we got home, I broke the news to Bailey, like the two of us, she went to bed heartbroken. Sammey was fast asleep and would be spared the bad news for a few more hours. I was spent. I thought about all the trauma that the day had held for my little family. As I slept in my daughters’ bed that night, I watched her like a hawk, like I did when she was a newborn. At every movement, I jolted awake to check on her. I kept waking up to make sure she was still breathing.

Early the next morning, Thanksgiving Day, we got the devastating news that our sweet dog didn’t have much time left. There was little they could do, and even if they did do major surgery, the prognosis was to give him only weeks, even then he would be in pain. They assured us even if we had brought him in earlier there was little that could have been done. Breaking news to my already hurting daughter was one of the hardest things I had ever done, it just seemed like cruel punishment. She LOVED that dog, and he loved her. He truly was a therapy dog. He had helped her through multiple dramas and traumas in her life. He was the one thing she could always count for comfort. She has hundreds of pictures and videos of him. Our sweet nanny dog would snuggle anyone who was sick, sad, or upset. He loved taking care of his family. She sobbed when I told her the news but managed to find the strength to get out of bed, get dressed. She said with conviction there was no way she wasn’t going to be there to say goodbye to her best friend. My husband was beyond consolable and couldn’t bring himself to go. He had already said his goodbyes last night.

When we arrived we were led to a private room. We picked out a box for his ashes and ordered his paw prints. They brought him in on a cart since he was no longer able to walk. We spent our last few minutes with him thanking him for the years of companionship and love. We hugged and kissed him then watched as he took his last breath and was released from his pain. We talked to him through the entire process ensuring the final sounds he heard were words of love. It was beautiful and heartbreaking, just as death is.

Saying goodbye

Sammey went straight to bed when we got home. Everyone retreated to their own private spaces to mourn their loss. No one felt like it was a Thanksgiving worth celebrating, and so we didn’t. I heated up some mozzarella sticks in the air fryer, had a couple of shots of tequila, and called it good.

That night was horrible. My heartbroken child cried in pain and cried for her dog each time she woke up, which was often. The next day her pain had increased, which didn't surprise me. Now she was dealing with loss as well as sickness. I got an appointment at urgent care. They were swamped with COVID testing and were short-staffed due to the holiday weekend. But the doctor was amazing. He took his time with us, asked many questions, and examined Sammey closely. He quickly determined that much to my relief, she did not have meningitis. “Is she on any medications?” I said yes and he read her chart. He asked me even more questions about the night before. He said that because she had been vomiting, she wasn’t getting her medications in. All the neurological symptoms she had displayed that night had been because her body was in severe withdrawals. He instructed us to go home and get them back in her system ASAP so it didn’t happen again. He prescribed an anti-nausea medication to help ensure they stay down. PRAISE GOD FOR DOCTORS WHO LISTEN! A few days later, our family physician seconded this diagnosis.

I slept beside my 17-year-old daughter every night for three weeks. I stopped when she could sleep through the night without crying out in pain and could get out of bed without assistance. One day I finally knew things were getting better when Bailey went in to lay with her and I heard crazed laughing from both of them. Bailey has the beautiful gift of making people laugh. I hadn't heard laughter like that for too long. It was like music to my ears. Today Sammey is about 85% better. She still has some neck and back tension, occasional headaches, and possibly some residual issues. She's been seeing a local chiropractor who has been another Godsend. He has used multiple modalities in conjunction with adjustments including acupuncture and massage therapy.


I’ve thought about what the nurse said to me at my follow up appointment, about women being strong. I sure didn’t feel strong when I had to lock myself in the bathroom while my daughter slept. I cried over my child's pain that I can’t heal, I sobbed for her heartache at losing her furry best friend at such an unfair time. I bawled for the dog I loved and miss every day. I've cried about stupid COVID and the shitty stuff happening in the world; the paranoia, and the people choosing anger and name-calling instead of love and empathy. I've cried in the shower, cried in the car, cried in bed. Occasionally my husband would find me. He would hold me and cry with me. But I cleansed my tired soul with tears, over and over. When I was done, I would take a few deep breaths, put my invisible mom armor on again, and step back onto the battlefield.

I may not have a sword or a chakram to show my strength, but I have something else, something better. I have 46 years of experience and wisdom accumulated from the many strong women that have crossed my path. Some have raised me, some have befriended me, some have worked with me, some have even betrayed me. But each of them helped me get stronger. I've raised warrior princesses of my own. There are hundreds of experiences we can pull our strength from. Coming out of 2020, one of the craziest years on record, we are all stronger. Even if we don’t see eye to eye on politics, religion, social justice issues, or how to hang our toilet paper. It's time for us to appreciate the strength in one another and to recognize it in ourselves. It’s time to embrace our inner Warrior Princess.

Helping you face the mountains of life with passion, strength, optimism, and fun!

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