It started a month ago today, a Sunday and night of pain.
Ten, on a scale of ten.
No, that doesn’t begin to describe it. As a writer, as someone working on conscious embodiment, I want to be more precise than that.
Abdominal pain, seeming to originate from the lower right quadrant, but I don’t really care about the point of origin. Pain that has me feverish, gripping my belly, humped over a mountain of pillows, groaning, retching up something vile. Pain I am beginning to suspect isn’t just a case of bad gas or an intestinal blockage…something that I might be able to remedy by working my pressure points or finding the right yoga position… something I might be able to get inside of and turn around. But it isn’t that kind of pain. It is all-encompassing, no choice in the matter, “you are in my complete power,” “I’m going to kill you” pain.
Which indeed it could have done if this had happened a hundred years ago.
In the wee hours of Monday I wake Henry in the other room and ask if he can help give me an enema, but as he fumbles to get the equipment set up, I know it isn’t going to work.
“We gotta go into the emergency room,” I say. Words I dread uttering.
I am a hospital-phobe. My goal is to stay away from hospitals, and to a slightly lesser degree, doctors as well. My phobia comes from being exposed to too many hospitals early in my life. Not for me, but for my younger sister, who has survived scores of surgeries while I am complaining about getting my butt kicked by one. I bow down to her.
Combine my hospital phobia with a high tolerance for pain, and you might be able to understand my dread.
High pain tolerance can be a great asset, very helpful when training for a black belt, for example, or riding a horse for long periods of time. As a warrior, I have learned to push pain aside, minimize it, get underneath it, sometimes even transform it. Definitely endure it.
But not this pain.
So, off we go in the predawn to the emergency room. Here’s where my memory gets twisted into a tie-die and what’s left is a bright but blurry synesthesia of memory, vision, feeling, sound, smell and some other out-there trippy dimension probably brought on by the heavy drugs they are giving me.
A big guy is wheeling me to the CAT scan and mumbles to the ER nurse, “whatever you gave her, it ain’t touching it.” God bless him.
Out come the big guns – I remember them saying dilaudid, morphine. I remember thinking, uh oh. I don’t want to fall into the gaping maw of the opioid epidemic. Then again, I don’t want to feel this pain anymore.
I remember a beautiful man’s face framed by a green bathing cap. Bright, wise, conscious eyes looking directly into mine. “You have a ruptured appendix,” he says with great cheer, like he’s telling me that I’m very dear and special to him and he’s so glad to have found me again. “How about we fix that?” he says conspiratorially. I’m thinking, Henry, god knows I love you, but if this guy asks me to sneak off with him right now, I’m going.
I remember lying on a gurney in the pre-op room on the wings of the surgery theater. It is around one o’clock in the afternoon, and they have managed to fit me in after the morning surgeries. Someone walks by whom I know, someone from tutoring at the community college. She stops to say a few kind words, which I find very comforting. To think that I might actually know people who work in this hospital I’ve avoided so studiously. I don’t know it then, but this is going to happen to me every day. Some young and earnest young woman in brightly hued nurse’s scrubs is going to look up and say, “Hi Mrs. Woolbert. You were my tutor” or “you were my English teacher.” To some I ask, “did I give you a good grade or is it payback time?” They all laugh.
Am I still in pre-op? I remember a lot of people crowded into my visual field all at once. Are they putting the mask on me or taking it off? Am I fighting them? Is the surgery about to begin or is it all over?
I am in a hospital bed near the window, thank goodness. It is crowded in the room and I can hear everything that’s happening with my roommate, an older woman who showed up with tremendously swollen feet. Probably congestive heart failure. Her fear perfumes the room.
I can feel the bandages on the three small incisions they have made to do laparoscopic surgery. One of the incisions is hooked up to a drain bag, and I am catheterized and hooked up to an IV. All this is blurry, like it’s happening to someone else’s body.
They stick me, again and again. Did I mention I hate needles almost as much as hospitals? My veins, usually robust, start to wriggle and writhe away from the needle, away from those who cannot approach the task with the right panache and skill. One bad night, when several nurses fail and one is so incompetent I want to scream, they call in the EMTs to do the job, and I can tell just by their body language that they’re the real deal. But alas, their beepers go off and they’re called away to some midnight emergency. Finally, a woman arrives, quiet and sure-handed, and she easily does the job.
Later, when I vomit too often, they shove an NG tube down my nose and into my stomach, a procedure I would not even wish on Mr. Trump. Now I have another drain bag of prurient, vile waters.
I think about the appendix, a dead-end finger of intestinal tissue that must have had some ancient purpose, but now seems to do nothing but store prurience and vileness, a time bomb that may or may not go off.
At this point, given what they’re putting into the IV, I am really pretty tripped out. I’m an old hippie; I know about being stoned and I’m also pretty intuitive. But this goes way beyond. I can see underneath everyone’s masks. I can hear the subtext lying underneath the words they are saying. I can intuitively read the difference—sometimes vast—between what a person is projecting and what their body language is saying. I can smell a lie. All deception is completely self-evident. Problem is, I can’t not see; I can’t not hear; I can’t not read. Not being able to turn down the dial becomes exhausting.
I also know the difference between pleasant, sensory visions and disturbing hallucinations. What I am seeing is definitely on the disturbing side, but still, I know that I am hallucinating, so I can’t be that far gone.
The hospital itself hums and drones and groans like some semi-ambulatory multi-celled organism that depends on fully ambulatory creatures to carry out its mission. I am afraid I’ll be caught in its web, sucked into some side eddy, weakened and poisoned and preyed upon slowly and subtly so that deniability can be maintained.
Yeah, like I’m going to tell THAT to the nurse when she asks how I’m doing!
I try to stay practical and focused. I know that I have to fart and poop before being released is even considered. Oh, how I pray for that first fart.
I am visited by a strange creature—an old hag dressed like a vulture who sits on a perch above me and eyeballs me with a mixture of contempt and lurid hunger. When I try to sleep, I feel her weight pressing down on my chest, threatening to make every breath a racking, rib-jarring cough. She clucks, biding her time. She laughs when I have trouble sucking in enough air to make the respiratory therapists happy. She chortles when my oxygen level dips below normal. All this jibes with her plan.
After being released from the hospital, the creature follows me home and is delighted one night when I weaken and take the damn opioid pain medication they prescribed, as if she and the opioid are in cahoots. She sits on my chest again, an oppressive weight. I tell her no, not yet. She sneers and scratches underneath her ragged wing. But gradually, she moves away.
The days blur, but I must focus. It is the end of the semester and although I can see the campus from my hospital room, I can barely walk around the floor of the ward, a nurse’s aide at my elbow. My department chair visits, gives me a book to read, jokes that he’s heard of professors trying to weasel out of the end of the semester, but this takes the cake. A campus colleague I hardly know graciously steps up to take over my classes, oversee the last week of presentations, give out my final exam. I have to stay present to arrange for all of that plus I have final grades to tally and submit. I’m grateful for these obligations and can only hope that my students will understand and cut me some slack.
At last, another beautiful doctor’s face framed by a large shower cap covering her long hair, comes in and announces that today, Friday, she thinks I can go home. If my oxygen stays up. If my fever says low. If everything else stays even keel. “I love you,” I gasp into her face. The sun comes out, the birds sing, the horses prance in the field. I am going home!
Now, a month later, I am still on the mend. Not nearly fast enough and not near the rpm’s I’m used to, but every day, something is a tiny bit easier, and I have a tiny bit more energy to tend the garden, walk out into the field and say hello to my horse, work on my classes, and to simply appreciate being alive. The surgeon has given me the thumbs up; my wounds are healing nicely. Thank you resilient body. Since I can sleep in halfway normal positions now, Henry and I can even share the same bed. Thank you caring and patient soul-mate.
And the vulture hag? She must be roosting on some other tree.