“We looked at the CAT scan and your small intestines are swollen and there’s a pocket of blood by your liver. You might have some internal bleeding going on.”
John and I exchanged quick glances. What? I looked back at the ER doctor. “What now?”
“I’m going to admit you and the surgeon will be here to talk to you in a minute.” The gray haired man, obviously tired but kind, left the room only to return immediately. “Have you had any injuries lately?”
“No. I did some abdominal crunches today at a gym. Haven’t done that in a while.”
“I don’t think that would do it.” And once again, he left.
I arrived at the ER at 7:15 on Wednesday night in a world of hurt. I left the hospital on Saturday at 1:00 p.m. For 68 hours and fifteen minutes, I experienced pain the kind I cannot remember having endured (if you don’t count the last episodes of Lost) and healing so wonderful it gave me a new sense of gratitude for living.
Here I am, almost midnight of the day of my release and I can only think about one moment during the entire stay. It happened this morning, a few hours before the glorious exodus of the hospital. The doctor was telling me she was releasing me. I think she was probably 25, but maybe older. They all look like babies anymore. I asked her a simple question.
“So what exactly happened to me?”
Her response began with five words that haunt me.
“Well, when you get older…”
Now I sit in that nebulous world of futility, the ecclesiastical questions of why floating through my brain so loudly I cannot sleep. Why work out and eat healthy if I am going to end up in the hospital anyway? Why fight against the clock? I am old. I AM OLD.
The great half-century mark is approaching in September, a mere half year away. When I was eight, I didn’t envision me as an old woman. In my twenties all I cared about was having a boyfriend or husband. My thirties was a decade to get married, have my son and figure out what I wanted in life. My forties have been a glorious discovery of confidence in myself in countless ways.
And then some snot nosed Doogie Howser implies I’m getting old? No!! I will rage, Dylan Thomas! I must rage against the dying of my light!
So I laugh. I look at the past three days and I find that visiting a hospital is fraught with perspective begot by humor.
Consider those moments after the doctor told us about the CAT scan. I’d just received news that my liver might be bleeding and I was in shock. The surgeon came to see us soon after. His first question, “Have you been injured lately?”
I told him about the gym. He snickered. People who are in shape don’t consider a trip to the gym a possibility for bodily tragedy. People like me always consider it a possibility.
He left after telling us that he was going to hold off on surgery in the slight chance it might be some kind of weird infection. Before he exited he asked me again, “So you can’t think of any kind of injury you suffered lately?” He glanced at John while asking me this. I told him no.
When we were alone again, John said, “They’re going to ask you if I hit you, you know that, right? Well, remember that line you use that you think is funny? Don’t do that.”
I burst out laughing. He was referring to a party for us after our honeymoon, 15 years earlier. A huge group of John’s friends gave us a welcome back party. I didn’t know many of them. When I was talking to two of the women there, one asked me how the honeymoon was. With a straight face I answered in a whisper, “He beats me.” They didn’t know what to think, but I thought I was being hysterical. I told John about it later and he saw no humor in it whatsoever. I’ve used the line, just for laughs, a couple of times since.
“I won’t tell them you beat me.” I said, probably too loudly. I laughed again and felt pain that the dilaudid they’d given me did not suppress.
Dilaudid was a new experience for me. I have the ability to recall accurately my behavior while stoned. When I arrived at the ER I was in doubled-over “Someone please help me” pain. So those smart triage folks did their job quickly and injected dilaudid into my system. Wow. This drug is powerful and effective and I got happy very quickly. I remember telling my ER nurse Ray that I loved him. Was he gay or in a relationship? John had stepped out of the room. I don’t know if Ray thought this “old” woman was coming onto him, but he did smile. Not a “Oh, you are making my day” smile but a “Lady, you are high” smile. I didn’t care. I remember when my ER doctor told me goodbye I reached out and grabbed his hand and held on. Even as he tried to leave. Dilaudid makes me affectionate. John asked for extra before we left.
When we got to the ICU, I was treated with kid gloves. The room was large, but it seemed empty. The bed was one of those super-duper techno beds that do everything but give massages. I looked for a slot for quarters. No luck. But it was extremely comfortable. When I arrived and my nurse and her assistant were hooking me up to every single electrical gadget available while putting needles into my arms, I glanced around the room and noticed something missing.
“Where is the bathroom?” I asked.
My nurse, busy poking me, flicked her head to the corner. “Over there.”
I glanced over and saw nothing but a cabinet. Dilaudid causes hallucinations, I thought.
Her assistant did the honors and walked to the cabinet, opened the doors and wheeled out a toilet.
Am I in prison, I thought? Is internal bleeding a crime?
But it turned out I didn’t care, especially that first night. Things happened that night that I need not write out. It’s been said that good writing is writing the truth no matter what. Well, that truth is not going to be covered here. See, my Mama, a strong Texas woman, used to tell me “Robbie Gail, you don’t need to tell everything.” My mother is deceased, but I believe in the afterlife, so if I wrote it all down I would just be putting off my whooping ‘til I get to heaven. So I’ll just leave it at that. Things happened.
The next morning I was watching the clock for pain medication time, having declared dilaudid my new favorite invention of all time. I was told I could have it every three hours. My next dose was scheduled for 9:10. But when I hit my little button, no one came. At 9:30, I wasn’t shaking in pain but I was feeling uncomfortable.
John, my ever present best friend and man who makes me laugh no matter what said, “Listen, I’ll go out there and do Shirley MacClaine from Terms of Endearment.” He then did his impression of the character in that movie yelling at the nurses in a hospital, “Give my wife the shot!!!” Want a visual? Here is the clip from that movie. Imagine my husband as Shirley.
Again, laughter soothed me. And more dilaudid arrived.
The prayers of many faithful warriors, laughter and dilaudid helped me immensely. And so did the kindness of friends visiting and calling and sending messages through Facebook and emails. As I lay in that super duper bed in ICU, I felt like Sally Fields at the Oscars.“You like me. You really like me.” Every time someone sent me some love, it was as if they’d come into that ICU and rubbed healing salve on my skin. Since then, I’ve had three friends apologize profusely for not being able to come and see me in person. It really doesn’t matter if they were actually in the room, I tell them, I felt their prayers. I mean that. On the other hand, what a blessing to have people drop in and say hi and bring me stuff. A bunny, lots of reading material and flowers. Of course, I had no idea you can’t have flowers in an ICU. It was a learning experience. No flowers and no real bathroom. I’ll file that info away. The love of those folks who stopped by meant so much. And to have the ladies from a book study I facilitate all come in and gather around my bed and pray for me…well…that’s love, pure and simple.
I was only allowed ice chips Wednesday night, all day Thursday and Friday until about noon. Apparently the surgeon wanted my tummy empty in case he needed to swoop in and operate. But the tide changed after my second cat scan Friday morning. The nurse came in and gave me a menu with real food on it and my heart jumped for joy. She told me to go ahead and order whatever I wanted.
I perused the menu with relish, feeling like someone ordering their last meal. I chose grits and toast and bacon, being true to my Texas roots. When it arrived, I felt as if I were eating in a four star restaurant. This was the first sign that I was going to be okay.
Then I was moved to the sixth floor, a sure sign I would be going home soon. I asked for less dilaudid, another clue that I was on my way to recovery. The difference between the ICU and the sixth floor soon became obvious to me. If I needed the ICU nurses and hit the little nurse button on my remote control, well, here they came, practically breathing hard to meet my every need.
The sixth floor was…different. First, they had a real bathroom. And second, I sensed a dramatic change in servile responsibility. “Get it yourself” was the attitude.
But all the medical personnel were good to me. I appreciate Ray, my new love and ER nurse, along with the stately Dr. Griffin, my ER doctor. Castle, the elderly woman who put up with a lot my first night (still not gonna say what) told me she’s been nursing for 1000 years and I was not anything unusual. This was a compliment. And there was my surgeon, Dr. Ismael. He looked just like the Indian game show host in that movie Slumdog Millionaire. The one who pronounces it mill-un-air. I kept wanting to ask him to say that but I didn’t. I did tell him I’d pray for him to figure out what was going on with me. He called me a mystery. And he told me he’d pray for me. After he left our room, John said, “So you’ll have Allah helping out, too.” :0) A bit prejudice but funny.
And of course, my final doctor, Dr. Dulay, the sweet young thing who told me that my small intestines developed an acute infection, probably caused by some kind of diverticulitis. The swelling due to the infection caused edema fluids to be released. So the blood by my liver wasn’t blood but infected fluids. Antibiotics, fiber and rest would have me 100% in a week.
She also implied I was getting older. I guess she’s right in that area. I’m never gonna be Cotton Top, the little white haired girl my daddy held in his lap. And I’m never going to be that shallow young woman who wanted nothing but a male in her life. And thank God, I won’t have to be that insecure wife and mom who is trying to figure out what is important.
I guess little Miss Doogie Howser was correct. And even if it means I’ve gotta watch my small intestine intake the rest of this life, it’s worth it to not go back. I will go forward, wit and perspective in hand, with a bag to chunk a little of life’s wisdom into from time to time. Again, as Dylan Thomas wrote I will “not go gentle into that good night.”
I’m better now and that’s what matters. Thank God for a good gut that works another day. And thank God for those folks over at Skyridge Hospital who helped an old woman come off of dilaudid and see her way home to her own bed. Which is calling me right now.