8.21.2008

I thought my first entry would be about my first hospital stay almost three years ago, when I got my right adrenal gland removed. It does and it doesn't seem like a very long time ago . . .

My First Ever Hospital Stay

I had to be at the hospital at five am the next morning for the scheduled seven am surgery time. It’s like catching a flight. That is what I compare it to. Remember that my cortisol levels were frantic. I was pretty excited. I couldn’t wait. I had never done this before- such an ordeal. The biggest emergency I had ever had was a broken wrist when I was eight years old. This would be something else. I knew I would not feel the pain during the operation, so I wasn’t really afraid of pain. And I wasn’t afraid that I wouldn’t make it through, either. That wasn’t a possibility in my mind. My parents were a nervous wreck. Was I crazy not to be scared? There must have been some fear, but the excitement and curiosity I felt seemed to override it. Maybe it was a protective thing. I don’t know. Yes, I was crazy.
Checking in at the hospital seemed so normal and routine. I stood in line, signed some papers, and then waited in a lobby with other people, magazines, and a fish tank. It certainly didn’t seem like I was about to undergo a life changing, possibly life threatening, experience.
Prepping me for the surgery took a good amount of time. The nurse had me put all of my clothes (everything) into a plastic bag. I wouldn’t see those clothes again for seven days. I was going to be bare-naked for a bunch of strangers for the first time since my birth twenty-four years before. I tried not to think about it.
I remember lying in a bed waiting. Occasionally, a nurse would come in.
“Still doing okay?”
“Yes,” I nodded. Two people came in together and sat down by my bed. They had pleasant faces and they smiled calmly at me.
“Nora, hi, we are your anesthesiologists.”
I wanted to hug them. After explaining how I was going to be put under soon, they offered me an epidural. I knew what this was from hearing about women in labor. They would stick the needle in my spine. I said, “No. Thank you.”
Shortly thereafter, a small group came in to take me away on a gurney. I don’t remember paying attention to their faces, nor did I know who they were, but I said, “You better take pictures of this.” As if I was going on vacation! I had better remember to smile.
Then there I was! In an operating room! It was cold! Machines with tubes. Very bright, and white. The floors reflected the bright lighting and sterilized steel. The nature of the room was calm. The anesthesiologist who had offered me the epidural said, “I think you may want the epidural.” I said, “Alright.” I hardly felt a prick of a pin on my back and that was it.
***

I was being wheeled down a hallway, passing by many others along the way, into a big crowded room of beds. The beds were all next to one another and each bed was filled. It was like a war zone infirmary. The room was bustling. I found myself in one of the beds, with a nurse checking my blood pressure. In the bed next to me was a full-grown man screaming and squirming. He was cussing like no other. Spitting profanities. I don’t know when he left, but I was later woken again by a new bedside neighbor. This time it was an old woman and three nurses were trying to calm her down and put an IV line into her arm. She kept saying, “You’re trying to kill me! You’re trying to poison me!” One of the nurses said, “I’ve been working here over fifteen years, and so far I haven’t killed anyone yet.” I thought, “Gosh, am I dreaming? Or watching a movie?”

The next time I woke, my aunt was peering down at me in her big poofy light blue shower cap. The staff in the radiology department wear those silly hats. I don’t know why. My aunt, who happens to work at the hospital in X-ray, had snuck in.
“My goodness! How are you? My goodness!”
I blurted back to her, “There’s hardly a foot we can’t fit!”
My aunt was most likely dumbstruck. I must try to explain why I said this, although I don’t know exactly why myself. What I can say is that I was reciting the slogan of the shoe store down the street from the hospital. The weeks following up to my surgery, I had frequently gotten off the bus at that corner to walk to my appointments with Dr. Tierney. That’s all I can say about that. Then I was on to talking about a party and whether my aunt was going to it or not. My aunt did not know what to say, I am sure. So she tucked a stuffed lion into my bed. She explained that this was the same lion that my cousin (whom I had lived with the previous summer) had squeezed when she was in labor. And, in fact, my cousin was out in the lobby with my parents, and the new baby, Arthur.
I was later told that while I was happily chatting away with the nurses in the recovery room, my family was in the lobby, still, where they had been for the last four or five hours. Waiting, waiting, waiting, and waiting. My surgeon had come out to tell them everything had gone very well, and at that moment, one month old Arthur smiled real big. My mom loves to tell this story.
My aunt, in the meantime, (who was playing hooky), was running back and forth between me in the recovery room, and my parents in the lobby, delivering updates. Her report to my parents:
“Well! I guess she must be all right because she won’t stop talking about some party. And she said something about shoes. I don’t know what that was about.”
Back in the recovery room, I was still being chatty. Some nurses tending to other patients around me wanted to chat, too. One nurse said, “I want to have that patient.” She came over and talked to me and somehow we got to talking about Neenah, Wisconsin. "That is where the manhole covers are made." I said.
“Yep.” The nurse said. “That’s where I’m from.”
I said, “ That town stinks! I call it Stink Town!” And that is true. It literally is true. It's because of the paper mill. I know from driving through on warm, humid summer nights with the windows rolled down. That’s when I must have passed out lousy, because the next time I woke up, I was somewhere entirely different with no one to talk to.
***
What is it like to wake up in a large dim room with IV lines coming out of your arms and tubes stuck into your nose? The real deal? Did I feel like a hospital patient yet? No. I didn't. It was like I disassociated myself from it. It was so foreign to me. That, and I was pickled with drugs by now.
Walking through hospitals used to make me feel faint- the thick smells and eerie air that made me walk unstable. Here I was, a patient in a hospital. Somewhere I never pictured myself to be. And I just had intensive surgery. This is all very serious. It was hard to move. I didn't want to move. After thinking about how I didn't want to move and staring at nothing for a few minutes, I peeked down the front of my gown to get a glance of my massive wound. "Ugh, I don't want to see that yet." I thought. "It's not a part of me."
My first nurse in the ICU was just my age. Just my age! I would later realize that nearly every nurse I would meet during my seven day stay would be nearly my age, some younger. The nurse was wearing magenta and she had long slick blond hair that swished on her back when she walked around. She wrote her name on the board: HI MY NAME IS ☺. She bubbled about how it was so great to have a patient her own age, and did I watch "The O.C."? "The O.C." would be on that night and we could watch it together. Wouldn't that be great? I didn't like "The O.C.", but she was nice. As it goes, I fell asleep during "The O.C." and she didn't have much time to watch it while on duty anyway.
At some point (same evening? Same day? Next day?) my surgeon strolled in, in his scrubs. Last time we had met, it had been in his office and he was wearing a suit and tie. The mood had been dire. It was different this time. He walked in pleased, almost a bounce in his step. He was pleasant and unassuming, humble in his scrubs, and me, I was more humble than ever in a hospital gown and squinty face. My surgery had gone miraculously well. The tumor was about the size of a grapefruit (a grapefruit? Yes, really). He had removed my gallbladder, too. Better now than later. No need for a gallbladder, anyway. As he explained all of this, he inspected the fresh new monstrous gash lining my stomach. It went from just above my belly button and around to my right side.
"This should heal nicely." He said. Then he ripped something out of my side, which sent shots of pain through me. It felt like he had just pulled a dagger from my side. Maybe it was a tactic to distract me with chat while he yanked the wretched thing from me. It's hard to be distracted by knife-like pain. But he was able to do it quickly and with no protest from me. All it was, really, was a small tube that connects to a bag to collect all of the funk and bile-matter my body needed to get out. Kind of a cleanse of the gut. I now have a very tiny polka dot scar on my hip to remind me. I still think my surgeon is a pleasant man, even with all the pain.
My first unexpected visitor was my great godfather, the God Bob. He bounced on into the room. He is always a presence. Even if I had been fast asleep, I would have known he was there.
"Hey Nor! Hey! Hold on a minute."
He couldn't have been gone long, only a minute or two. While he was gone, out of nowhere, I had a sudden shot of pain surge through every nook and crook to the tips of every point in my body. I couldn't control it. I was shocked and stuck in one place and all I could do was just hope for the pain to stop. It was horrendous. I moaned like a cow giving birth. No one heard me. I was all alone and I could not move. I thought for sure this would be the end all. It probably lasted less than a minute. It subsided by the time God Bob came back. I didn't say a thing about it.
God Bob pulled up a chair.
"Man oh man. I just can’t believe all this crap you have to go through. Remember when you were telling me about all this? This mysterious woman thing. Now here you are. Man. I remember when I had a hernia, not too long ago. It sucked . . .it was . . ."
I couldn't keep up with him. My eyelids were hovering and no matter what, I couldn't keep them up. I don't know what else God Bob said or when he left.
I had a long, unaffected slumber on into the next day. It was a sunny day. There was my dad at the foot of the bed reading the newspaper. He was quiet and chewing on his thumbnail. He saw that I had woken up and smiled, asked how I was, told me to keep resting. He handed me a copy of "Harper's" magazine, which I could only stare at- not read or comprehend in any way. There were not very many pictures, either. I nodded off again with "Harper's" in my lap. Next thing, there was Dr. Tierney. He was not in his usual white doctor's coat, instead he was wearing a sharp orange dress shirt and he had a black shoulder bag. Quite appropriate. It was so good to see him. Familiarity is always such a comfort. And he was peaceful and spoke softly. He asked how I was doing. I looked down at the "Harper's" in my lap and read one of the headlines out loud. I don’t think he knew how to respond. He would, in time, discover that I was full of random comments and flighty, nonsensical witticisms. Hmmph.
***
After being in the ICU, I was moved up to Ward Four. It was crowded with many rooms, all of which were filled, most of which had two patients to a room. The patients had all types of ills and aches and moans. I, myself, would meet nearly twenty different nurses and five different roommates during the rest of my hospital stay.
I was mostly free from excess tube matter except for an IV line in my arm, which continuously juiced me with drugs. Drugs to keep me mellow and sane, or maybe to keep me in just the right state of oblivion. I would be attached to the IV pole and would have to drag it with me where ever I went, which was mostly a ten-foot expedition to the bathroom. I say expedition because it was, for me at least. I had to learn how to get out of bed with the least amount of pain. It was a process. Unplug the IV plug from the wall socket (it runs on batteries temporarily), adjust the mechanical bed to an upright position, move the guardrail back, brace my elbow on the bed to stabilize my body, take a huff and a deep breath to lean up to sitting, fly my legs fast (to avoid a longer amount of pain) to the edge of the bed and push myself off the bed with my palms. OWW. You cannot imagine how tedious and routine this became, trying to eliminate the literal gut-wrenching pain. At first, I could only do this procedure with the help of a nurse. I hated having to use the bathroom. The night nurses were not as gentle because they were at their busiest. They didn't have time for my elaborate procedure. They would sort of yank me out of bed and say, "Call me if you need me." Then I would hobble into the bathroom, my feet shuffling, dragging the IV pole, with the back of my gown flapping open. When I finally, and ever so slowly, set myself down on the toilet, I had to brace myself by holding onto the side rails. Now I knew how crucial those handrails were. I would not have had the strength to hold myself up without them. I could have fallen into the toilet and gotten stuck. I thought about getting stuck in the toilet and having to pull the string and call a nurse, or a bunch of nurses, to tug myself out. POP! This whole ordeal made me feel over ninety years old. I really have some sense of where the irritability comes from at that age. Imagine trying to do all of this on top of being deaf, with Alzheimer's and having an ingrown toenail to boot.

Nights in a hospital are anything but peaceful or sleep inducing. Even with all the drugs loosening my consciousness, I would have to be whacked on the head with a pan to fully pass out into slumber. For one, there is always the pain to avoid thinking about. And the urgent, constant need to get up and take the trek to the bathroom. Lying in bed, I listened to the nurses bustling around, answering calls from the patients' buzzers, propping pillows, and emptying bedpans. Random beepings at different tone levels sounded throughout the ward, coming from IV poles needing IV bag re-fills. Then there was the occasional moaning of roiling, toiling patients. When, and if, I began to nod off, a nurse would come in, throw on the light and check my vitals. Either that, or a lab assistant would wheel in a cart and collect my blood. They were always so friendly, so I couldn't be upset. I would give them my arm and hope they could find a vein that had not yet been spent. Before I knew it, it was early morning and a janitor was in my room mopping the floors, leaving behind the heady linger of Lysol scent steeping up the room.
During the daytime I tried to catch up on sleep. The trouble was, I had visitors. Then I would get jazzed up to see people. Friends from work, my sisters, my sister's friends, some of my friends, aunts, uncles, and cousins. They spoiled me with treats. I got in trouble when a nurse saw me eating a chocolate when I was supposed to stick to a liquid diet. I got calls from Canada, which turned into long bouts of explanation and their shocking disbelief. Having visitors was wonderful and exhausting. The attention was wonderful and overwhelming.
My parents came every day. They sat and sat by my bed for hours. On occasion, they would rise up and find coffee or food. They felt guilty when they had to leave at night to go home to their own beds. They came back as soon as they could the next morning. I love my parents. I really, really love my parents.
I had many roommates during my stay, some of which I got to know and others who never said a thing. I believe I had five altogether. The very first roommate only stayed about twenty minutes. It was about two in the morning when she was wheeled in. I don't think she even made it into the bed. She put up a huge fuss in a scratchy, whiney voice.
"This is intolerable! I will NOT share a room. Completely out of the question. I cannot believe this. Who is in charge here? I will get my own room!"
The nurses, trying to keep calm and unfettered by this selfish woman, kept saying there was nothing they could do. The hospital was full. She would have to share a room. Luxury was not an option for this woman. Everyone was in the same boat, and lucky to be taken care of. She would not accept this. I don't know how she got her way in the end. Maybe they wheeled her off to the psych ward. I kept thinking,
"This is not a hotel. You're lucky you have a room and you will be taken care of."
Some people, even women in their capable, mature, forty-something minds, just don't understand the outside world.
I had a roommate who stayed a few days. We got to talking a lot, and it turned out that she knew someone I knew. We laughed about how quirky our acquaintance is and how funny it was we both knew her. She was a remarkable woman who had opened her own art gallery in Minneapolis in the late eighties. She then moved to Maine to be near the ocean air. She was back in Minneapolis to take care of her mother. Lo and behold, she landed herself in the hospital because her leg, which had been previously broken, had given her an aneurism. She was in a lot of pain. We could both relate to that, too. She had been very reluctant to accept all the pain medications she was given. We talked about drugs and we talked about pain. I got to know her well and it was too bad when she left.
I had a roommate who never said a thing and I never saw her face. We never even said "Hello". She only stayed about a day.
One of the nights, I awoke to the arrival of another new roommate. She was having a panic attack and was pleading for more drugs. She kept saying she couldn't breathe. She needed more drugs. In the morning, she wanted to make sure her two sons, now at home alone because she was at the hospital, were all right and were getting ready for school. Had the dog been fed? Were the boys dressed? Her voice was frail and wavering.
"Nurse, nurse. I need a doctor. I need drugs. How are my sons? My boys, how are my boys?"
Later on, during midday, her doctor came in. He was very short with her. She wanted to get an AIDS test. Her doctor said,
"No. You don't need an AIDS test. You're just fine."
"Then give me my pelvic exam."
"No. You don't need a pelvic exam. No pelvic exam."
It was so awkward for me. I could not avoid hearing their conversation that should be private. The doctor was so far removed from any sort of compassion. He was barely there five minutes. It was awful.
Further appalling was when a psychologist came in to speak to her. Both of them were capable of leaving the room for privacy. But they stayed, and everything they said I could hear. I was ashamed. I could not believe that this was going on. What happened to patient confidentiality? The patient seemed not to care and she launched into how her oldest son, who was twelve, might be involved in a gang, but she wasn't sure. She was afraid he would be shot. She was afraid she had AIDS. She was always sick. And this made her have panic attacks and she just needed more drugs. And who was going to feed the dog? She said all of this in the same frail, gasping voice. I did not fully know her story, only what I had heard, but I knew it wasn't something that should be talked about in front of a stranger. I felt ashamed that I was there and that I had heard.
Stranger yet, after the psychologist had left, the woman picked up the phone and called someone. Her tone of voice changed entirely. She spoke clearly and straightforward into the phone,
"Hey man. Yeah. I'm all laid up in the hospital. Should be out soon. Yeah man, I'll call you when I'm out."
I did not question. The woman sunk back down into her cradle of bones.
An elderly woman took her place. This woman had led a solitary life with a chronic illness. I didn't know polio still occurred. I had thought it had become a by-gone disorder; a condition from the time of Franklin D. Roosevelt. From the age of fifteen, she had been unable to use her legs ever again. She had been schooled at the Sister Kenney Institute back when it had been a school for disabled children. Since then, she lived in her sister's house. Her income came from social security. For past-times, she crocheted and enjoyed collecting dolls. To me, this life sounded so dismal. I imagined she hadn't traveled, had a romance, or had much of a chance for a social life. Regardless of how she said she had gotten along just fine, I couldn't help but think how very secluded she must have felt from the world.
Many doctors and residents came by- I'll never remember all of them. My sleepy, crumpled face would awaken from my periodic dozes and I was never able to recognize anyone. I didn't exactly know why it was necessary for so many doctors to poke in. The nurses were caring for me very well. If I had known they were getting paid for these two-minute visits, I would have put a 'Do Not Disturb' sign on my door. I thought perhaps I was a spectacle for them to peer at- a medical curiosity. They always, always inquired about my bowels.
"How're you doing? . . . (uncomfortable pause, but trying to act totally casual) Have you had a BM yet?"
Having a BM became a huge deal. In fact, it would be my ticket out of the hospital. I went for daily walks in the hallways to get my bowels to move. My walks were very slow paced. I was a complete annoyance for anyone trying to get past me- people who had important places to be. I made big goals to get from my room to the nurses triage. Sometimes I couldn't make that goal- too painful in the gut. I hobbled along hunchbacked and gripped onto the IV pole, pushing it along like an old crone. Here I was again, an old crone. I sought encouragement and approval from nurses and doctors I slogged by in the hallway. "Look at me!" If I could only get those bowels moving, then they would be really proud!
There was one doctor in particular, Dr. Adair, who came around and stuck around. I couldn't recall ever meeting him before, but he seemed to know a lot about me already. He spoke to me as if we knew each other. His visits were more like real visits, the kind one would make to a friend. They were not just "part of the job". We joked some. Talked about movies. I showed him a funny clip from a movie on my laptop. It had Bill Murray in it. We both agreed that he might very well be one of the most effectively funny actors out there and from then on, when I ran into Dr. Adair outside of the hospital at the clinic, he always asked what good Bill Murray movies were out there. I had been no expert, but it became the thing we had in common. I guess I became "the Bill Murray expert" after that. "Groundhog Day".
Dr. Adair had an awful lot to say about the current healthcare situation in the United States. I hadn't thought too much about it until now, and I was very much out of the loop on such a matter. But I had better pay attention because now I was seriously involved in it, and I had no health insurance. I had had major surgery and now I was soaking up expensive drugs and paying for time in a hospital bed. I said I had better get a job WITH health insurance to pay for all of this. It was lucky enough my parents were already trying to help me pay for college. They couldn't afford this, too. It was a real predicament. Dr. Adair said, "No. Don't get a job! Stay unemployed and you'll be better taken care of." I had no idea what he meant. I did not know that there were programs for uninsured and unemployed citizens. I would have to remain unemployed or else I would not be able to pay for my major healthcare costs. What an oxymoron. He went on to lament about how so many people my age were in my boat- millions. I believed it. People I knew didn't have health insurance because they didn't think they needed it. They were not going to be the ones to come down with some crazy ailment, or land themselves in a horrific accident. They had two part time jobs, for example. Or, they had just gotten out of college and they could only find entry-level positions that paid enough to rent a cheap apartment, live on a scrimpy diet and pay the monthly college loan bills. If offered health insurance by their employers, often they would opt out because it didn't seem worth it to take that extra chunk out of their paychecks every month to pay for it. Or, in the case of a job I had once held, I had to work a ridiculous amount of hours that would equal up to about a year before the company would even offer me health insurance. Then there were deductibles to pay before the insurance could really kick in anyway. Health insurance seemed unnecessary, too complicated, and not worth the extra "hard-earned" cash.
Dr. Adair came by my room frequently. His character was completely unassuming. All his focus was on me and how I was doing. He really paid a lot of attention to how I was actually feeling, even if I played up my stoic act and said I was fine, while grimacing through edging pain. If he was not satisfied or assured that I was absolutely comfortable, he would track down a nurse to adjust my pain medications. His kindness was completely unrestrained. His conversation was not air filling talk about the weather; it was about what is interesting to talk about.
Dr. Adair was there when I had my major BM trauma. It was about five a.m. when an older nurse, one I had not met, came in and asked me if I needed a little something to speed up my bowels. I was barely awake. She told me to turn away from her and so I did. She shoved something that felt as big as a super ball up my bum. I yelped and curled up like a shrimp. I did not know what would happen later that morning, around eleven a.m. It was dramatic. I got a stomachache that grew to an extreme. I revealed to my mother what the nurse had done earlier.
"Oh Nora, you better get to the toilet. Quick."
Oww. My stomach. Once I was on the toilet and gripping those handrails, I bobbed up and down and back and forth on the seat. I shook and sweat and had chills. I kept rocking back and forth to ebb the pain and nausea. I could hardly see. It got really bad. I was cross-eyed. I started crying and rolled onto the floor gripping my stomach. Rolling and crying. I would never get through with it. I could hardly breathe from hyperventilating. I could hear Dr. Adair outside the bathroom door. He was furious when he found out what had happened. That nurse never should have done what she did.
The next time I had a BM, it was naturally and on my own. This allowed me out of the hospital. After seven days, I had had enough fun. It had been seven days of not feeling the sun. My skin was like chalk. It was time to go.
Before I left, I met with my future oncologist. I had never acknowledged that I could have cancer. I thought all along that I was done with all this sickly business and all I needed now was to recuperate from my surgery and then I would be back on my feet again, working, living in my house with my friends, dreaming about what my life would be like in the next few years. Cancer or anything like it was out of the picture. I was not done being young yet. Cancer didn't fit into my lifestyle very well and I was not willing to accommodate it. I pushed the possibility away.
On the drive home, wearing my own clothes again, I opened the sunroof and felt the cold air. It felt so good. It smelled cold and good. I was done at that hospital. Soon this would all be a story to tell, not a present reality.

6 comments:

Dr Em said...

Welcome Nora Snora!

Natalie said...

Melbourne and I send you hugs! Thanks for sharing your stories. x

Alicia said...

I love you Nora. You are such a great writer and it is incredible to hear your story this way. Thanks for sharing with us.

Majken said...

Hey there! I'm Majken Hall, from back in the day! My sister Lyndsay knows your cousin Emily and somehow I ended up seeing other blogs and it brought me to your blog. I'm excited to read about you! It's been along time...

Elizabeth said...

Your writing style is amazing. You should consider writing an actual memoir of your experiences. You have a real talent for helping place the reader inside your frame of reference. I am really impressed and feel lucky to read your blog!

Elizabeth said...

BTW, It's Dawn in case you were wondering :) You can write me at "ImNoMansElizabeth@gmail.com" anytime if you wish!

-Dawn