I opened my eyes slightly and realized I was in an ambulance. My first thought was, How did it get to be night? My second thought was, You know what it’s like when you’re in traffic and see an ambulance go by, and catch a glimpse of some poor person in there? That mix of voyeurism and pity and maybe mild disgust? Now that’s me. As much as I can see the lights of the cars behind us, they can see in. I’m on a stage, illuminated. I’ve got oxygen on my face and an IV in each arm and I’m in a gown under a heated blanket and on a gurney. I’m no longer me. I’m A Patient. I transformed into a patient when I took off my clothes and put on this gown. My clothes are in a plastic bag and will be returned to me at the end, when I go home, the way they give things back to a prisoner when they are set free.
My timeline was fragmented and garbled by medication. Some hours before I had had lunch at home alone. That must’ve been around 12:30, on Monday, December 7, 2015. Immediately my stomach began to hurt. I tried a few maneuvers — stomach pain not a totally unusual thing with me– trying to get it to stop. These usually worked, just lying down on my left side, or moving this way and that. It didn’t work. I tried it more and more violently– flopping down on the couch, then throwing myself down on the couch. Then thinking, No, this is really bad this time. This is really bad. What do I do? I called Ben. He was having lunch in Tremont, about a half hour away. I said tentatively that I might need help and would check back in a bit. I tried every possible position, hands and knees, throwing myself on the couch full force, jumping up and down. It was only getting worse, and worse, and worse. Horses throw themselves on the ground when they have colic. Now I know why. I called him back. To him it had only been a few minutes. I was crying in desperation.
He said, “I’m coming but you have to call someone to take you to the ER. Call Sofia. Call Christy.”
“But I’m too shy!!” I wailed. This seems absurd now, but I really didn’t want to do it. I certainly didn’t want to call 911. Crippling shyness kicking in at the wrong time!
Ben said, “Well, you’d better fucking get over your shyness! Right! Now!”
I texted my friend nearby: “You home? Urgent.”
She replied quickly: “At school, what is it?”
“Need a ride to ER asap”
“Damn I’m here till 3:30.”
I texted my neighbor: “You home? Urgent.”
“Yeah, I’m here, what is it?”
“Need a ride to ER asap.”
“B there in a sec.”
I went outside and paced around frantically. She rolled in up a minute and I got in, horrified to need to help and to be in pain. She drove at high speeds. “If we get pulled over, we’ll have an excuse,” she said. My phone rang, the cleaning man. I ignored it. Two minutes later it rang again, the cleaning man again! I said to the phone without picking up “i don’t fucking want to talk to you.” Then realized that a four year old was sitting in the back seat. “Oh, sorry!!!” We chuckled. I held my stomach as we drove through curves, around a washed out bridge, and pulled up to the ER. Ben had just arrived, shaving off a lot of time somehow. I stepped out of the van and took his arm.
I remember standing at the counter and trembling from head to foot. I remember that my blood pressure was 181/130 and my heart rate was 130. i.e. everything wildly elevated. I got into a gown and tried to explain the pain. I remember doubling over and wondering if my back was exposed. A voice said, “We’re going to give you something in your IV… ” (which they must’ve already placed?) “… It’s like morphine but six times stronger.” I remember crying and begging and saying “Why isn’t it working? Why isn’t it working?” My left collar bone feels like it’s broken.” The lady came back and gave me another dose. And then I could rest. Inside my closed eyes I could see inky black, with neon green concentric circles, endlessly collapsing into each other. I tried to describe this to Ben as I watched it.
After that it was all just voices and hands. Simply commands. “You must be still or the EKG will pick up everything. You have to stop moving your feet.” Another voice: “Hold your breath. Be a statue.” Hands and voices put me into a CT scan. I listened with my eyes closed. “Lift your arms. Hold your breath. You can breathe again.” A distant voice, “Yeah, she was writhing in pain when she came in.”
I said to Ben, “Call my parents. You’d better call them. Who’s going to get the kids? Violet is in doggy day care.” This was a moment of lucidity. Ben called everyone and arranged things. Ben on the phone talking to his mother, “No, she has not had a heart attack. They’ve ruled that out.” Grandparents got the kids, dog could stay over night at daycare. What kind of food did she usually eat? What was the protein source? I tried to remember the ingredients of the dog food. Voices said they’d take me by ambulance to the big hospital in downtown Akron. Hands and voices. “We’re going to move you, turn towards me honey.” The sense of being professionally handled, efficiency and strength, but not uncaring. Just pragmatic.
I opened my eyes in the ambulance. They are taking to me to the big hospital. They are checking me in. I am that person going by in an ambulance that makes you wonder, who is that? And what’s wrong with her?
The same efficient hands moved me to another bed in the ER. A cute young doctor came to talk. I tried to explain everything lucidly, but I could tell I didn’t make too much sense. He seemed very used to it. I wanted to meet him for cocktails twenty years ago. Twenty years ago he was probably still in elementary school. How did I get so old?
Ben and the boys came in, the boys wearing masks. “They’re not allowed in here,” Ben told me. “We had to beg. They can only stay a minute.”
“Are the masks to protect them or to protect us?” I asked. Us, the patients.
“They’re to protect the kids.”
Elias came up to my bedside. “Let me give you a very gentle hug!” He hugged my arm carefully. Why IVs on both sides? When did that happen? “Poor Mommy! Don’t cry Mommy!” I had no idea I was crying. Ben talked to the doctor for a moment, while I held hands with a boy on each side. Then he came back to say a prayer. He had us all hold hands in a circle. I was crying with my eyes closed. When I opened them, Isaac was fake smiling behind his mask, trying with all his might not to cry. “See? I’m fine!” He grimaced. Then they had to go. And I had to be alone again with my oxygen and IVs and the florescent lights. Behind a curtain beside me an old man was groaning persistently.
After a while I threw up in a green plastic sleeve. I wanted to tell the doctor about it, but warned him that it was going to be kind of graphic. “I’ve heard it all,” the cute young doctor smiled. I tried to explain my impression: “It wasn’t in my stomach. I ate that lunch at noon. It was in my esophagus this whole time.”
My stomach had gone up into my chest and twisted. It had pressed my esophagus closed. It was a strangulated hernia ten centimeters in diameter; the tear in my diaphragm was big enough to put a grapefruit through.
They moved me up to a nice dark room upstairs. Very dark and quiet, with a sparkling city view. It felt like a hotel. Nurses came in and out, giving me drugs in my IV. I begged for ice chips. I offered to trade my jewelry for ice chips. They gave me a little green sponge on a stick that I could dip in water and gently suck on. I’m far from a Biblical scholar, but this reminded me of Jesus getting a sponge soaked in vinegar on the cross. But I realized that as long as I didn’t eat or drink anything and had a steady supply of IV pain medication I was okay. I don’t know how come I was so funny that night (cough– on drugs– cough), but this nurse came in to take all my information, and in the course of telling her the answers I kept making her laugh and laugh. I was doing the best stand-up of my life! I wish I had a recording of it! The subject was that every body part she asked about I had some huge lengthy history to recount. We just thought it was hysterical that I was such a sorry case. Whenever I saw that nurse over the next two weeks she greeted me with delight and even an outburst of laughter, like we were old friends and I was the funniest patient she’d ever had.
I’m pretty battle hardened when it comes to medical things, but two days later they said they had to do one more test before I could go home. They tried to walk the line between warning me that it was going to be awful and not scaring me in such a way as to make it even worse. To be brief, imagine yourself crying and retching while someone feeds a tube up your nose and down into your twisted, contorted stomach, while you’re wide awake. Then I had to drink water and more water with specific pauses and timing, while the tube was stuck in my throat. It felt like I was trying to swallow a sword. This was to test my esophagus for its muscle strength and I guess how well it worked, so that they could decide how to do the surgery. Whatever it told them, they decided to do the surgery five days later and sent me home on a liquid diet. “I don’t want to see you back here on an emergent basis before you’re scheduled surgery,” a nurse told me sternly. Ben said the doctor told him I could not cheat on the liquid-only thing, for real: I might die.
I spent the ensuing five days trying to procure and wrap everything we needed for Christmas. I made many types of broth and froze it. We went out and cut a Christmas tree that turned out to be the most lopsided Charlie Brown tree you’ve ever seen.
I didn’t die. I had the surgery two weeks ago. I got through two more nights in the hospital my chief complaints being inability to survive on room air only and nausea. I couldn’t go home the first day, 24 hours after surgery, because my oxygen levels kept running way too low. Turns out you need your diaphragm every time you breathe. Mine had an enormous line of stitches holding it together and every breath was beyond painful. To make matters worse they kept trying to make me breathe into this little tube. “You don’t want pneumonia! Trust me,” said one nurse. I rang my little bell and a nursing assistant came in. She was a very big, soft black lady with a heart laugh. “What you need honey?” she asked. “I need oxygen,” I whispered. “Oh, baby! You just talking the basics!” she laughed and got my oxygen, which had fallen out of my reach.
“You really got your money’s worth!” joked one nurse. “You really made him work for it this time!” referring to the wonderful doctor from India, with the long musical name, who fixed me. Such a cute, charming and kind man, with inky black curls going grey at the temples. Another doctor came in and I had a fleeting experience of true healing touch. He just held my hand for a moment and I felt the strange warm healing energy come up my arm. A recent immigrant from China came in an reminded me once again the golden rule of hospital stays: never listen to residents. They mean well but they have no idea what they’re talking about. Since they introduce themselves as “Dr. So-and So” you have to be cagy and hawk-eyed and remember: never listen to residents. They will only confuse you.
The nurse told me that while mine was quite bad, another guy was in there one time with ALL his organs in his chest, his poor lungs and heart crushed against the sides of his rib cage. “And he was walking around like a normal person!” In my case, my stomach was wrapped around my heart, crushing my lungs and making it hard for my heart to beat well. And I had a big benign tumor lodged in there with it. (Strangely enough they didn’t take this out. They just pulled it down into my abdomen and parked it someplace out of the way?) My lungs didn’t know how to inflate. On an X-ray I saw them: two little shadows squished way up by my shoulders. No wonder going for a dog walk seemed like such a trial! No wonder I felt like I was always walking through a foot of tar!
Now my lungs feel like two huge bellows that can suck in a whole roomful of air. I’m weak and at the beginning of a new chapter, but at least my parts are all in the right part of my body. Ben and I and the dog-walked a couple miles today. Tonight is our twentieth anniversary, and I’ve been upgraded to soft foods. We’re going to make a soufflé.
And so ends yet another strange medical ordeal in the journey of the USS Catherine.