For the past hour, I have been working on a lovely post about the beauty of friendship. But I have to stop. Because I am sick. I am sick with a terrible cold. My nose hurts. My body aches. My lips are dry and cracked. I am hot. Then I am cold. Then I am sad. Then I feel sorry for myself and I say, “Stop feeling sorry for yourself, Mary,” and then I say, “It’s too late!” and then I say, “Stop talking because it hurts the head.”
So I have to stop, now. I think it’s going to have to be good enough that I found a painting by Winslow Homer called, “The Sick Chicken.”
Do you remember the last time we talked about Winslow Homer? I had so much to say about this painting. Those were good times, weren’t they? I could breathe back then. I could run and jump and play. But no longer. Now, I shall perish on this couch, wads of snotty kleenex strewn all around, the remnants of my veggie burger drying out on the coffee table. Woe, woe!
I must confess a strange sense of embarrassment when I the surgeon told me he saw a small gallstone on my CT scan. Aren’t gallstones what obese men in their late fifties get when they eat cheeseburgers all day, watch SportsCenter and smoke Pall Malls? My brain also connected “gallstone” with “kidney stone” and boy, I’ve heard some horrific stories about those things. Really, any time a doctor says the word “stone” in conjunction with the words “inside” and “your,” you’ve got some thinking to do.
When I got home and stopped barfing, I read up on gallbladders and what can go wrong with them. A person can get gallbladder cancer, but this is extremely rare. (There’s a terrible, terrible joke here, barely: Q: What did the gallbladder say to cancer? A: “What am I, chopped liver?”) No, it’s mainly just gallstones that afflict our gallbladders. But why and how? First, we have to understand what the gallbladder is for: it does stuff with bile. That’s it, that’s all I can tell you. It’s not important. Well, it isn’t! You can have your gallbladder removed, so how important can it be? Your honor, I rest my case.
Still, you don’t want things going awry in there, and then things do. Gallstones are hardened deposits of digestive fluid. Considering that my guts are made of cotton candy and popsicle sticks, that I would have a digestive fluid problem isn’t a huge leap. Many people have gallstones; most people don’t know they do and don’t have to know because most gallstones are small and harmless. They form for various reasons and yes, one of the reasons is having high cholesterol due to many, many cheeseburgers and no exercise, Pall Malls, etc. But some gallstones form because…well, why shouldn’t they? Don’t judge a gallstone for wanting to live. Gallstones are just like you and me.
My friend told me this morning that he had a terrible time with his gallbladder and nearly had to have it removed; he avoided this in the eleventh hour thanks to medicine and fluids. He did say the pain he experienced was the worst of his life. He passed out and he’s no fainting goat.
I have zero symptoms, though. I think I’m one of the people who will never have to deal with my stone (I like to refer to it as my little “gallpebble,” thank you.) If they have to take it out, though, I ain’t scurred. Actually, it would be kind of exciting. Taking out my gallbladder would increase the number of organs I’ve had excised from three to four. If you count tonsils and four wisdom teeth, now I’m getting to be a real conversation piece. Oh, and there were a couple suspicious moles removed a few years back. Hm. Parts of my body are just flying off into space, aren’t they?
Tomorrow we examine (in words, in words!) my cyst. What nerve! What gall!
Here’s what happened. No pity party, just the facts.
I’m crazy anemic. On top of that, I’m leaking blood somewhere, and this wimpy system got hit with a virus that was less like “the flu,” more like “the Invasion of Normandy.” The triple-threat was disastrous.
I sort of knew I was kind of anemic; I remember a doctor saying something about this years ago. But I didn’t know it was a big deal and I figured it was related to surgeries. Mild anemia is not a big deal, but severe anemia is and it’s not just related to surgeries. Anemia, by the way, is “a condition marked by a deficiency of red blood cells or of hemoglobin in the blood, resulting in pallor and weariness.” I’ve always been pasty and pale; now I know there’s a reason I look like a character cut from Twilight. When taping the TV show last year, I caught myself on the monitor standing next to a tanned, Texas-dwelling Liz Porter and scared the badoobies out of myself; I was practically translucent by comparison.
The headache came on Thursday night, an H.R. Geiger creature trying and failing to claw its way out of my head (the failing part made it try harder, see.) I do remember things — spinal taps don’t fade from memory quickly — but it’s all in patches, including a visit from my Chicago GI doctor one of the days I was at Northwestern. Dr. Yun asked me, “Mary, what the heck is going on with you??” I remember croaking out, “I have to get on a plane to D.C. tomorrow morning” and she basically laughed me out of the building. My mother came in from Iowa; if you said you’d give me five million dollars to tell you when she arrived, I would not be able to take that money home. My sister and her fiance visited; I remember stories they told me of their visit to India, but when did they come? How long did they stay? I remember texting three people, one time each, but I can’t remember one of the people I texted and I have no idea what I said. A friend came to visit and all I remember is him opening his mail. I blogged twice and I am so afraid to read those entries for fear they were absolutely unintelligible.
They did an upper GI. They did another pouchoscopy. They did a CT of my brain. No bleeding so far. They tried an MRI but I pressed the panic button; the congestion in my chest was so bad, I couldn’t breathe outside of a head-locking, skull-screw, mask device; inside one, I was a basket case. I’ll reschedule that and the pelvic ultrasound.
So there you have it. Tomorrow, lighter fare. Now I must rest. I am in D.C. again, horizontal, unable to move anything but my fingers. They’re fine! I feel like I got punched in the ribs and someone has been beating my organs with a fish.
Though I would like to write about how every few years the public must endure Fashion’s attempts to make denim overalls cool (oh, how they try and fail!) and how this is just silly and I can’t believe we haven’t learned to ignore Fashion on this, I think that ought to wait till tomorrow. To go straight from talk of ambulances and surgeries to ill-fitting overalls is not nice. It’s like going from a popsicle to a steak. Jarring. Rude, in some cultures.
And so as I went about my day today, I tried to think of a good bridge. “I could write about what I’ve learned since getting sick,” I thought, and mentally wandered down that road. But on the way I came upon all the things that I feel more confused about, and things that I observed that didn’t necessarily teach me anything so much as simply surprised me.
So tonight, a few lists; tomorrow, overalls.
My Oprah Winfrey, “What I Know For Sure” List
– The saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is bizarre and largely untrue. More often, what doesn’t kill you leaves you weakened, compromised.
– You can get used to anything.
– There is no time. You must do it now.
– Being in a hospital blows. Stay out if you can, but if you must go in, pack a bag. Take your phone charger, your sock monkey, your journal. Take your glasses (if you wear them), your laptop (if you use one) and anything else you would want if you have to be there for long. As bad as you feel, try, try, try to pack a bag from home to take with you. It will bring you great comfort when you wake up.
– Visiting people when they’re in the hospital is one of the kindest, nicest, most lovely things you can do for a person. I remember every last person who came to see me. Thank you. It meant everything, every time, bless your hearts forever and ever. (Rebecca, if you’re reading this, I’m looking at you right now especially. You too, Bilal.)
Curiosities – I’ve seen myself from the inside out: I have handled my own intestines. I am kind of a badass.
– Very few people in the Eastern hemisphere get UC or Crohn’s. These are maladies of the industrialized West. One day we will know why and keep people from getting sick like this.
– Losing my hair really sucked. It came out in clumps in the shower. That was one of the worst times in terms of feeling attractive (or not.) The stoma was rough; in some ways, losing my hair was harder. A female thing?
Disappointments – In a hospital in Tucson, AZ, in ’09 or ’10 (ER trip while visiting then-husband) I looked at my frail, perforated body and all the medicine bags hanging around my head and thought, “I will never, ever hate my body again or tell myself I should lose five pounds when I don’t need to.” But I still do that.
– You can’t go back. You can never be ten years old again, happy, healthy, running through the yard in bare feet.
It’s not often one does a google image search and comes up totally empty-handed, but if you’re searching for something truly obscure, it’s possible that there will be a “No results found for [blank]” message. To give you an example of how rare an occurance this is, I tried to think of something that for sure could not turn up any image results whatsoever. I typed in “Beckett peanut butter sandwich.”
Tons of results. Thousands.
It came as a great surprise, therefore, when I entered in (in quotes) the common phrase, “the picture of health” to find an image for this blog post and got the “No results found for ‘the picture of health'” message. Really? That surprised me. Though there were images for the picture of health without quotes, they were not what I expected, really. I suppose I thought I’d get beaming cherubic children, or expensive stock photographs of doctor/patient interactions, etc.
The best of the lot was the above picture from the Department of Health Sciences and Technology in Zurich. It’s unclear what’s going on, here, but there’s at least one object visible there in the office that one is not allowed to touch; judging from the intricacy of the robot-lobster the older fellow is strapped into, I suspect there are a few more.
I wanted to find a picture of the picture of health to be ironic. I’m not exactly the picture of health but I’m better than I was on Monday. This whole week was a bit of a wash, I’m afraid. When I was actively feeling very poorly, I was flat on my back. That was a couple days. Then there was a Doctor Day, when I got some disturbing news that I’ll share tomorrow (too tired, psychically and physically, at the moment, to go there), and then there were a couple days of Getting Back on My Feet. Today, I was hale and hearty enough to finish a quilt top and eat some chorizo scrambled eggs, so I’d say ground has been gained.
Thank you to all the well-wishers — you shall be justly rewarded. I’m not sure how or when or if I’ll have a lick to do with it, but surely something positive must come when we send funny texts and things to those who need a laff.
Saturday night, my body refused to be told what to do any longer; I was forced to visit to the emergency room. I ended up at historic Bellevue Hospital’s ER from about 1am till daybreak. This is my tale.
Earlier in the day, I had found it difficult to walk. My guts were churning toxic waste and my tummy hurt a lot. My bathroom trips were numbering in the ridonkulous. I rallied enough to make dinner for Yuri and myself, but I ate very little. When every morsel you put into your body winds up a punishment, you’re don’t get too hungry. I was weak and sad. We went to bed. I woke an hour or so later and, like a wounded/dying animal, I left the bed to try and curl up with my pain alone on the couch. I found no relief there, so I scraped myself up and went to deliver the bad news:
“Yuri,” I said. “I need to go to the hospital.”
Yuri bolted upright and mobilized quickly. I made sure he packed his laptop and brought anything else he’d like to have for the next 6-8 hours. I’ve done middle-of-the-night hospital trips plenty of times; he hasn’t.
I knew from riding the subway that Beth Israel Medical Center was on 1st Ave. and 16th. (There’s a tiled sign in the subway that says, “Beth Israel, 1st Ave. & 16th”.) We’re staying just down the street, so it was okay that when we went outside we couldn’t get a cab. I shuffled along the sidewalk as Yuri tried to hail one, but I knew he’d fail. Saturday night in the East Village means taxis, taxis, everywhere, and not a ride to catch. The cabs are full of nightlife already; nothing is available. And since the East Village in way down on the island and 1st Ave. is a one-way going uptown, you’re pretty much out of luck unless you catch someone coming out of a taxi and you slip in before it leaves again. We reached Beth Israel-Mount Sinai in about 15 minutes on foot.
When we found it, though, it appeared to be closed. Like, closed-closed. We went to two different doors. I know it sounds crazy, and a New Yorker might scoff at me that I didn’t “just go around” or something, but I’m telling you, that hospital was not open. Doors locked. No people. At this point, I was kind of hunching over, too, so if there was an arrow someplace, I missed it. A taxi driver was passing slowly and we caught him.
“Is this hospital open?” I asked at the window.
“Uh…” The driver wasn’t sure what I was asking. Or maybe I just looked that scary.
“Do you know if it’s open?” I asked again, and then, seeing there was no one in the backseat, I opened the door and asked a way better question: “Can you take me to the nearest hospital, please?” Yuri jumped in and we were off, headed to the other nearest hospital, which was at 1st and 27th St.
Bellevue is the oldest public hospital in the country. Since 1736, the sick, maimed, crazy, indigent, burned, frozen, dying, pregnant, drunk, beaten, wounded, frightened, blitzed, and otherwise in-jeopardy humans of New York have made their way to Bellevue for help. The first-ever maternity ward? Bellevue. The first-ever ambulance service? Bellevue. But despite all that, despite the millions (counted and uncounted) who have received care at Bellevue over the centuries, despite being a landmark of American innovation and civilization, Bellevue’s reputation is not so great. This is probably because of the psych ward.
In New York City, everything is extreme. The poor are really poor, the rich are really rich. The food is really, really good; the garbage smells really, really bad. And the crazy people — sorry, the mentally ill people — are really, really nuts. Bellevue is where they go. And throughout the hospital’s history, tales of terror from the halls of Bellevue have kept Americans in thrall; suicidal starlets, frothing lunatics, axe-murderers, giggling perverts — they all end up in Bellevue. Add to that the occasional (and sorrowful) stories of mistreatment and abuse inside the ward and you get a place frequently referred to zero-to-little irony as “the hellhole” or “bedlam.” I was vaguely aware of this history as I entered the ER. I wasn’t going into the psych ward, but the buildings aren’t too far apart.
I was admitted quickly. It seemed quiet in there. I was hunched over in my chair while the triage nurse put the bracelet around my wrist and felt a surge of excitement push past my pain. I was going to get the inside scoop on a New York City emergency room on a Saturday night! This was gonna be great.
It might’ve been great, relatively speaking, except that I was injected with morphine and I am allergic to morphine. It wasn’t Bellevue’s fault; it’s been so long since I’ve even heard that drug suggested to me that I neglected to mention that I have a terrible, terrible reaction to it. When they asked me if I had allergies, I said no; I’m used to being treated frequently in hospitals that know me, and I was feeling so sick I didn’t think to mention, “Oh, yeah. A long time ago, morphine nearly killed me.” So when I was writhing in pain on my sickbed, the very capable and kind internist said, “I’m going to give you an injection; we’ll get an IV going soon,” I spluttered, “Yes, thank you,” and zip! There you go, morphine in my arm.
It’s a sad thing indeed to be injected with something you’re allergic to.
I wouldn’t feel that allergy/reaction immediately. All I felt was drowsy and in less pain, and that was okay for the moment. Yuri got a chair and sat near me. We heard people talking on the other side of the curtain to my left and tried to listen in on what they were saying. Our eyes grew wide as we realized…the guy got stabbed! We had a stab wound victim in the bed next to us! Holy crap! There was blood on the curtain, too! Wow! Then there were cops! Five cops! All grilling the guy about the stab wound! So far, New York City emergency room report = excellent!
From there, though, the Bellevue ER took off and I went down. It was nuts. I passed out and woke up, hella nauseated, to two Jersey girls screeching next to me; one had twisted her ankle and the other was furiously yelling into her cell phone. They were both roaring drunk. On my way to the bathroom, I passed four indigent men passed out on beds in the hallway; each of their pants were 90% off. When I got to the bathroom, I couldn’t use it. It was filthy. Fecal matter was sprayed around the back of the toilet. There was blood, dried and fresh, kinda everywhere. I turned on my morphine-woozy heels and Yuri helped me back to bed. I stepped around other gurneys and sick people and caught the nurse.
“The bathroom… It’s… I can’t use it,” I said, reeling.
“Oh, yeah. That’s why I hold my urine for twelve hours,” he said. “There’s another bathroom, though,” and he told us where to go. I don’t remember if I used it or not. By that point, I was quickly succumbing to my morphine problem. I don’t remember being released. I don’t remember getting home. I slept the entire day on Sunday and today was mostly lost.
Bellevue, you didn’t do me wrong. But I still ain’t right.