Thursday, September 22, 2011


A little over three weeks ago, while up in New Hampshire preparing for an American Mountain Guides Association Rock Instructor Exam, I underwent emergency abdominal surgery after my intestines decided to twist on themselves and basically stop working. Needless to say, this derailed any plans I might've had to climb anything and I got to spend a few nights in the hospital. The story below is a short piece I wrote about the experience.

I am on the floor of the hotel room, clutching my abdomen in the fetal position.
* * *
I am on the floor of the bathroom, clutching the toiletbowl. Spattered spit and vomit decorate the forty-year old linoleum.
* * *
I am on the floor of the emergency room, kneeling on hands and knees, barely noting the texture of the thin, blue and gray layer of carpet underneath me. With each exhalation I manage to move the pen in my hand furiously and illegibly across the paper in front of me. Name. Social security number. Date of birth. Address.
The receptionist looks on, a slightly amusing mixture of bewildered and aghast. I clutch the edge of the counter and slowly heave myself up, paperwork in hand. I slide it across the desk and return to my spot on the floor.
* * *
I sit in triage for a seemingly interminable period. The physician finally arrives, “palpating,” but really just poking and prodding the parts of me that already hurt. She leaves and the “needling” begins. I lay there, distracted from the various pricks in my arms by undulating pulsations of the most excruciating pain imaginable tormenting the area surrounding my navel. Soon, a wave of coldness rushes over my left arm, near my elbow. Then comes a swell of warmth flushing down me from head to toe. Finally, my body allows me the respite of unconsciousness.
* * *
I awake to an older woman entering the room.
“How is your evening going?” I smile weakly as I tremble from the pain, made bearable by anti-inflammatories and mild narcotics.
The technician looks startled but pleased with my query. “Pretty good,” she replies. “Better than most folks—I just got here.”
Later, she will nominate me for the unofficial award of “nicest patient ever.” She asks if I want to watch TV. I politely decline. I have been dozing. It is, after all, 11:00pm.
“Are you sure?” she implores.
I do not need TV right now. I do not want it. I can sleep. I want to sleep. And I can think. I can even read the quaint locally-published magazine sitting on the table nearby. She insists on bringing me the remote control and showing me how to operate it before she leaves.
Sometime later I decide that I could, in fact, use the distraction of television. The remote is broken.
* * *
The surgeon greets me in the recovery room. We have a conversation half-remembered before they wheel me along to my new home. After some significant re-arranging of furniture and beds, I am brought to rest in room 119, bed B. I vaguely understand that there is another person sharing the room with me.
* * *
Jim sits across the room behind a curtain. His wife accompanies him for most of it. Sometimes, he tries to move, and then he coughs the most horrible cough, a sputtering, wet hacking that is clearly producing something. Jim wants to sit up. It is his goal for the day. He announces this intention after finishing the coffee-flavored McDonald’s milkshake his daughter and grandchildren have brought. His son-in-law says he must work through lunch and can’t stop by, apparently for the third time this week. Jim and his wife say they understand. Who wouldn’t?
He pages the nurses when his visitors leave. Without being overly patronizing, they help him adjust the array of tubes protruding from various locations on his body. They leave.
His wife prepares lunch for him. He rolls over, invoking the name of his Lord. He cries. In his attempt to prop himself up he curses the pain. He sinks back down and coughs that awful cough.
The orderly hurries past the crying man and wordlessly drops a tray of liquid food at my bedside, hurrying away with a tense expression. Jim sobs.
I eat some orange gelatin.
* * *
“Do you want to bathe?” she asks.
I am confused. Why would I want to bathe? Am I supposed to? Do I need to bathe? I haven’t bathed for five days. Am I supposed to want to bathe? How would that even work? Do I get to shower? Would it be a sponge bath?
And what exactly did she mean when she used the phrase “freshen your johnnies?”
* * *
I walk a lap around the hospital wing, IV tower in tow. It hurts, being stabbed in the abdomen, but not so much as I would’ve thought. It’s probably attributable to the precision of a scalpel as opposed to the myriad other potential ways to come by a puncture wound. It could also be the painkillers, but I’m fairly certain those wore off long ago.
I return to my room. Jim’s visitors have left. He sits with his curtain drawn back, staring blankly at the wall. Perhaps it’s the morphine and the Ativan. Perhaps it’s because his wife just left for the day. Perhaps it’s the cancer.
Or perhaps it’s because Dr. Chin just talked to him about considering hospice care.
They think Jim is going to die. I think Jim is a bad-ass.
* * *
Apparently, my intestines fixed themselves. The stitches will dissolve on their own. Until then, I have been forbidden to lift more than twenty pounds for a month, provided I don’t want a hernia. But I am allowed to go swimming in a week if I’m feeling well enough.
Everyone tells me I look good. I get the feeling the nurses half expect me to come out of my room doing backflips, or at least standing totally upright, which is equally outrageous at this point.
They don’t tell Jim that he looks good. I want to cry.
* * *
Jim’s wife sets a small sketchbook in my hand.
“That’s for you,” Jim croaks at me from across the room.
I open it to the first page and chuckle. I read all of Jim’s clever cartoons, a variety of comedic sketches and wordplay, each one giving cancer the finger and bitch-slapping death in its own way. I am overwhelmed that Jim has retained his sense of humor throughout the ordeal.
I silently begin to cry.
* * *
I have been discharged. I hobble out of the room with my wife, passing Jim and his wife on the way.
“Take care of yourself,” I tell Jim.
“You too,” he says. “Hope you get better soon.”
I wish I could say “likewise” and believe it.
As we walk down the hall to the automatic doors, I flatly say to my wife, “Jim is going to hospice today.”
She squeezes my hand. Our friends cheerily greet us in the parking lot.

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