On warm blankets, healing, and the joy of measuring your life with coffee spoons

I’m now out of hospital for 1 week and 1 day. 16 days (15 nights) in hospital after emergency surgery. I lost several inches of my small intestine, and unfortunately gained a very long needle in my right butt cheek that is draining an abscess I developed after Week #1. I left with a pathology report that said malignant cancer, but a highly positive prognosis and pronouncement of being “cancer-free”.

I mentioned to hubby just now that my drain is 2 weeks and 1 day old and let’s just have it out ALREADY.

(I never thought it would remain in this long. When I pushed my doctors while in hospital about taking it out (it’s uncomfortable to sit/sleep on, to say the least), the senior fellow on my surgical team told me Your convenience is not our main priority. Said in a charming Australian accent that made it sound less offensive than it obviously was. And also, said the team, we are going to leave it in “too long” – meaning long enough that they won’t have to go back in and re-insert it. Flash forward – drain still in 1 week plus 1 day after discharge.)

Hubby, thoughtfully: “You must have some lingering trauma after so many days in hospital”.

Which caused me to reflect. Was I traumatized?

Up until July 11, I’d never had surgery. Not even my tonsils out. I’d never spent a night in hospital. My biggest trauma was enduring the claustrophobia of an MRI, which lingers to this day: https://kittyscornerblog.com/2018/12/20/next-time-take-the-pill/

Looking back, I don’t think 15 nights in hospital left much a scar on me, if any. To be honest, it was a lovely warm blanket of a bubble. (Warm blankets being possibly the best things about hospitals.) After 6 months of suffering from 24×7 pain, losing tens of pounds, and being dismissed with test results that showed “no concerns”, I had a diagnosis – bowel obstruction. I had a solution – surgery. I had doctors acknowledging I’d probably been in quite a bit of pain for months – thank you! I had a plan for recovery and instructions to take my time and heal. I had doctors and nurses at my bedside every day. I had morphine and Tylenol, anti-nauseants, and antibiotics. I was being taken care of. I was getting better.

I heard lovely comforting and constructive words almost as soon as I arrived in the ER: You’re in a lot of pain. You are dehydrated. Let’s put you on fluids. Let’s put you on paid meds. We need to call in surgery for a consult. You need a CT scan. You are going to need surgery tonight. You are our top priority right now. For the first time in 4 months, since my tests had shown “no concerns”, doctors were trying to – and going to – make me feel better.

Even as they wheeled me into the OR at 11 pm on Saturday night, after about 10 hours in Emerg, I felt seen and heard and cared for. I met my surgeon, Dr. Rebecca Gladdy, who clasped my right hand with her gloved one, and squeezed, and held on, as they explained what would happen. It was such a humane gesture. With the prospect of getting better, having pain alleviated, I didn’t have much of an opportunity to be scared.

It was all such a huge relief.

Post-surgery, I didn’t have to worry about how to eat or what to eat, whether I would vomit horribly and incessantly. I had a PICC line and IVs feeding and watering me. I had a nurse bringing me pain pills every 4 hours. I had hours to sleep and read and just heal. My pain level even immediately post-surgery was a fraction of what it was when I presented at Emerg on that Saturday.

Unlike other patients who rotated through the 4-bed ward where I lived for most of my stay – patients with double mastectomies who were sent home the day after surgery, despite sobbing they had no home supports awaiting them – I was told to Take. My. Time. My surgical team’s mantra was consistently We. Are. In. No. Hurry. Healing would be slow and steady. It took 10 days before the D-word (“discharge”) was even uttered, and I had to prompt the conversation (Are you guys even thinking about letting me go home anytime soon? I asked tentatively. I was wondering if they were going to present me with a long-term lease for bed 1409B.)

I was also in hospital in the middle of a pandemic, but somehow the surgical floor seemed another bubble of protection against Covid. This particular hospital had very minimal incidence of Covid – they were lucky. Patients were all tested – and until a negative result came in, isolated. All staff wore masks. (They had no shortages of PPE; I asked.) If you walked in the halls, you wore your mask. Visitors were being allowed, finally (but only 2/patient for a specific window every other day), after 4 months of a strict no-visitor policy. Visitors were screened, wore masks. I wasn’t riding the TTC, doing grocery shopping, glaring at the assholes who chose not to wear masks or who wore them below their noses. It seemed pretty much the safest place to be in a pandemic.

OK OK, I had a few complaints. None of these amounted to scars or traumas from the hospital experience – just whiny complaints. But when you’re in hospital, you have a lot of time to think about whiny complaints because … It’s. The. Most. Boring. Place. To. Be. Ever.

  • At the top of the list, the NG tube that was inserted in Emerg. Which wasn’t pleasant, let’s leave it at that. I have a funny-in-retrospect anecdote about that, for another time. It stayed in for an ENTIRE WEEK. It wasn’t fun to sport it as an appendage nose-trunk for that week, first actively pumping and then later draining by gravity my stomach contents into a plastic bag. Try having allergies when you’ve got a tube stuck up your left nostril. It’s annoying. But it relieved some of the stress on my damaged GI system, and again, the plan was to leave it in for so long that it never had to be re-inserted. I was keen on the no re-insertion plan since the original insertion was not trauma-free. Anecdote to follow.
  • The “hat rack” (as hubby called my IV pump) I had to drag around with me, everywhere, to the bathroom, doing my laps on the floor to get my post-surgery exercise. But it was hydrating me and feeding me when my digestive system was in trauma, so not such a hardship.
  • The utter lack of privacy in a ward setting. The woman in the bed next to me was given very bad news – her stomach cancer was inoperable and had spread to lymph nodes. She had been NPO for months and months, and they wanted to do stomach surgery so that she could eat and gain strength for chemo. But all of this was to extend her possible life. No cure. Average life projection: 1 year. She wept all night, right next to me, with the curtains drawn.
  • Everyone in my ward knew the intimate details of my bowel movements – and me, theirs. There was no avoiding it. It’s demeaning, until it’s pedestrian.
  • I had a pretty serious complication on Saturday #2, that led to the drain in my ass. I felt really off, crappy even after the NG tube got pulled out (easy-peasy). I was freezing, teeth chattering, huddled under two warmed blanket. High high fever. Doctors did blood work, urinalysis, and then a CT scan. Got the antibiotics going in my IV. Suspecting and confirming an abscess at the surgical site. They took me back to Diagnostic Imaging on Sunday night, to IR (Interventional Radiology), where they gave me conscious sedation, scanned me, and inserted a very long thin needle through my ass into my intestine to drain the abscess. I had (have) a plastic bag on my right calf, capturing the oozing, turbid (I learned a new word from the senior resident) liquid. First it filled up the bag, then just a few “cc”s at a time. It’s still draining bit by bit.

That was when I was the most scared. I truly felt crappy (vs. feeling so much better generally post-surgery.) I felt there was something wrong with my body. Being wheeled into IR Sunday night, I felt small and alone and sick. Still feverish and cold, facing another procedure that seemed a bit daunting. I had time to get scared as they wheeled me down to IR. But once I got there, the doctor, the technician, the nurse – they all were so kind, so calm, so competent, so reassuring. Covering me with more warm blankets, explaining everything step-by-step. Giving me good drugs so I really didn’t feel anything – other than cared for by solution-oriented health care workers looking out for my best interests.

So, not so many scars from hospital. The scars that I have are from the 6 months of being dismissed by my doctors, trying to figure out what I was doing wrong to cause this pain and illness (dairy? gluten?). Having no hope on the horizon other than the unhelpful supplements that my well-meaning naturopath prescribed. She was the only health care professional interested in problem-solving, even if it was futile in the end. My family doctor literally said: I’m sorry you are in pain. There’s nothing more I can do for you. Correction: My soon-to-be-former family doctor.

That left a scar.

The most impactful memory of my hospital stay, other than the warm blanket comfort of finally being cared for and taken seriously, was the tedium. Especially the first week when I was entirely NPO – nothing by mouth except ice chips. And water, only when necessary, to swallow my pills.

Being NPO means that you don’t get a breakfast tray, a lunch tray, a dinner tray. Virtually all your fluids, meds, and nutrients are delivered through your IV PICC line.

So when you wake up in the morning, there’s no morning coffee or morning orange juice to mark the beginning of the day. No mid-day meal. No “I wonder what’s on the menu for dinner”. No after-dinner dessert. No picking your menu choices for tomorrow, which one of my roomies (Joy) declared the highlight of her day. (How sad is that? she said. And I was bitterly jealous of it too.)

There are no rituals that mark the time of the day and the progression of the day from morning to night. Which makes me think of Prufrock’s famous line, about measuring out his life with coffee spoons. I didn’t even have that pedestrian luxury on NPO. No coffee. No coffee spoons.

I realized so much of my non-hospital life revolves around food – waking up thinking what’s for breakfast. What to make to make for dinner. What’s in the pantry. Do I have to go shopping for supplies? Does this involve a walk to my local No Frills or a bigger outing – a drive to the big time grocery store? I realized how much I like prepping the food (sometimes with hubby, sometimes alone and listening to my audiobook). Smelling the food cooking throughout a Sunday afternoon – beef and broccoli, slow cooker cashew chicken, yellow curry chicken stew. Fragrant and promising, something to look forward to at dinner time. Drinking wine while awaiting the meal. None of those things was in any way applicable to my NPO world. And it made for a very long and very tedious day.

The best thing about being home? Being back on solid foods? Making a big pot of coffee and sitting outside in my backyard, under the trees, watching the squirrels (and listening to the dulcet tones of jackhammering taking down balconies on the apt building across the street). But nevertheless a morning ritual to mark the start of the day. As it should be. Measuring my days in coffee cups and coffee spoons.