Recovery is all about performance and endurance and feeling the burn. We were still working on the gas situation when the staff’s shift changed. Up until that point I had experienced mostly nice nurses. There was one woman who woke everyone up at shift change (the only night I slept rather than dozed) so that she could examine us. She turned on lights and poked and prodded me like I was a piece of meat the “doneness” of which was in question. On the day after my surgery I had a nurse who had decided to offer tough love.
We walked several times that day. She picked up the pace. She lectured me about my slightly elevated triglycerides. Too much pasta, she declared. I had a theory about all the blood work being done since my admission. If a woman is admitted with a hemoglobin count of 3.7 when her count should be at 12-16 and you add 8 packs of blood, then whose blood is to blame for the high triglycerides and who takes credit for the low cholesterol? Maybe my wonderful, anonymous blood donors had something to do with my test scores.
You learn quickly not to mess with a nurse. The nurses rule. They control everything that means anything to a recovering patient. Food arrived while you were being tested? Hot food cold and cold food hot? If the nurse wants to, then she can microwave or replace something–if she wants to do so. Need some privacy for time spent in the bathroom? She can stand outside the door and tap her toes or walk away and leave you in peace and quiet. Desperate to get unhooked from blood or I.V. or medicines? You need him to free you. When you feel like you might POP, it takes a nurse to get a doctor to order a dose of simethecone. After nodding during lectures on how I needed to use a contraption to expand my lungs and coughing up some stuff I won’t describe, she got me a “scrip” for the equivalent of Gas-X. Of course she explained that it works best on the small intestines and doesn’t help gas caught in the large intestines, but I was getting frantic by that time. I’m not joking. Do you remember the old-fashioned Barbie dolls that could turn at the waist? They had an unhealed “incision” 360 degrees around their middles. My body wasn’t that limber and I was getting advice to walk, to twist side to side, and to bear down. These alternatives were all reasonable, but painful. But the medicine helped. Thank you, nurses everywhere, for listening to your patients.
Once the gas crisis had been resolved we could work on the remainder of what I will spare you by simply calling it the “Stimulation Package.” It was not fun but I was happy to be alive and grateful. Really grateful. Grateful to the doctor who diagnosed me, the director of internal medicine who accepted that I might actually pass the tests I had to pass to undergo surgery, the many kind doctors who came by during rounds and explained things to me, the dozens of caring nurses, the practical nurses who measured my every emission and devised ways to help me in and out of beds, the staff that brought meals, pricked my fingers, took my blood, tested me, cleaned my room, and just took a little time to smile and ask me how I was. There was a nurse who found me a fan when I was hot. There was a nurse who found me a snack to eat in the middle of the night on my first night when I arrived after dinner. There was a practical nurse who taught me how to get in and out of my bed unassisted even though he was there to watch. I am overwhelmed with gratefulness for my surgical team.
I was the beneficiary of countless prayers from family, friends, and friends of friends. That was medicine I needed and appreciated in the dark hours of the middle of the night when I could not close my eyes.
I did not do much crying. I think my reaction to diagnosis and treatment was normal for me. I listened and understood, but I was not so much afraid as challenged. I can handle anything, I said to myself. I have my faith, my family, and my friends. As my personal trainer from a few years ago told me, I have a freakishly strong upper body. You can defy people’s expectations. You can surpass your own. But it is so much easier when the people who surround you are so wonderful.
One of my surgeons came by to examine my incision. The morphine drip was no longer necessary. I was moved back to the floor on which I stayed the last two nights before surgery. I had somehow accumulated two bags of “belongings” that I had to carry as I was wheeled to the ninth floor. I had no money, no glasses, and came with few belongings, but I had acquired two wash basins and kidney-shaped dishes, and a few dozen bags of pads I no longer needed once I was no longer hemorrhaging. I had a toothbrush and toothpaste, a brush, a magazine, my cell phone, and my clothes. I didn’t have much, but it seemed like I had packed for an even longer stay. I heard that I should be going home the next day.
My family had overcome the shock of the previous day’s very long and tense wait. Back to normal, they let me know what they thought of my having told the surgeon to talk to me about the outcome of my surgery before talking to my family. My family has earned the right to lecture me. My mom gathered her chicks for battle against my cancer. My sister dropped her cares and rushed to be there. My brother somehow got the time off to fly up and remind us “why we had the boy.” My Aunt Joan worried. My sister-in-law Lisa and my aunt’s friend Bernie offered to give blood for me. My cousin Susie, who must have felt the weight of having seen her brother through his own battle with cancer, called and listened to every detail, even those she had to draw out of me with skills a journalist would envy. I am, as my mom reminded me, an altogether too secretive person.
My life is now not entirely my own. I owe bits and pieces of it to the many people who have gotten me through this–I’ll think another day about my lack of medical insurance and how much of my future the hospital and doctors “own.” Let me just share one more thank you. Barb, you were an anchor and I know that you were going through a rough time on your own as your mom struggled with grave medical issues and your family struggled with their roles in caring for your mom. I cannot imagine more generosity in my darkest moments. I am grateful for your friendship. In the prayers I said for my own recovery I thanked God for you.