Exactly seven years ago today, I was feeling poorly. Actually, that’s a dramatic understatement. I had some intense lower-right-quadrant stomach pain going on, and I’d lived in my body long enough to know it wasn’t menstrual cramps. It felt even worse than an ovarian cyst (I’d had that before, too.)
However, I was determined NOT to be a hypochondriac. I’d had a life history of jumping to the worst possible conclusions over slight ailments. I got a lump in my earlobe as a pre-teen, and thought I had cancer. I had slightly weird-looking areolae as a teenager, and thought I had cancer. I had crushing chest pain as a young adult, that my mom actually took me to the ER for. (They thought it was cartilage inflammation. Turns out it was plain old heartburn. I spent nine hours waiting to be seen and got misdiagnosed for that. Excuse me but WTF. This was why I had vowed to stay out of hospitals for the rest of my life unless I was, in fact, about to die. Granted, it was a pretty shitty north county hospital. Perhaps I’d have gotten better service at another one. Come to think of it, I could hardly have gotten WORSE service …)
Also, my mother, God rest her soul, had been a NICU registered nurse, and my father was a pharmacist. I fancied myself more educated than the average citizen about health and physiology. My mom had told us several times about colleagues of hers that had gone to the ER, convinced they were having heart attacks, strokes or aneurysms, only to be told they were having attacks of gas or migraines. I had been known to have some gas on occasion.
Granted, this was pretty damn bad. I picked my husband up at work, then had him drive home because I was doubled over in the passenger seat, begging him to hurry. At home, I chomped down about eight Xtra Strength Gas-X, screamed in pain as I gingerly eased into bed, and proceeded to pass out for the next eight hours. In hindsight, the fact that I slept like the dead all night, not even waking up, is fairly mind-boggling. I suppose my body was shoring up for the adventure ahead.
In the morning, not a thing had changed. My husband wanted to take me to the Urgent Care, but I sent him to work with our only car and waited to feel better. I then did what any semi-educated, freaked-out, former hypochondriac would do: got on WebMD to diagnose myself and effect a cure.
Fun fact: if you put in “stomach pain” on WebMD, you will get a bewildering variety of ailments that you will immediately be convinced that you have contracted. It’s one of those symptoms that can be anything from the aforementioned simple gas to bubonic plague. I made a list of my possible ailments:
— intestinal blockage
— bleeding ulcer
— irritable bowel syndrome
— kidney stone
— ectopic pregnancy (unlikely — I had not missed a pill in a decade)
— cancer (ovarian, uterine, colon, stomach, or gall bladder)
— pelvic inflammatory disease (which I recognized from watching ER as “the ol’ PID shuffle”)
— endometriosis/uterine fibroids
I added the highly unlikely possibilities of dengue fever, yellow fever, parasitic worm and alien infestation. I was fuddled because it seemed appendicitis was the most likely culprit, but I was missing most of the symptoms. I had no fever, nausea, vomiting, painful urination or coughing. Discouraged, I logged off and tried to rest on the couch.
By noon, I had been off my head with this pain for 24 hours. I called my husband and told him to come home and take me to the Urgent Care. I should’ve listened to him in the first place. They didn’t have the facilities to make a more definitive diagnosis, but going simply on the classic lower-right-quadrant pain, they advised I get my ass to the ER posthaste.
Ten minutes later (bless living close to a hospital!!), we were at the admitting desk, proving I was who I said I was and that I would not leach off the taxpayers for my medical treatment. I then writhed in extreme discomfort on a gurney-bed for about an hour while they ran tests, and my poor helpless husband sat by my side. One of the nurses came in to try to relieve some pain.
“I’m going to give you a shot of morphine to try to take the edge off,” she explained.
“Oh,” I murmured. “I thought that was only for amputees and gunshot victims.”
She smiled and said, “I’m only going to give you a low dose, because you’re such a tiny little thing.” (At this point in time, I had just finished a 7-month quest of going on Weight Watchers and, in fact, had lost 31 pounds and looked damn good. I remarked to my husband that “She called me tiny!”, causing a wry smile. I should have asked for a whopping great dose, because it did precisely NOTHING.)
While all this had been going on, there had been snow and ice outside for the previous two days. There was about a quarter-inch of ice on the roads at this point, and the people in my city, famously, cannot drive in any kind of weather. Despite the fact that we are Midwesterners and deal with this LITERALLY EVERY WINTER, they continue to drive maniacally and/or distractedly, convinced in their own superiority over the elements, simply because they have four-wheel drive or a big truck cab. Ugh. My mother lived about thirty minutes away down the highway, and I did NOT want her out in the elements. “Tell mom to STAY PUT,” I ordered my husband. “We’ll tell her something else when the test results come back.”
Sure enough, it was appendicitis. When the nurse told me this, I burst into tears. I was well aware that this was probably the most routine surgery in America, as she (no doubt alarmed by a 37-year-old, grown-ass woman bursting into tears over such a simple thing) tried to explain to me, but at that point I’d just had too much. Two full days of excruciating pain; a place I loathed being in (see moronic hospital mis-diagnosis, when I had trusted in the medical system, above); and my mom not being there, had just broken the camel’s back. I was done, at emotional max gross load, and tired of trying to find the answer and be strong. I just wanted someone to take care of me and get this over with. In addition, I was scared. I’d never even been in the hospital before. I had never had a baby, never broken a bone, never even needed stitches for anything. I led a fairly boring life, and liked it that way.
They put me in a room by myself. But no matter how exhausted you are, you cannot sleep when you’re off your head with pain, scared, worried, and people come in every hour to poke, turn or measure you. A nurse came and sat with me at 3:00 in the morning and talked with me for a while. She was very nice. I wrote the hospital a glowing review about her. I hope she got a raise. Or at least a closer parking space for a month.
At about 4:00 a.m., I got notice the surgeon was on his way in. I dimly wondered if he’d gotten enough sleep to be fresh by operating time, as I was well aware (again, from watching ER and various news stories of medical mishaps) that physician fatigue was definitely A Thing … but as they wheeled me down to pre-op, circles darkening my eyes from abject misery and lack of rest, I figured at that point that if Dr. Surgery-At-Dawn simply wanted to bathe my abdomen in whisky, cut me open with a steak knife, yank that infected little fucker out, and cauterize my insides with a fireplace poker, that actually would be really fucking fine with me. I’m sure at this point, I no longer even cared if I died.
They parked me in a small room … and suddenly my mom was there. The darn woman had driven miles over a quarter-inch of ice to be with me. As relieved as I was to see her, I was annoyed she’d exposed herself to danger on the roads. She hugged and kissed me, then sat down and opened her Bible.
“Would you like me to read you something?” she suggested.
“For God’s sake, mother, I am not dying,” I snapped. (I NEVER called her “mother.” She was mom or Mumsy. Another component of being off my head with agony.)
“Well … it’s not just for dying,” she said gently. I told her fine, to read me a Psalm. I blacked out as she was reading. A doctor must have come in and anesthetized me. Rather sneaky of him. Something very drug-dealer, first-hit’s-free about the whole thing.
I woke up midday as they were wheeling me back to my room. Having never been under anesthesia or the knife before, I learned some more fun facts.
First, it can take a while to come out of. I mean, they have literally drugged you into a near-death state … it takes some time to shake that shit off. I couldn’t move my arms or speak. But I realized my chest hurt terribly, both feeling squeezed and like something heavy was sitting on me. Why did my chest hurt?? Had a medical mishap occured?? Did I have paralysis??!! I tried with all my might to lift my arm and massage my aching collarbone. Finally I managed to choke out, “Chest. Hurts.”
“Oh, yes, that’s probably the result of the gas we blew into you,” someone said.
UM EXCUSE ME WHAT. WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK WITH GAS.
“We blow you up a little to have extra room to maneuver, to lessen the chances of nicking anything,” the someone repeated. “It will dissipate on its own as you move.”
Well. They certainly never covered that on ER.
Second, they usually don’t need to “cut you open” anymore. I had a laparoscopic thingamajig that left me with only the tiniest scar along my belly button ridge. Pfffff. As if I cared. Some surgery patients must be very vain. I was extremely lucky. Even after 48 hours of bone-grinding pain, my appendix had not burst and I had no peritonitis. In hindsight again, it’s amazing to me that thing didn’t burst. It certainly had enough time. I can only fall back on the amusing adage I once heard, that “God takes care of fools and babies … and I know I ain’t no baby.”
Third, all that messing about with your various organs is a shock to the system. It might take several days for things to be All Systems Go again. I had to pee right away. So I was relieved that was in working order. But it would be four days before I successfully pooped. By the third day, I was beginning to think I might never poop again, and envisioned horrific scenarios of going to dialysis, or simply exploding from the belly in some sort of impacted shit-shower. But thankfully, on the fourth evening, things moved along fine and I sent my mom a text with the little shit emoji, in all caps. A joyful “I POOPED!!!!!!!” Being a nurse, she shared my joy.
As annoyed as I was with her for braving an ice-covered interstate at four in the morning, I was nonetheless overjoyed that she was with me. Even lying in a hospital in agony is not so scary if your mom is there to take care of you … at any age. When I was back in my room, I asked her to sit on the bed with me and hold my hand. She glanced at my husband, busily texting our friends and family to keep them updating, and said, “I feel like I’m usurping your husband’s place.” But she came and sat on the bed and held my hand. (My husband was — and is — magnificent: he stayed with me for nearly 24 hours with no sleep and little food to make sure I was taken care of. But he was busy at the moment and I wanted mom comfort.)
I’m glad she “usurped” my husband’s place and sat for a few minutes at my hospital bed. She died three years later, and I’ll never have that chance again.
Of course, I am also planning to NEVER EVER go into the hospital again. Do you hear that, gall bladder? And any other unassuming, nonessential organs that may be fomenting revolt? Just cut that shit out right now. The one time I was NOT a hypochondriac, I NEARLY FRIGGIN’ DIED. So I’m gonna be super vigilant from now on. I’m on to you, body.
Ahhhhh. All Systems Go.