I grew up with three brothers and two sisters. I was always the “strong one.” Common childhood maladies sailed by me without slowing down. Like many multiple-child households at that time, if Mom noticed a rash on one kid, she’d stuff us in a room together for a day or two and get all her little ducklings sick at one time, thus able to check off that particular disease on six school records in one fell swoop. I was the one who came out with nary a red spot.
Unfortunately, this gave me an unrealistic view of my immunity to all things involving sputum or surgery. Symptoms of any disease have always been dismissed with the wave of a hand, and I believed in my ability to stay healthy through sheer will, or if that didn’t work, ignoring it until whatever it was got bored and went in search of a more receptive host.
Then, about a month ago, I began to feel a weird pinching sensation in my lower right abdomen. Not enough to mention and certainly nothing a doctor needed to take a “look-see” over. A day or so later, the pinching became a sweaty, all-over aching. Hubs repeatedly suggested I go to the doctor, but I had a new book coming out, and I didn’t have time for this nonsense. By Friday night, I was in agony. In bed at 5:30, hoping to sleep it off, I promised Hubs that if things weren’t better the next morning, I’d call the doc. Bad decision. Bad.
The next morning, I was lying on the floor, screaming, while Hubs stuffed me into his baggy sweats and an oversized t-shirt, and carried me out to the car, running two stop signs and a red light on the way to ER. Quickly hooked up to a dozen tubes, I was immediately wheeled in for tests and scans. It was not good. (But I should mention here that hospitals have the best drugs ever. Whatever was going on was no longer a concern, since I felt nothing from the neck down.) I met the head nurse, and we quickly decided we were sisters from a different mother because our lives were so parallel in experience, age, and attitudes. The ER doc tried unsuccessfully get a word in, until he finally threw his hands up and said, “You’re the first patient I’ve ever had that kept laughing and chatting while I was trying to explain a potentially a catastrophic condition.” Catastrophic??
By now, they were wheeling me upstairs, followed by my extensive, sobbing family, many of whom had come in from out of town in the last few hours. I love my family, but the image of half a dozen parents, siblings, and in-laws standing at the end of your hospital bed, crying and looking at you like they wish they’re gotten to know you better before your premature and untimely demise will be forever seared into my brain.
Then things began to get real.
Doc pointed at me and said, “We need to talk.” Well, crap. “It has come to my attention that you can be what we call ‘non-compliant.'” (Ya think? Just ask my Parkinson’s docs.) “Your appendix burst last night. Well, actually, it didn’t just burs. It exploded.” Awesome. “And that explosion has basically Napalmed your lower abdominal area, causing a massive infection throughout that entire region. If you’d have waited another day, you might not have made it.” And it just kept getting better.
“We won’t really know until we get in there how bad it is.” A humming noise began in my brain, until all I could hear was that every sentence included some variation of “You could die,” You probably would have died,” or “This is the worst infection I’ve ever seen due to an ruptured appendix.” As I was being wheeled into surgery, I heard Hubs tell the Doc that he was going to wait until after the surgery to notify everyone, because he wasn’t sure if I’d make it. Doc nodded and said he understood. Seriously??
Five-and-a-half hours later, I woke up to a room full of flowers and a stern doc standing next to Hubs, whose face bore a remarkable resemblance to Grumpy Cat. “Okay, here’s the deal,” said Doc. “When I opened you up, the room got very quiet. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I could fix it.” (OMG.) “This was the most difficult and dangerous surgeries I’ve ever done. What happened was this: The night before you came in, your appendix exploded into tiny pieces all throughout your abdominal area. Left untreated overnight, this resulted in a virulent, widespread infection that could have killed you. and most likely would have without immediate surgery. When we opened you up, the liquid infection had solidified, becoming a large piece of cement that we had to chisel out like shrapnel, one chip at a time. That’s why it took so long. We hope we got it all, but only time will tell.” When I grabbed the nurses arm and asked for a bag to throw up in, she smiled and said, “No problem. You know, we call you our ‘Miracle Patient.’ Without Dr. Johnston, we don’t think you would have survived the surgery. Would you like more pain killers?”
Yes, please. I cried for two hours, then faded into medicated oblivion until the next morning.
I stayed at the hospital for the next five days, learning how to be compliant, and even had a few epiphanies along the way.
- When all you can do is watch TV all day, there’s never anything on you want to watch.
- Pain meds come in three strengths. Zen, which takes you to a lovely place with puppies and pink glitter. Knock it Out, which addresses the immediate area of agony, but doesn’t necessarily involve all the other organs. And Fix This or Shoot me, which pretty much takes out every nerve in your body. Guess which ones you can get in the ER?
- Dignity is overrated. And you won’t be left with any. During my “spa week” in Recovery, I met the entire staff of the hospital (and probably a few strays who were just lost looking for Aunt Bertha’s room across the hallway). Everyone wanted a little peek and I’m still not sure if they were all medically licensed to be peeking. One guy, I swear, used to be the janitor. Welcome to the big leagues, Buddy. This is what it looks like. Last I heard, he had locked himself in the Chaplain’s office and wouldn’t come out until “it” was gone.
- Don’t whine. It’s insulting to everyone trying to help you and makes you look like a nasty old bat. And remember, the nurses (your new BFFs and the source of all your pain management necessities) can’t control how often you push that annoying red call button, but they can absolutely control how long it takes them to get to your room.
- Let your partner off the hook. Especially if he’s been unofficially appointed your primary caregiver during your recovery. Love is a grand and generous thing. But you can squash it like a cockroach if you spent the next several weeks if you become a demanding bag who expects to be catered to 24/7 (especially if you expect him to be clairvoyant with your needs). “Why did I have to ask?” should be instantly and forever banished from your conversations.
- Be willing to take a Life Break. People will either be there or they won’t when you’re ready to come back. I was freaking out trying to figure out how to launch my new book, with all of the fun giveaways and promos we’d had scheduled for several weeks, until all the fun was being sucked out of it because I just couldn’t do it. Now it was all for nothing. “Oh, get over yourself, Missy,” my angels said one night. It’s not like you’re John Grisham and have a 12-State book signing scheduled. The world can wait for your newest masterpiece. Your yoga class will still there in March. And dinner with your bestie will still be an option in four weeks. They’re aren’t shutting down all the restaurants. Go back to bed.
- The hospital staff gets positively giddy the first time you announce that you peed by yourself. I’m not kidding. It’s one of the first things they start asking you after the the surgery. “I peed by myself this morning!” can cause every medical professional in the room to smile and start high-fiving each other like proud parents of a toddler who has finally been accepted to private pre-K because she’s finally potty trained. I was having great fun with this until I remembered that as toddlers, we always got gold stars. Yes, Baby Buttercup gets to go to pre-K. Big woo. I almost died. I want my damn stars. Okay, I’m better now.
- Thank your support people. Don’t assume they know. Hollywood stars (the classy ones, anyway) remember that they didn’t achieve anything all by themselves. Don’t be afraid to sound corny or cliche. If someone you love helped you through something frightening, they deserve acknowledgment and honest gratitude. For my parents, my siblings, and wonderful extended family, I am grateful. To the hospital staff, I will be grateful for the rest of my hopefully long life. Hubs, you know how I feel, but anything I say here will sound sappy, trite, or like I pilfered the script for Little House; Home for Christmas. And of course, a very grateful shout-out to my book writing team, who without hesitation, said “We got this. Call when you’re ready.” How blessed can one woman get?
- When in doubt, order the Jello. It makes everyone happy.
Epilogue: It’s now been four weeks since they removed my appendix, a few feet of colon, and a giant cheese wheel of solidified shrapnel from my body. I have an in-home physical therapist starting tomorrow to teach me how to walk again. My goals are to walk without assistance, standing up (less Tim Conway shuffling his walker across the room on The Carol Burnett Show and more Maria, running up the mountains while singing The Hills are Alive. No one will commit to how long this is all going to take. Could be weeks or more. But I’m just so grateful to have a complete recovery in my bowl of options, my only response is “Thank you, God.”
In the next week or two, we will be doing a super fun, post-release party for Chin Hairs & Back Fat, and I so hope you’ll join me in the giveaways and other cool stuff we’ve planned. This is my favorite book so far, and I think everybody should have one!