Until last month, I’d spent only four days in the hospital in my whole life: two when I was born and two when my son was born. But at the end of January, I ate some bad hamburger and experienced the usual symptoms of food poisoning. A week later when my symptoms persisted, I thought I might have picked up a bug. By the time a friend insisted I see a doctor, I’d been spending an inordinate amount of time in bed with my dog’s head on my belly.
I didn’t avoid medical intervention because I’m afraid of doctors or lack insurance but because I usually let my body sort itself out. Nevertheless, on February 13, 2019, I asked my neighbor to let my dog out if I wasn’t home by suppertime. I drove myself to Urgent Care, where three different people asked me the same set of questions. Within twenty minutes, a nurse wheelchaired me to Emergency.
They drew blood. I was ultra-sounded externally and internally. I was CT-scanned in a giant doughnut. I watched the clock, thankful I’d seen to my dog’s needs. The cats would be peeved to eat later than usual, but they would be fine. If I’d known how much later it would be, I’d have left their bag of food on the floor.
In Emergency, I tossed and turned on a hard cot. Finally, an angry OBGYN doc came in and said, “Why do you have pain at a SEVEN, as bad as having a baby, for one month before you come in? Your white blood cell count is 22,500!”
I squinted. Who are you and why are you mad at me? “What’s normal?”
“Five-thousand to 10,000! You have an infection!”
Why was he so angry? I said, “Well, first of all, it hasn’t been one month. It’s been fifteen days. Second of all, I didn’t come in immediately because I thought it was food poisoning or the flu.” He palpitated my painful belly and huffed out. A nurse stuck an IV line in my elbow and started a saline drip.
What on earth is going on? I would have asked more questions if I hadn’t needed to close my eyes for two seconds.
When I opened my eyes and saw daylight, I couldn’t believe it: I’d been in the ER all night. My poor critters! The angry OBGYN came back. “We are sending you by ambulance to Marshfield” (the mother hospital of the clinic in which I’d spent the night). Marshfield was ninety miles away.
“What?” I shook off my morning fog. “Why?”
“There is a mass in your abdomen, but I am not a surgeon. I don’t want to try to do a biopsy and then have to send you ninety miles for emergency surgery.”
“When will I go?”
“In about twenty minutes. We already ordered the ambulance.”
Let me interject a pertinent fact: I do not own a cell phone. I have a list of phone numbers hanging on my kitchen wall next to my old-school telephone. The only person who knew I had gone to the clinic was the neighbor I’d asked the day before to let my dog out at suppertime. The only phone number I knew by heart was my son’s.
There was a phone on the wall in my ER room but no phone books in the entire clinic. I dialed the only number I knew. “Honey, it’s mom. I’m being taken by ambulance to Marshfield for emergency surgery.”
Shoot. I woke him up. “It’ll be OK. Get hold of J. and ask her to take care of the animals.”
“I don’t have her number! Are you OK?”
“I’m fine. Friend J. on Facebook and tell her. Call Uncle D. and tell him what’s going on. I’ll be fine. Just, please, handle this for me.” There was a commotion in the hall. I looked up: the ambulance guys were standing in the doorway. “I have to go. I love you.”
They strapped me to a gurney, bundled up my clothes, and loaded me into the ambulance. I was starting to stress out about my animals and my students. How could I tell people what was going on? How could I pay my medical insurance premium, due in six days—the bill was at home.
It was a long shot, but I asked the ambulance driver to stop at my house and grab my laptop. “Please!” I begged. “It’s right on the way! I don’t have a cell phone. I don’t have any way to communicate with anybody. I have animals.”
When the ambulance turned off the main drag down my street, I nearly wept. We rumbled along for one block, and then I said, “My house is in the next block. I can get out and run in.”
(I was dressed in a hospital gown, attached to an IV, and strapped to a gurney. Temps were in the twenties with two feet of snow on the ground. My boots were in the bottom of my bag of clothes. Talk about being out of it.)
The driver said, “I’ll go in. It’ll be easier.” I gave him my house key and told him where the laptop lived. I forgot to tell him about my dog, who must have been scared when a stranger came in instead of me. (Of course she knew I was just outside. Dogs always know.)
The driver emerged. I thanked him for ten minutes, and then I clutched my laptop in the freezing cold back of the ambulance for nearly two hours. When we arrived in Marshfield, we drove past a cemetery across the street from the hospital, a practical if macabre real estate decision.
I was transferred from gurney to bed, and the painful IV jammed into the soft flesh of my elbow was connected to a saline drip. I immediately tried to get my laptop working, but I could not connect to the hospital’s temperamental wi-fi. When my surgeon came in to introduce himself, he sliced through the barriers between my laptop and the hospital’s internet.
Then he told me what was going on. "You have a tubo-ovarian abscess,” Dr. L. said. “We have to remove it.”
“OK,” I said. I had no idea how rare tubo-ovarian abscesses are in women my age (12 percent of cases) or how serious they are. Now I do.
A TOA is a puss-filled sack attached to an ovary. It develops when bacteria from the lower genital tract migrate to the fallopian tube and ovary. If the abscess ruptures (as happens 15 percent of the time), sepsis occurs. That’s when the body’s immune system stops trying to fight an infection and starts attacking the body itself. Sepsis kills. Prior to the advent of broad-spectrum antibiotics and modern surgical practice, the mortality rate associated with TOA was approximately 50 percent or higher. Even if a TOA doesn't rupture, 30 percent of TOAs are malignant. My tubo-ovarian abscess was the size of a stuffed baked potato, which is a way nicer thing to look at than an actual TOA:
“Cancer.” “Hysterectomy.” If I were a younger woman who dreamed of more children or who hadn’t gone through menopause already, I might have been distressed about losing my lady bits, but now I told my surgeon, “Go ahead, take it out. If that’s going to be the source of problems for me down the road, might as well take care of it now.”
He said, “We’ll see what we find when I operate. I’ll remove the abscess and send it to the lab. And we’ll go from there.”
We’d have to wait and see.
PART II: Where am I?
I arrived at Marshfield Medical Center at noon on Valentine’s Day and spent the next three days hooked up to two IV lines: one fed me a steady drip of saline and the other dripped antibiotics to kill the bacteria in my blood. Thanks to the saline, I had to visit the lavatory once an hour, rolling my IV-pole sidekick along with me.
My primary caregiver was a traveling nurse from Michigan. Z. spends roughly 12 days a month in Marshfield on alternating weeks. It was my good fortune that her week in Marshfield coincided with mine. If I could have created the perfect nurse for my hospital stay, I couldn’t have done better than Z. From the moment I arrived, she seemed to know the right emotional approach to use with me: patience, humor, and matter-of-factness. For the first hour of my stay, I pounded on a laptop arranging for the care of my animals, my students, and my family—while Z. quietly focused on caring for me.
You’ve got to be a different breed of cat to be in a helping profession. Focusing on humans with all their complications and faults is hard work. Very little is predictable from day to day. You have to be ready for anything but ready to punt if something happens outside of “anything.” People in the helping professions work too hard for too little, but they are on the front lines of the truest, deepest human experiences: birth, sickness, death, first love, parental separation—you name it—so by another measure, they are richer than kings.
They go the extra mile. It’s a little, silly thing, but even though I had showers in the hospital, I could do nothing about my hair. Without intervention, my hair lies flat as a wet rug. My family and friends were an hour and a half away. The hospital had no hair products whatsoever. But on Monday morning, my Z. handed me a tube of hair gel she’d bought for me over the weekend so I had one less thing to stress about. What a gal.
And what a chameleon: an older woman in the next room didn’t quite know where she was. I heard her quavering voice ask unintelligible questions and Z.’s patient, loud, and clear answers over and over: “You’re in the hospital” or “We are making you better” or “What can I get for you?” I asked Z. if it was hard to adjust her demeanor for different patients. She said, “No. I know what they need. I meet people where they are. With some people, like you, I can have a normal conversation. With others…I have to keep it basic.” As a retired teacher, I understand "meet people where they are."
A hospital is a weird place for lives to intersect. It’s a place where life begins. Where it ends. Where comedy and tragedy randomly swap places. It’s a place where life doesn’t flow at its normal, leisurely pace. A hospital hurls people, ready or not, toward Inevitable Conclusions.
Since I didn’t know whether I had cancer, I was mindful of Inevitable Conclusions just before dawn on my first morning in the hospital when the phlebotomist came to draw blood. My window faced east. In the distance, the rising sun was turning the sky all shades of glorious. Z. came in and asked if I wanted her to close the curtains so the sun wouldn’t be in my eyes, but I said, “Who knows how many more sunrises I’ll get?” She left the curtains open.
Over the long weekend, I choked down bites of hospital food and met with hospital personnel, all of whom had agendas: one gal wanted to plan my eventual departure for home. One wanted to set up medical power of attorney so everybody had a road map for my departure into the hereafter. The infectious disease doc who was superintending my antibiotic regimen wanted to get me out of the woods ASAP because he was flying to Thailand in a couple of days to teach missionary doctors how to treat tuberculosis. Dr. T. wore a dapper bowtie and called me “professor.” He knew after talking to me for two minutes that I liked my facts neat.
On one of the days he came in, Dr. T. sat between my bed and the window as the sun was coming up. He said, “You’re sitting in a strange position. Are you in pain?”
“No. I can’t see you because the sun is directly behind you.”
He got up to pull the drape. He turned on the lamp, perched on the edge of his chair in a pose, and said,
“I think you’re ready for your close-up.”
Despite flashes of fun, being in a hospital isn’t. In a hospital, you can’t do anything free and easy. If you want a shower, you have to ask for it. You have to evacuate your bladder and bowels into a plastic contraption called a “hat” that fits over the toilet bowl and saves your excretions for divination ceremonies downstairs in the lab. If you normally drink three cups of coffee in the morning, you have to order all three at the same time.
For me, the worst thing was tripping the alarm on my bed at night whenever I heaved myself up to go to the lavatory. I’d shift, the bed would shriek, and pounding feet would thunder toward my room. I got scolded for trying to pee in private, but they re-set the alarm every time. If I could have reached the shut-off button without tripping the alarm, I’d have turned it off myself.
PART III: Going under the knife
My family drove all the way to Marshfield the day before my surgery. We signed medical power of attorney forms. I included a caveat on mine: “Artificial life support of any and all kinds may be provided so long as there is a reasonable hope/expectation that it will not be required indefinitely; if there exists a reasonable expectation that I will recover, keep me plugged in. If, however, a vegetative or similar state precludes any hope of recovery, turn out the lights.”
Later that day, sudden, stabbing pain above my abscess curled me into a fetal position. They whisked me out for another CT scan and put me on an immediate NPO diet (nothing by mouth but ice chips) in case they had to do surgery then and there. The pain turned out to have been caused by air bubbling merrily in my compromised belly.
I know. Weird. Carbonated beverages have air bubbles. Beer has air bubbles. Fish tanks have air bubbles. Kids blow bubbles. But when bubbles form in a place they don’t belong, they hurt. Since I couldn’t take painkillers by mouth, they decided to shoot Fentanyl into my IV. The cessation of pain was nearly instantaneous. I said to Z., “I can feel my skin.” Pain-free and a little loopy, I gnawed ice chips until I fell asleep.
In the morning, one more ultrasound gave my surgeon a green light for surgery. I crunched ice chips for breakfast and lunch and went down for surgery prep in the afternoon. The OR prep nurse chatted me up but neglected to do some shaving that would have saved me a tongue-chomping yank when the post-op nurses had to change my dressings. When I told the nurse I was a writer, a man behind the curtain in the cubicle next to me announced, “Hello Ms. Green. I am Alden Carter.”
Alden Carter. Author of Wart, Son of Toad. Between a Rock and a Hard Place. Walkaway. Up Country. Winner of six American Library Association awards. I babbled a fan-grrl greeting and squeezed his toe on my 114th toddle to the ladies' room.
Eventually, somebody shot Happy Juice into my IV, and I was wheeled into oblivion.
When I woke up the next morning, my throat was dry and sore because I’d been intubated. I was catheterized. Two plastic bottles shaped like grenades collected fluids from long skinny tubes that began in the cap of each grenade and ended inside my body. A plastic bag of blood hung on an IV pole, a narrow red line snaking from the bag to my arm.
My energetic surgeon bounced in. He said he’d removed the abscess along with my uterus, ovaries, and fallopian tubes. They hadn’t found any cancer. His finger tapped his orders on the white board: “Walk 3X today!” He was going skiing in a couple of days. As he left, I somewhat envied his brisk pace and the skiing in his immediate future.
For me, the next two days were brightened by suppositories, Heparin shots, grenade emptying, blood draws, and leisurely strolls with my walker around the nurses’ command center. On one of my walks, a nurse gestured at my walker and said, “That’s how you get out of here.”
By February 20, equipment began to disappear: heart monitor. One of the grenades. One IV, then the other. On my last night in Marshfield, I woke up an hour before dawn soaking wet: the last grenade was leaking. Two nurses came to clean me up. I apologized for the mess, and R. said, “Oh, this is nothing. This is a Two, not close to the worst.”
“What’s the worst? What’s a Ten?”
I said, “You mean, you go into a room and find a patient dead?”
“Is it hard to get over something like that?”
“No. It happens.”
Nurses amaze me. First, anybody who wants to be a nurse must do incredibly difficult academic coursework. On the job, nurses deal with meds management and bodily fluids and people in pain. On top of that, they must be stoic enough to accept Inevitable Conclusions without being crippled by them. They do this for years.
On the third morning, my surgeon said I could go home at noon. I telephoned the friend who’d agreed to come and fetch me. I felt every bump in the road on the way home, but it was grand to sleep in a bed without an alarm. My dog was happy to see me, and for the next handful of days, she was a gentle and easy walker, although she must have wondered why we weren’t going on the marathon walks she was used to.
My stitches came out on March 11. A secondary infection that set in a week later should be licked by the end of March. All that’s left of my bump in the road is an eight-inch scar, a slight absence of internal organs, and six things I learned:
1. You will come back to yourself after surgery, but your body will heal before your mind does,
2. It does not lessen you as a human being to ask for help.
3. Some people will help even if you don’t ask.
4. Good and bad things don’t happen to you because you deserve them. Things just happen.
5. If somebody offers to pray for you, say YES. Some folks scoff at “thoughts and prayers” because that phrase has become synonymous with “not gonna lift one finger to change a bad situation.” Some folks credit prayer when it seems to have made a difference but get mad at God when it doesn’t. As for me…people prayed for me. My abscess was not cancerous. I am healing. It could have gone another way. It didn’t. Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.~ Heb.11:1
6. The world is a kinder place than social and other media lead us to believe. My third hospital stay taught me I need to pay less attention to problems I can’t fix and more attention to my blessings: Family. Friends. Healing. Compassion. I need to be grateful for good food, robins, melting snow, sunshine.
I need to pet my dog a minute longer than I think I have time for.
I need to let the good in.