Hospitals: Recovery is escape

One person's experience of illness and recovery ends up being about more than the medical treatment.

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One person's experience of illness and recovery ends up being about more than the medical treatment.

Several years ago a few days before Christmas I was post-operation day three after a neurosurgeon had cracked into my skull and extracted a tumor, a tumor the size of a hen's egg. It was what the docs call benign — not cancerous — but that nomenclature is deceptive because this thing is growing and pushing my brain into a limited space and I will surely die if it is not removed. Skulls are not expandable. Brilliantly designed to protect all the brainy stuff within, they are a total failure when it comes to expansion to make room for something that is growing — like a tumor.

So how do you remove a growing egg-shaped thing from inside your skull? Curiously the procedure involves drilling and chipping a hole in your skull into which you could plop a quarter. The surgeon sucks the tumor out from the inside. It's sort of like sucking out all the good stuff from a raw egg whose shell you want to decorate and then patiently plucking out the albumen from inside the shell.

The surgeon has done his stuff and gone on vacation. It's up to me to heal myself and that's not happening. It's nighttime in the hospital — Group Health Central — and deathly quiet. I have not been able to really sleep for three days. I'm curled up into myself like a hedgehog. I feel as if I have been seriously whacked. I do not watch TV or listen to the radio or seek visitors.

Hello? Is anyone there? Silence. The hospital, under guidance of its legal department, which has complete and perfect records.

Things are not good. I've picked up one of those infections you only get in hospitals. The antibiotic that combats this is known to the nurses as a vein burner.  It's the only antibiotic they can use.  I have no feeling at all in the right side of my face. But the scariest condition is that I cannot swallow. I make the throat move to swallow and nothing happens.

So I have been intubated.  To pull off this procedure I am asked by the kind nurses to swallow a plastic tube, into which they will pour nutrition. The reason they are doing this is a perfect example of paradox.

It's not working. I cannot swallow the thing. Then they look at one another, nod their heads and say, "Bertha." I get the feeling that this is a code word for something more effective. Like a sumo wrestler ready to take on anyone anytime, Bertha appears. She is a 250-pound nurse who would look scary even when she is sound asleep.  She puts her face within 6 inches of mine and says in a not-to-be-denied voice, "Look. Mr. Garden or whatever your name is, you're going to swallow that tube right now."

Fear is a great motivator. I thought she might leap on my chest and jam it down my throat.  I swallowed the tube. As far as I know this woman had a special contract to roam all the city’s hospitals and persuade people to swallow tubes.  It was her specialty.

But even with their drip drip drip of nutrition I am getting weaker, not stronger.  I am losing weight.

I feared for the first time in my life that that I was not going to make it.  The disturbing thought that kept popping into my head was that I was in very fragile shape yet I had no sense that anyone was looking after me. I had never felt this way before — sort of shelved and abandoned.  It even occurred to me that I could die, the hospital would say, "tant pis," and I would become a statistic, soon forgotten.

I lay in bed feeling miserable, not able to sleep. I looked out the window. It was night out. And raining. My view was of the dreary parking lot at the Safeway across the street. This was before Safeway had been remodeled. It had been raining for days.

I have no idea how these ideas came to me but I imagined two things: The first was to believe that my core self was a hockey puck.  Have any of you held a hockey puck? It's incredibly dense. A hockey puck, made of rubber, is tough, resilient, solid, and virtually indestructible.  I thought, "I am a hockey puck. I am tough.  I can endure this." Things will get better.

The next thought I had was that the parking lot — now empty it being midnight — contained a small semi-circle of bleachers such as you might see at a small high-school football field. I clearly imagined them to be maybe five levels high. I peopled the bleachers with my older brothers and sisters. I put up there my wife, Joan, her parents, all my children, colleagues from work, friendly neighbors, students of whom I had been fond and who thought kindly toward me, friends from the dog walk, cousins — even no longer living ones — of whom I was fond but whom I had not seen in years.  I put my dogs, also the no-longer-living ones, up there! It was wonderful to scan through my life and think of all the people who cared about me or whom I thought should care about me.

Then I imagined that each one of them took out a candle, ignited the wick, and then took out another one and lit it from the first.  And, extending their arms as far as they could in one clear ringing voice, as if directed by a conductor they sang out, "YOU CAN MAKE IT THROUGH THIS, GARDINER!"

I smiled at them.  I said thank you. I said, "OK, maybe I can," rolled over and went to sleep. BIG PAUSE.

The next day, as I was lying in bed, I thought about my swallowing problem. The memory of a college friend whom I had not thought of in years popped into mind.  Ed Shanahan was his name. He could do this crazy party trick of opening a coke bottle with his teeth (I know; it’s an image that makes dentists cringe), and then pour the contents directly down his gullet without swallowing.  And this was before twist caps were invented.

I looked at the little carton of milk next to the bed and thought, "Hmmmmm. Maybe I can do Shanahan's trick."

Was I confident that I was not going to pour the milk onto my lungs and choke violently before drowning in a half pint of milk? What a humiliating way to die. I could just see it in the newspapers: "Group Health patient drowns in half pint of milk."

A hospital staff member, whom I called the Spit and Swallow Lady, regularly stopped by with a little ice for me to suck on or a teaspoonful of something warm.  She always had a clip board. She was keeping good records. I could swallow nothing.  So figuring What-the-hell, I upended the carton of milk. Drowning in milk can't be all that bad.

Miraculously it dumped into my stomach. Gleefully I rang the buzzer and told the nurse I had something to show the Spit and Swallow Lady. She came by and I said, "Watch this!" Suddenly she became anxious, fearful that I was going to douse my lungs with milk and that the hospital might be held liable. (This was not the first time that I realized that so much that happens in hospitals is determined by the hospital's legal department.) Anyway, she was impressed. She had never seen anyone do this gullet open trick before.

That was the turning point. I called my wife, Joan, and asked her to buy a sackful of Instant Breakfasts, loaded with calories and dissolvable in milk.  I started to feel better, a lot stronger. A few days later, outfitted with a walker, I took a few baby steps outside my room. These walks I extended and within a few days I was walking all over the hospital.

Hospitals are amazing. If you're wearing one of those silly patient nighties designed, I am certain, to make you submissive, you really can go anyplace and no one accosts you. I ventured into the rooms of total strangers and had wonderful conversations. Although still thin and weak, I was getting better.

In a few days my swallowing ability came back. The infection came under control. I was discharged.

I've never been so glad to leave a place in my life.

And I am absolutely sure they were glad to see me go.


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