At first I blamed the chimi crawl, three Dominican hamburger-sandwiches I’d eaten on Saturday night for the sake of a magazine article.
They tasted very good, but shortly after eating them I experienced acute and severe stomach pain, and three days later it still hadn’t completely subsided. On Tuesday afternoon, my still present, low-grade stomach pain incited a conversation with my boyfriend, who thought I just needed to eat something.
“But if I eat something, it’ll just get worse,” I said.
Even though my stomach pain increased throughout the day, I decided to keep my plans for wine and snacks on my friend’s porch in the early evening. I made a joke with her and her neighbors about the chimis as the cause of my stomach distress and told them I’d be fine as I loaded up a plate of cheese and crackers (and then more cheese and more crackers) and had my fill of finger foods. The rosé washed them down nicely.
By 8:00pm, I was in the fetal position on my bed, writhing and moaning.
“Where does it hurt?” my boyfriend asked me over the phone.
I poked around my stomach.
“Above my bellybutton,” I moaned.
I am no stranger to stomach pain, but this was high on my richter scale of pain; every time I moved it somehow hurt worse. I compared it to the time I had kidney stones, which ought to have been my first clue that something was seriously wrong.
“Do you have Pepto?” Rob asked.
“No,” I groaned. “But I took some Tums.”
“Well that should help,” he said.
“I’m just waiting for them to kick in. It’s been about 15 minutes.”
“That stuff should work immediately. Have you thought about calling your doctor?”
Call my doctor? I don’t have her on speed dial–this isn’t Greece. And the last thing I wanted to do was go to the hospital.
“I just really hope I don’t start throwing up,” I wailed.
Ten minutes later, after I started throwing up, I called my mother.
“You need to stop,” she said. Every time I start vomiting, I end up in the ER for dehydration. She looked up anti-nausea meds online and found Emetrol, and she advised me to also take Benadryl. “In 7 out of 10 cases it stops people from vomiting,” she said.
The next three hours were a blur of phone calls, nausea, and lying on my bathroom floor. One of my friends came over with Emetrol, Benadryl, and Ginger Ale; my downstairs neighbor cancelled her evening plans and brought me ginger tea. The Emetrol worked wonders at inducing vomiting, and I couldn’t keep any liquids down. I had only a sip of Holy Water and managed to take a Benadryl, but at 11:15pm, I texted my neighbor saying, “I think I need to go to the hospital.” It wasn’t so much the continuous vomiting that I was worried about–it was the fact that my stomach pain seemed to grow in severity, and I could barely stand. It’s a miracle I made it down my three flights of stairs.
My neighbor, who’d just gotten her license a few weeks prior, drove my car to the nearest hospital while I navigated, and also coached her on how to operate a Prius. She pulled right into the lot where ambulances are supposed to park, and I did my best to exit quickly, though it was more like a 90-year old hunchback hobbling from the car to the ER doors.
I squatted on the floor in the entrance over a “please wait here” sticker until the nurse called me to the window, since I couldn’t stand upright for more than two consecutive seconds. After I gave her my information, I made a run (“run”) to the bathroom where I vomited for–thankfully–the last time.*
*A few minutes later I received a text from my mother explicitly telling me not to throw up in the hospital bathroom, indicating that I might contract an even worse illness.
Fifteen minutes later, they called me back to check my vitals and ask–on a scale of 1 to 10–what my pain was. “Ten,” I said, and she sent me back to the waiting room. “Can I get a wheelchair?” I asked.
“Is there something wrong with the chairs in the waiting room?”
“I just don’t know how I’m going to walk back there,” I said.
“Oh,” she shrugged. “Sorry.”
Thank God for the Benadryl and Holy Water! The antihistamine allowed me to haphazardly fall asleep, though I was doubled over in my chair with unwashed hair hanging over my face. I looked like the girl from The Ring. It’s curious why they let me sit in the waiting room for so long, an advertisement for a horror film.
My neighbor benevolently wrapped her shawl around me and patted my back, despite my appearance and moaning. I half-listened to Seinfeld playing on the TV, a sound that was both comforting and nauseating–the discussion about babka was too much. I prayed desperately to not throw up again.
The hours creeped by. I dreamed of chimis and felt sick again. Around 2:00am a man came in with a sliced finger, saying he’d cut it “on the job” but then fell asleep. They took him back and sewed him up pretty quickly. Everyone else in the waiting room, however, seemed to be complaining about vomiting and stomach pain, and slowly they were called back. I was the only one left. The fact there had been so many of us made me think I was part of a new epidemic, and maybe the doctor would know what I had and how to treat it. It was the only reason I stayed in the ER past 3:00am; by then my nausea had left and my pain was significantly reduced.
Please note: except for a brief stint to get food, my neighbor never left me.
Finally, they called my name. I was overjoyed to receive IV fluids, and the ER doctor came and asked me questions. H pressed my stomach to see where the pain was, and while I remembered it distinctly being above my bellybutton earlier in the evening, now it was all on the right side. He ordered a CT scan of my stomach and morphine.
The nurse checked my blood pressure three times, switching to a child-sized arm band, thinking the adult size was too big to be accurate. “I run low,” I told her, but 93/43 apparently seemed too low. She acquiesced and gave me a slower drip of morphine.
“Are you two close?” the nurse asked, nodding toward my neighbor.
It was an odd question to answer in front of my neighbor since we’d only shared a handful of housemate dinners and some produce (she always has lemons when I need them!), and I think I got as far as, “Ummmmmmmm” before the nurse clarified, “The morphine will probably make you talk.”
Ohhhh. “That’s fine,” I said.
It was my first experience with morphine, and it made me feel like my body was being squeezed–not unlike the sensation I felt at Mission Space at Disney World, when Rob and I were centrifuged at 150mph to mimic the experience of being launched into orbit. That ride made me incredibly nauseated, by the way, and I asked the nurse if it was supposed to feel like this.
“Yup. Just breathe through it,” she recommended.
As far as I can remember, my neighbor and I talked about the future of her relationship with her boyfriend. She also told me that she doesn’t like hospitals and the only time she ever went was for stomach pain, and she was diagnosed with appendicitis and had to have an appendectomy. She showed me her scars. “It was the day before my flight to the U.S.,” she said. “I was supposed to fly on the 17th, but I had to change it to the 21st.”
Let the record state: my neighbor moved to a foreign country, traveling across three continents (with three layovers), only five days after surgery. She is Wonder Woman.
The CT scan was interesting. They injected me with some sort of neon goo that I could feel moving through my veins. “It’s going to feel warm and might make you feel like you have to pee, but that’s normal,” the technicians told me. They then asked me to take a deep breath, hold it, and exhale while in the scanner. This was actually a peaceful experience, until they needed to add more contrast dye, which made my arm (where the IV port was) feel like it was going to burst into flames.
At 5:00am, my ER doctor came in. “I’ve got some bad news,” he began, and told me I had appendicitis. “You’ll need surgery today,” he explained, while my neighbor nodded. We found this diagnosis ironic.
In the meantime, multiple doctors and nurses came into the room to press on my stomach, “just to make sure,” they said, which is a little unnerving after you’ve agreed to surgery. At one point two students came in with clipboards. “When did you start experiencing symptoms? Did you have a fever? Where did you feel pain?”
I told them that my pain started above my bellybutton, and by the time the doctor checked me it had moved to my right side (and now it had lowered), and they both looked at each other with wide eyes. “That’s textbook stuff,” the male student said, and the other student, though wearing a mask, was obviously smiling at me. I felt proud of my body, like it had passed a test with an A+.
The surgeon, Dr. Christine, was friendly and straightforward. “How are you feeling?” she asked. “Your appendix is looking nice and juicy.”
“That’s…what everyone wants to hear,” I said.
She pressed on my stomach and asked some questions, then told me they’d get back to me on a time for surgery. She explained it would be laparoscopic: they’d make small incisions for cameras and other doodads to go into my stomach and pull out my appendix, and the surgery should be quick and easy.
Just in case, however, another guy came in to have me sign paperwork saying that in the event the laparoscopic part of my surgery didn’t work out, they could cut me open. “Did you have any plans this weekend?” he asked over his shoulder while typing on the computer.
“Just a writing conference,” I said. “I was supposed to drive to Lancaster tomorrow.”
He paused to consider this. “Is that far?”
“Six or seven hours.”
“Hmm. That might be tough, especially given the pain meds you’ll be on. You probably shouldn’t.” He made it sound as if it otherwise would have been possible, which–knowing what I know now–is insane. But based on this information, I told my boss for the food tour I’d be fine in ten days, and thankfully she’s smarter than I am and cancelled my tours anyway.
By late morning, they had wheeled me to another room in the ER, this one much colder, and I spent the next several hours sending emails and making phone calls to let people know what was happening (thankfully the conference refunded my money). It’s a wonder I contacted anyone and sounded coherent because I have little-to-no recollection of who I talked to or what I said.
At 2:30pm, after fasting from food and water since throwing them all up–I was so parched!–they took me to my “permanent” room on the 4th floor. My new nurse was very sweet and bubbly, and she told me to use the call button before going to the bathroom. “We just want to make sure you’re not a fall hazard…most of our patients are a little older than you,” she explained. She told me it might still be hours before I was called into surgery, that “end of day” was 10pm. She dropped off a gown and told me I could hold off on changing.
She came back four minutes later and said I had been called into surgery. I sent a message to my mom and called Rob, who prayed for me over the phone. My mother’s memorable parting words were “make sure you shut off your phone. After working in a hospital 22 years, even coworkers had things stolen.” The bubbly nurse ran down the hall after us–me and the guy wheeling my bed–in order to put my valuables into a safe. God bless that nurse.
In preparation for surgery, I was asked repeatedly what operation I was having. “A laparoscopic appendectomy” I said slowly. The woman who prepped me, Shiela, kept calling me “kid.” She checked to make sure I wasn’t wearing jewelry and paused on my prayer rope bracelets. “Do these have metal?” she asked as she tried to pull them off, to no avail. “No,” I said, so she let me keep them on.
I told her ceclor and almonds, though I figured it was a moot point to mention almonds. She left the computer and returned with a NO LATEX bracelet. “Here ya go, kid,” she said and snapped it over my wrist. Apparently there are cross-reactive food allergies that are triggered by latex (or vice versa), and to be safe, I got the bracelet.
The surgeon came by and wrote her initials on my bellybutton. Perhaps one of my readers can explain this practice to me because I’m not sure why she did this. Marking her territory? Making sure the right surgeon operated? She also asked me whom she should call post-surgery. “My mom,” I said, knowing she would spread the word to my dad and everyone else (namely Rob, and the Poor Clares).
Then the anesthesiologist came to talk to me. I liked him because I voiced my fears about getting sick from anesthesia and he asked great questions, such as “Do you get motion sickness?”
YES, I do get motion sickness!
His assistant put a patch behind my ear to prevent nausea, saying these were the “over the counter” kind for people who go out on boats-n-stuff, and the whole team made me feel like I was in good hands. I apologized to the anesthesiologist for not brushing my teeth, and he assured me it was okay.
Then it was time. They wheeled me out of the prep room and down the hallway. I remember approximately 15 seconds of my journey, and then it was lights out.
I came to around 6:00pm and thought it was 6:00am the next day. Rob endured a lot of my gibberish as I faded in and out of consciousness. I woke up again at 11:30pm, in pain and having to pee. The nice bubbly nurse was long gone and my new nurse was considerably less bubbly. It took a few presses of the call button before she came to my room to help me. My legs were strapped into sleeves that would fill with air, first on one side, then the other, then deflate. These were used to keep blood clots from forming. It reminded me of those at-home massaging devices, except very noisy. The nurse unwrapped my legs and pulled down the bars of my bed, waiting for me to hoist myself out.
Although it might be obvious to some, getting out of bed is much harder to do when your abdominals have been sliced open; it turns out these muscles are required to sit up and move one’s legs. Even though I was already at an incline, I couldn’t move. I had to roll onto my side and push myself up with my arms, and even this caused excruciating pain. The nurse watched me struggle without fanfare and with little assistance.
I hobbled to the bathroom, pulling my IV stand with me, trying to maneuver it into the tiny space so I could “pee in the hat,” a urine catching device affixed to the toilet. It was marked with ounces to quantify my pee. The nurse stood outside the door, and it was the worst case of stage fright mixed with post-surgical-pain I’ve ever experienced. There’s no dignity in the details, but the nurse waited for me for quite a while.
After that, as a reward to myself, I asked her for Italian ice (a lemon-flavored snow cone) and ginger ale, my doctor-approved liquid diet. By morning they would start me on solid food and send me home.
My recovery is a separate story, and I am indebted to so many people. My family, friends, and neighbors truly were the hands and feet of Christ, and I am so grateful. It’s not easy being a single person who lives alone when it comes to unexpected emergencies and operations. My downstairs neighbor checked on me daily, unlocked the door for my visitors, ran to the grocery store for me, brought me food and a pillow, drove me to an eye doctor appointment (another story) and was always available to help. She moves to Italy on September 1st, and tomorrow is our last day together.
Friends cooked meals (or brought me Yoleni’s Greek food!), beginning the day I was discharged from the hospital, until now, nearly two weeks later. One of my friends and neighbors from church has checked on me every day, taking out my trash, doing dishes, washing my sheets, inviting me over once I could walk again. My pastor’s wife brought over essential items and trimmed my flowers, giving them new life, and hung my roses upside down to dry.
My mom, my boyfriend, and Zemen all offered to fly here despite the impracticality of such a trip. They sent me flowers and care packages, prayed for me, and daily made me feel loved.
The social media world sent messages of encouragement and good will (I posted photos in a heavily medicated state), and friends reached out from all over to wish me well.
The only thing I can say with certainty is that someday I will be paying it forward. There will be an opportunity to sit in an ER with someone all night who thinks they’ve eaten too much cheese or too many chimis, and I will wrap my shawl around them and tell them they don’t look like a character in a horror movie. There are always opportunities to bring meals to people, but offering to run errands or take out trash–these are things I’d never thought to do before. I’ve already concluded that any washing machine or dryer I own is not for my use only and will be available to anyone who needs it. That is how kindness works–and love, for that matter. What’s given can always be given away, and somehow, with that formula, it never runs out.