40 Days of Hell – Part 2
This is the second part of the story, going to the point where I was discharged. First part can be found here.
I woke up in a hospital unit called Surgical Intensive Care or SICU for short. I spent three days in SICU and to be perfectly honest a lot of it is blurry for me, although not nearly blurry enough.
When I woke, I was still intubated and on a breathing machine. In the first surgery, they would wake you and you had to cough hard enough to assist in expelling the tube. Normally you wouldn’t remember this, the anesthesia doing what it does to memory. When I woke in the SICU after the second surgery, I didn’t know I was on ventilation. I also didn’t know that you can’t fight the ventilation machine. You breathe in and out when the machine does it for you, no matter what you want.
I panicked a bit. The tube hurt and my abdomen had been abused again with the second surgery. The nurse told me to relax and let the machine breathe for me. My wife, Weetabix and my father Senior were there, both looking upset at my distress. My wife had been crying but she smiled for me.
My father had a look on his face I rarely saw. This particular look was the subversion of emotion into pure will to remain calm and in control. Emotion could happen later, somewhere else, somewhere where it wasn’t important and there would be beer.
After a while I calmed down and let the machine breathe for me. I motioned them all close and pantomimed using a pen. I wanted them to bring me a pen and paper in order to communicate. It took three tries to get them to understand. In my haze of Dilaudid and pain I found it intensely frustrating that they couldn’t understand. If you are suddenly deprived of your primary form of communication, you want another. I wanted that pen and paper badly, I felt so helpless. So many tubes and wires were connected to me. There were three drains in my belly, an arterial IV tap (a horrible clamping device) in my left wrist, a catheter, an IV in my right hand, plus all of the telemetry across my chest to monitor my vital signs. Yards and yards of tubes and wires strewn across me. I could barely move anything but my arms.
Finally they gave me a small pad and a pen. I gripped the pen firmly and tried to write. I found I could barely form the words on paper. The resulting text looked like a drunken third grader formed it. I had to cross out the first two attempts and I was getting so frustrated that I was beginning to tear up. Finally I got the words “When tube out” onto the paper. Weetabix and the nurse read it and the nurse responded.
I am told that the glare I gave her could have bubbled old paint. Weetabix and Senior both looked at her like she was insane. Realizing her mistake she babbled on about my ability to breathe and said not at least until morning. I tried to look disappointed and upset, to no real effect. This few minutes of interaction and revelation had exhausted me. I drifted off back into a drug-induced sleep.
In the morning, via a few more poorly written notes, I indicated I wanted the tube out. All night, the damned machine woke me up again and again as it interrupted my own unconscious breathing rhythms. The tube made my chest ache and every time I accidently fought against it there would be intense pain from my abdomen with its freshly damaged contents, including the diaphragm.
After a few more hours they pulled the tube. I had another minor panic as they fitted me with the oxygen cannula. It was hard to breathe, both mechanically and to get enough oxygen. When they finally got the cannula in place under my nostrils I did nothing but sit and take as deep a breaths as I could for a few minutes.
Not soon after this my best friend, M. Tony (MT for short) came into the room. He had flown in from his home in the Carolinas when he heard I was ill. I was glad to see him but a little frightened as well. The truth is that I didn’t really understand the extent of my illness. I knew I had sepsis, I knew that was an infection and that it was bad. How bad, or how really ill I was I didn’t know. Between narcotics, infection and the mental delirium surrounding it, I just didn’t understand and probably couldn’t understand. But MT showing up gave me an inkling of how bad it was.
A few minutes after he arrived, a nurse was injecting one of my IVs with something (I don’t know what, probably more Dilaudid). MT turned white and looked away. Just so you know, an IV injection doesn’t even involve a needle anymore. They just cam-lock a syringe to a waiting receptacle on the line. A moment later he sat down and the nursing staff and doctors made him lay on the ground while they checked him out.
He told us it was his fear of needles (something I share). Weetabix thinks it’s more. MT and I have known each other for 37 years. I met him on the bus when I was five and he was seven. The sight of me in that state must have been a shock to him and probably overwhelmed him. He left the SICU for about an hour after that. The rest of the time he was good, but would leave the room anytime they did something to me. And they did lots of somethings to me.
I wasn’t moved out of SICU until the next evening. In the mean time they inserted a PIC line into my right shoulder to replace the bloody clamped arterial line in my left wrist. They took vials and vials of blood. They hung bag after bag after bag of plain old saline. They ran thirty liters of fluids in me. I swelled up like an engorged tick. My feet were so swollen that they ached and itched. My abdomen hurt with every breath and with every movement.
The Dilaudid, the damned Dilaudid, was giving me hallucinations. Not weird or scary hallucinations. Architectural hallucinations. I could have swore that there was a large window into the next SICU suite just behind me and to my left. When I was in the regular hospital room, I could have sworn that there was a door to the next room behind my wife’s chair. Whenever I would look, neither would be there. But I kept suspecting their existence, just outside my vision. Neither were sinister, they were just a normal window and a normal door, leaning naturally to the next room. I just couldn’t shake the idea that they were there. I also couldn’t sleep that well. You wouldn’t think that heavy-duty narcotics would do that to you, but after about the first week I had a hell of a time sleeping.
Life settled down a bit when we moved to the standard hospital room. But the hits kept coming in some ways. They took out my catheter, but they still wanted to measure my urine. I was so sore, I could barely bend over, with three drain tubes with “grenade” style bulbs and a big drain with a long plastic bag, all coming out of my belly. There was a PIC line with two to three tubes coming out of my shoulder/upper arm, an oxygen cannula on my face, and 8 wires monitoring my heart and vital functions. I could walk, very slowly, but I couldn’t stand up on my own. I couldn’t hold the urinal and aim at the same time. I couldn’t use the plastic bowl on the toilet, my man bits hung down into it too far. So for weeks and weeks, nurses, young PAs, my wife, and even my mother had to help me piss into a urinal. These same brave souls had to help me wipe my own ass too. I could get to the toilet, but I couldn’t flex well enough to reach back there. I feel embarrassed about it now, but at the time I was so sick, so violated with tubes and wires that I didn’t even care.
I had my laptop and my tablet, my Kindel, and my iPhone. I didn’t check my email, I didn’t even boot the laptop. There was something that told me I couldn’t handle contact right now. I knew you all were out there, and I have to thank Ana and Aphrael for finding and contacting my wife and keeping you all informed. I honestly couldn’t do it. I was too sick, too drugged, too upset and emotionally fragile. Still, knowing that you all knew and were pulling for me was a source of comfort and I’m not just saying that. It meant a lot to me. I just couldn’t face you all myself, not even through our foggy, imprecise internet interface.
Next time in part 3 we will talk about how much fluid you can have in your chest cavity and the terror that is Interventional Radiology. Sorry these are taking so long, it’s hard to write about.
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