Illness, Alienation, and PTSD – Part 4

Read Part I, Part 2, and Part 3.

One Friday night near the end of October 1990, I treated my sophomore roomate Pam to dinner for her birthday. We went to a Thai restaurant down the street from our dorm. I remember sitting across from her in the restaurant. While we were at dinner, I started getting stomach pains, and we headed back to the dorm.

After a few hours of this, I went to the emergency room at Brigham & Women’s hospital in Boston. While I spoke to the attending, I speculated that it might be food poisoning as Pam and I had just been out to eat at a new place. He said, “You probably just have food poisoning. If it doesn’t get better, come back to the ER.” Several hours later, I wasn’t any better so back to their ER I went.

I remember being put in a hospital gown on a gurney by myself in a room. At some point, I began vomiting. And that’s how I spent the next 36 hours – alone, on a hospital gurney with severe stomach pains and unremittant vomiting. I am not sure how I got word to my family. I may have called or I may have asked my friends to call. Two close friends, Patty and Christy, came to see me briefly. I called Chris, the guy I had been seeing, and begged him to visit me, just so I wouldn’t have to be alone while I waited for either something to be done or my family to come join me.

At some point on Sunday, the ER staff finally decided to insert a nasal-gastrointestinal (NG) tube. Doing so alleviated both the vomiting and the stomach pain. I was admitted to the hospital, and my mother and sister Madeline came to Boston to stay while I was there.

By Monday, the pain came back. When the surgeons told us they wanted to operate on Thursday, the three of us collectively freaked out. My sister insisted that they operate sooner, and I was hysterical because I could not deal with being in excruciating pain for the next few days. The doctors caved, and I went into surgery on Tuesday or Wednesday.

This was a lifesaving move. Because of the delay in treatment, part of my small intestine had begun to turn gangrenous from the blockage. The surgeon told my mother and my sister that if they had waited another day to do the surgery, I would have died. This was not the first time my mother had to hear this from a doctor. After my appendectomy, my mother was told that I would have died my appendix had burst before they had gotten a chance to open me up.

I didn’t know about that when I was a child, but I learned about my appendectomy close shave after I had my surgery for this blockage. When you hear doctors say that kind of thing about you, you feel like you have barely missed being scraped on the edge of Death’s razor. I couldn’t get those words out of my head – It’s a miracle I lived. I could have died. I came so close. If only. If only. If only….

Because of the gangrene, I had an infection. The first antibiotics they gave me did not work, and a fever persisted. After about a week, they changed medications, and I was on the strongest dose of antibiotics they could give me. The medication worked, but it left me without any good intestinal flora, either. I became completely lactose intolerant. A pat of butter could send me into intense spasms of pain for years afterwards. I spent many years building up the good bacteria because I was not going to live without ice cream for the rest of my life, that much I could tell you. Or butter. Definitely. Needed. Butter.

I had one roommate during my three week stay in the hospital. My roommate, Mary, was in the hospital to have a colostomy bag installed. We spent many a days together, watching commercials on TV, and talking about food. You’ll never hear someone talk about food in such mouth-watering details as from the person who cannot have any. My mother marveled at how we could even stand to look at food, given that we couldn’t eat any.  But it gave us something to talk about and to pass the time. Spending weeks in the hospital begins to feel like months. Years.

In both our cases, our tubes needed to come out, and we both needed to be able to eat food and keep it down. In Mary’s case, she also needed to be able to successfully use her bag while they watched to make sure no infections occurred. My mother and Mary exchanged Christmas cards for many years afterwards, even after I’d long put the stay and my roommate out of my mind.

As a teenager, I counted the years, months, weeks, and days until I could go away to college. My hospital stay seriously interfered with my plans to stay away. I was forced to withdraw from school because I knew I could never catch up after missing the practically the entire month of November away from school. The thoughts of having to go home indefinitely caused me to panic, and my dread of being pitied resurfaced along with my long-buried fears about my body, my health, my endurance, and my ability to support myself in life.

My aunt and uncle drove up to Boston to see me. My father brought them into my room. All I remember is that they either expressed through sighs and sounds or with words that I felt were like pity, and I became enraged. I screamed at them to get out, that I didn’t want to be pitied, and I didn’t want to see them if they were only going to make me feel worse. I already felt and looked awful, with my tubes, hospital gown, and fighting a raging infection. I felt guilty and humiliated and angry, and I cried from the sheer frustration of my situation. When I cry, my nose gets stuffed and runs like I have a cold. I wanted to hide under the covers and disappear.

I remember spending time in child’s pose while on my bed in the hopes that I could encourage the gas to move through my system and come out the right end. I learned that nothing compares to when your digestive system is working properly. It is the most amazing experience in the world because I know what it’s like when it doesn’t. Sometimes I forget. But then life finds a way of reminding me, like it did earlier this month. I ended up in the ER with stomach pains like I have not felt since my last intestinal blockage episode in 1992.  But that’s for later.

As Thanksgiving approached, I asked about when I would be released. They were trying to decide when would be the right time, but I was determined to leave the hospital by Thanksgiving. The very idea of still being in the hospital on Thanksgiving, three weeks after I went to the ER, was unacceptable to state of mental health. There was simply nothing worse, to my mind, than being in a hospital on Thanksgiving. I simply was not going to have it.

Would they have let me go if I could not eat and poop? Of course not. I doubt they would have let me walk out of there. And I was lucky enough that I was able to leave the day before the holiday. But I didn’t go home. I fought with my sister about going home. I wanted to go back to my dorm to rest, and that’s what I ended up doing.

First, my mother and I went to the Registrar’s office at Boston University so I could withdraw for the semester. The day before Thanksgiving was technically the last day that I could have withdrawn without a financial penalty. However, after hearing what I’d been through, the staff member backdated my withdrawal form so that I could take incompletes on some classes and retake others the next semester.

So my mother and sister went back to NY, and I returned to live in my dorm. The school was not going to have time to kick me out of the dorm before the end of the semester arrived, and so, after the semester concluded, I went back home to New York to stay with my parents for the winter break.

~~ End of Part 4 ~~