I wake up, disoriented entirely, entirely disoriented. I cannot see, I can’t move. An unfamiliar miasma impedes my awareness of self. Or maybe it’s the drugs. A collection of tubes protrudes from the conventional orifices as well as a few new ones, rendering my own remaining organs unnecessary for now, irrelevant to my continued survival.
I’m still searching for my bearings when a nurse tending to a patient in a nearby bed notices that my eyes are open. In very little time, a team of medical professionals surround my bed, prodding me with questions, making sure I’m alive and testing for lucidity. I’m in too much discomfort to be dead, I assure them with a Diving Bell and the Butterfly swagger. But my communicative attempts are ineffective, the words suppressed in my brain as my parched lips and vocal system remain sealed.
As I rebuild the world around me, my leading theory is that I’ve been stabbed in the mid-section repeatedly, but very carefully. Every breath is a struggle, with my relevant muscles working to reestablish their utility on each inhalation. Eventually, I discover that I’d undergone a successful ten-hour surgery to remove a tumour, my stomach and an incidental duodenum. Fortunately, no whipple had been necessary and so my kidneys and pancreas are intact. Apparently I’m on a road to recuperation. But something doesn’t feel right.
The next two days is a complete blur, and over two days after my viscera were medically pillaged, I am still not fully of this world. Even as I’d been providing regular status updates to the staff, I somehow neglected to mention pertinent information involving my actual state, and so nobody senses that there is something seriously wrong. However, after receiving the results for a standard post-operative assessment, one of my surgeons evidently sees a reading that indicates I am being poisoned from the inside. He and his team of seven enter my room and I’m asked how I feel. I answer that I have some nausea. With a concerned look, he implores me to divulge any other side effects.
“Oh yeah, and I haven’t been able to extract myself out of a perpetual state of intense hallucinations since the operation.”
He’d been anticipating a similar response and picks up the pace. It’s 5:30pm on a Friday, and he hurriedly tracks down a couple of other doctors before they leave for the weekend, in order to run some crucial tests. On the elevator ride down to the first floor, he stares at me with honest deflation, and this is the first time I truly consider I won’t live through this.
It turns out my abdominal cavity has been slowly filling up with bile, and the resulting fever is what led to the phantasmagoria. Emergency surgery is scheduled for the following morning so that my surgeons can fully explore the cause of the internal leak. They cut me open to find that my gallbladder has been punctured during the initial operation, so they remove that and close me back up. It’s as if I am a physician’s punching bag, getting mugged of my body parts at every opportunity. I half hope they take everything except my appendix.¹
I wake up this time surprised to be doing so but much more aware of my environment and legitimately able to begin my recovery. I remember that I’d scheduled a tweet to be posted a few months from now, if I did end up dying, that just said “Boo“. The thought that that might play out was so funny to me it was a little disappointing that it wouldn’t be necessary. I’d always wanted to donate my body to comedy, and that would have been as good a chance as any.
Of course, I’m again immobile and entirely reliant on tubes for most bodily functions. I’m in significant pain and distress as well, which will continue for a couple of weeks, mitigated only by routine doses of morphine that solidify my inability to think or move. Not eating, drinking, or performing conventional excretion is confusing. Only synthetic conduits are currently available for both input and output, and I consider the possibility that I died and came back as a prototype of a robot.
The following days revolve around the perpetual yearning for water. My mouth is a desert. My kingdom for a drop. My recovering digestive system must be kept entirely clean and clear and under control, and so even a sip of water is out of the question. But every few hours my mouth is allowed to be dabbed with a pink sponge that had been dipped in water with immense frugality, and these moments are all I care about and may ever care about again.
The first part of my post-op hospital stay is foolishly monotonous, as well as seriously dull, and really fucking boring. Most of the initial healing consists of staying completely still doing nothing, letting my body slowly regain incremental strength, before I can become actively involved in the rehabilitation. Communicating with anyone is difficult and uncomfortable, and my body is so exhausted that I can’t even use my hands to type or use my phone.
I reside in a shared room, and I am convinced that Chewbacca’s voice was based on every other patient in my vicinity. In the bed next to mine is a retired high school principal. One of his “friends” keeps visiting him and spends his time here loudly passing along information that the guy he’s talking to clearly does not give a shit about. There’s an Asian man situated across from me whose entire extended family shows up at the same time every day, although only one person ever speaks to him. At night, the nurses complain to each other about their jobs. I don’t blame them, but they still need to realize how ridiculous their gripes sound to people who just had cancer and might get it again and won’t be able to stand up for the foreseeable future.
I see a number of different doctors throughout my time as an in-patient, and for some reason, their conversation starter is inevitably asking me what I do for a living. Just because you guys are all obsessed with yours doesn’t mean everyone is, especially people who aren’t and shouldn’t be thinking about work in any way. A social worker comes to see me after my surgery to see how I’m handling everything. “Do you know if they found anything malignant?” she asks. I respond, “You mean in the malignant tumour they removed?” She flips through her notes with a confused look. “Uhh, so how’s Nellie holding up?” I think we’re done here, ma’am.
One of the tubes connected to me is a catheter, which keeps my body from having to urinate all by itself. Several days after my second surgery, the doctors want to remove it in the hopes that I can start using my bladder again. Breathe in, I am directed. I do, as a nurse yanks the tube out of my urethra. Did you just cringe? Well you only had to read about it. I lay in the bed with a plastic jug that serves as a mobile toilet. Lying down is not the customary position for such an act, but I give it a shot for a few hours, to no avail, as my bladder fills up again. It’s as if I have completely forgotten how to pee, and I ran out of time, so a temporary catheter is needed to keep my bladder from exploding. Later that day, this one gets yanked out as well, and I try again. This time, a warm towel is placed on my stomach – er, my gut – in the hopes of inspiring the process. I inch my way to the bathroom, every step as difficult as the last. I sit down on the toilet and try to pee. Nothing. I’ve at least forgotten about my severe thirst for awhile, with my only goal now to stimulate my bladder to prevent another catheter insertion and subsequent yanking. I breathe deeply and focus my energy. I channel all of my mind’s power to persuade my body to follow this simple order. Dribble dribble. It is a success. The nurse congratulates me and I feel oh so special that I peed on my own. It’s the little wins, you know?
As time moves forward, I start to stroll around the ward, regaining the ability to walk. Eventually, the tubes are removed one by one, and I feel increasingly human. Every day is more manageable, more productive, more encouraging than the one before.
And then one day I’m discharged, sent home to start my new life without half my digestive system, and fortunately, without any cancer either.
¹ I’ve come up with a premise for David Blaine’s next special. He can remove his internal organs one by one, to show how few you need to still live. Realistically, you don’t need a: stomach, gallbladder, appendix, one kidney, one lung, spleen, both hands and feet… And he can do the whole thing in a big ice cube hanging off the International Space Station.