Wednesday, November 13, 2013
She's Not Dead Yet!
When a golden harp appeared in my Shock Trauma patient room, I thought to myself, “Well, shit. I’m really dead this time. At least I’m going to heaven.” I was only partly correct. The experience would be otherworldly, but I was very much alive.
Seriously. The harp was real. Let me give you some context.
The first two months of my hospitalization were a watery, psychedelic existence of one step forward and three steps back. There was surgery after surgery, anesthesia and pain medication, grief, terror, determination, drug-induced psychosis, nightmares, loss of dignity, insurance snafus, impatience, boredom, and, just when it looked like things might be looking up, my heart went into ventricular tachycardia from the stress of septic shock and surgeons had to implant a defibrillator/pacemaker in my chest.
I recall the moment my heart went on the fritz. Nurses were tending to me, and way down deep in my strange little opiate-saturated psyche, I was dreaming. In the dream I observed children on a playground, thinking how wonderful it was for them to be out in the fresh air, laughing.
Then I felt myself hurtling through space. I thought I might be dying. I remember saying to the nurses, “Something really bad is happening to me.” Then all hell broke loose. The next time I surfaced I had a large bandage on my upper left chest, my arm was in a sling, and below the surface of my skin was plastic device about the size of a Zippo lighter.
After the surgery, I remember hearing a doctor say, “We’ve got enough going on here. The last thing we need is a cardiac event.”
I was a frequent flyer in the recovery room. I remember the joy of coming out of the anesthesia and being allowed to have a ginger ale with crushed ice. That was a big thrill for me, as my throat was always dry and sore from the intubation. Plus, I hadn’t been allowed to have anything to drink, sometimes for as long as ten hours, prior to going to the O.R..
Since I’m a writer, it makes sense that my recovery-room hallucinations would, at times, be elaborate and full of plot twists. My favorite was the time I looked around and smiled to myself because I’d finally figured out the ruse. Ha! I was too smart to be fooled! This wasn’t a hospital at all. It was a reality TV show about a baking competition. All these people running around were producers and celebrity bakers, and I was one of the contestants vying for a position at a famous bakery! This whole hospital/near-death thing had just been a cover story used by The Discovery Channel!
I later found out that I had verbalized this madness, much to the amusement of the recovery room nurses.
To help me deal with pain and side effects from anesthesia and medication, I was lucky enough to participate in the University of Maryland’s alternative therapies program, which included Reiki treatments. Reiki is a Japanese healing art in which the practitioner touches the patient or moves their hands above the patient’s body, manipulating life energy to promote healing and well being. The Reiki masters brought singing bowls into my patient room and chanted over me. Oh how I loved this! It gave me such comfort. These women were gentle and positive.
I didn’t always go to the O.R. for procedures. Doctors sometimes worked on me in my room, using only local anesthesia such as a shot of lidocaine. I remember one intensely painful in-room procedure in which the surgeons cleaned my amputation site and changed the drainage tube. (This is the drawback of being conscious – you know what’s being done to you.) On this day I had the company of two Reiki masters and a nurse. The nurse gripped my hand. One practitioner moved her hands above my body and touched my forehead and shoulders. The other chanted and created soothing tones on the singing bowl. I was so terrified that day that I’m not sure I could have made it through without them.
This is where the harp comes in. As part of the alternative therapies program at Shock Trauma, I also was treated to live musical performances, right there in my tiny patient room. As soon as I learned that classically trained musicians volunteered their time on the unit, I put in a standing request. My first musician was a cellist. The sounds were so exquisite I cried. I had been starving for beauty for so long that the music jolted my spirit awake. I had a visit from a viola player, too. But, by far, the most surreal experience was the day a harpist rolled her full-sized, gilded, elaborately scrolled concert harp into my tiny Shock Trauma room. It barely fit through the door. The painfully sweet notes she produced floated around me and through me. Her music helped me feel human at a time when I’d almost forgotten what being human felt like. It was magical.
Of course, when I mentioned the harp to my best friend, Arleen, she figured I was having another one of my hallucinations. She asked, “Um, Susan? While all this was going on, did any of the doctors happen to be naked?"
Once I regained some of my physical strength and mental clarity, the most maddening part of my hospital experience was how slow I was to heal. The goal was to get my amputation site ready for a skin graft, but the days and weeks kept passing by. On countless occasions I would get my hopes up that this time Dr. O’Toole would take me into the O.R. to clean and drain the wound and see that I was healed enough for the skin graft surgery. Then I could go home!
But over and over again, the doctors said I wasn’t ready. The news would crush me – crush everyone. But nurses and doctors explained this was standard for my type of traumatic amputation, and likened the process to a roller coaster ride. Could the leg be saved? At first, it was yes and then it was no. Was the wound healed enough to graft? Probably. Or not. It was exhausting for me and for those who cared about me.
During this time, I remember lying in my hospital bed thinking that I couldn’t go on anymore, that I’d been pushed beyond my limit. I had no more strength or patience left in me. I couldn’t take the pain any longer. Or the boredom. Or the drugs. Or the endless hours of loneliness.
Right about then, I got a new neighbor in the Shock Trauma Unit, a dude I called “The Screamer.” He screamed day and night. It was God-awful. I would put my iPod headphones in and listen to music at full throttle but I could still hear him. “Help me! Oh, God, somebody help me! The pain! The pain!” I finally asked my nurse what my anonymous fellow inmate was in for, and she told me he’d jumped out of a third story window and had multiple fractures and internal injuries.
I thought, hmm . . . so this guy wanted to die and all I wanted was to live. And here we are, across the hall from each other in the same hospital.
It took me awhile to sort this out in my head, but I realized that one illness isn’t any more or less awful than another. The Screamer had a mental illness. Mine was bacterial. And we’d both ended up road kill. Perhaps the only difference was that The Screamer might not have had the resources or loving support he needed to get well while I’d had more than my share. From then on, I tried not to let his screams get to me and I sent him positive thoughts from my cell across the hall.
What I didn’t know was that I’d soon be doing my own screaming. This means that some other patient, somewhere, might think of me their “Screamer” from across the hall. I’d like to track them down to apologize.