Saturday, November 9, 2013

Welcome To The Hotel California

There are many lovely and exotic places I can picture myself living for three months. The Costa Del Sol of Spain comes to mind, as does Manhattan, Seattle, Paris, Santa Fe, Bali, Costa Rica, Tuscany, or New Zealand.
But two hospitals and a nursing home nicknamed “Dr. Kevorkian’s Party Palace?” Not so much.
           And yet, I spent almost three months of my life in those places. For exactly eighty-four days I lay flat on my back in a hospital bed. For eighty-four days, I was poked and prodded by nurses, techs, and aides. I was sliced up by surgeons. I had strangers wash me, brush my teeth, and change my bandages and hospital gowns. There were physical therapists to move my limbs, occupational therapists to help me hold a cup, and respiratory therapists to check my oxygen saturation and lung capacity. My body was just another day at the office for every type of physician imaginable, including:
  • ·      Orthopedic surgeons (Dr. O’Toole and a cadre of residents and fellows with various sub-specialties)
  • ·      General surgeons
  • ·      Vascular surgeons
  • ·      Infectious disease specialists
  • ·      Cardiologists
  • ·      Radiologists
  • ·      Nephrologists
  • ·      Gastroenterologists
  • ·      Urologists
  • ·      Dermatologists
  • ·      Pulmonologists
  • ·      Hematologists
  • ·      Psychiatrists
  • ·      Neurologists
  • ·      Hepatologists
  • ·      Anesthesiologists
  • ·      Pain-management anesthesiologists
  • ·      And pharmacists

It was a good thing I was unconscious or drifting in and out of reality during two-thirds of my hospitalization. Because once I managed to deduce what was going on and where I was, I realized I was in hell.
Anyone who has spent time in a hospital knows that the process forces you to surrender your dignity and any sense of ownership of your own body. When I began to understand my situation, a profound sense of helplessness came over me. The old Susan would have taken one look at this bullshit arrangement and said, “I’m outa here.” But I wasn’t the old Susan. I was defenseless. I had no control over my brain or my body. I was a in a surreal limbo, alive but only barely. I was attached to wires, monitors, needles, a wound vacuum, tubes, alarms, and an automated blood pressure cuff. There was an inflated wrap on my uninjured leg, rhythmically squeezing and releasing to prevent blood clots.
I had no idea that I’d been pumped full of fluid to stabilize my blood pressure, so when I managed to lift my hands off the sheets I could not make sense of what I was seeing. My hands looked exactly like latex exam gloves blown up like balloons, only bright red in color. Oh, and my fingers were webbed. Yes, webbed. I’ve never taken LSD, but I think seeing my hands for the first time was akin to a bad acid trip. My fingers were painfully swollen to twice their normal size. The first few layers of skin had torn along the length of the inside and outside of each finger, creating transparent wings the consistency of stiff parchment paper.
The first word that floated through my drug-hammered mind was “monster.” I thought I had become a webbed-fingered swamp monster.
During one of my lucid moments – and when a breathing tube wasn’t shoved down my throat – my best friend, Arleen, recalls how I turned to her and asked, “Is this real or is this a dream?”
She assured me it was real. But I kept asking for clarification. Apparently, I wasn’t convinced.
“Okay, so, is this world my real life? Or was the other world my real life?”
Arleen says eventually she had no choice but to shake her head and tell me, “Honestly, Susan, I don’t know what’s real anymore.”

"Was the other world my real life?" Myself, my daughter, and Arleen, 2006  

Time ceased to exist. For many weeks I was assigned a room without a window. I only saw the sun when orderlies would roll me off for surgery, a trip that required us to pass through an atrium. I remember on more than one occasion asking them to stop for just a few seconds so I could enjoy the natural light coming through the glass. I remember crying at how beautiful it was, how wonderfully warm it felt on my face. I hated to see it go. I wanted more. Even in the haze of pain and drugs, I knew something huge and important had been ripped from me – my identity as a free person in a free world, where I could feel the sunshine.
I often hallucinated from the pain meds. I remember watching the walls of my room undulate because they were alive, composed of millions of tiny, writhing insects. I recall staring at the large analog clock in my room, puzzled by all the extra numbers and wondering why they were in Klingon. I stared out the glass wall into the nursing station thinking I was at a writer’s conference and was waiting in line at the hotel’s front desk.
My family and friends came as often as they could, but the hospital was an hour and a half from home and my loved ones had school and jobs and children of their own. So I spent most of the time alone, floating.
Sometimes I would open my eyes and try to scream. But I couldn’t. I wanted to ask questions, have someone talk to me because I was so terrified. But no sound would come out from my lips. No one could hear me. So I would lie there, scared, bewildered, drifting for what felt like forever in that insect-walled room with its Klingon clock, not knowing if I’d ever be allowed to leave.

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