Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Near-Death Diet Plan

My father’s sister was known for her muscular calves. Aunt Hazel, or “Hazy” as we called her, had been a track star in her youth. She was much older than my dad, so I remember Aunt Hazy as a feisty senior citizen, when the only running she did was from the stove to the pantry. Her muscular legs endured, however. I remember sitting at the kitchen table in her Ohio farmhouse, watching her zip around in her cotton floral-print dress and orthopedic shoes, calf muscles bulging. For good or ill, I inherited those calf muscles. My ex-husband, John, had a pet name for my lower extremities: “Aunt Hazy legs.” 
So imagine my confusion that day in the hospital when I looked down at my remaining lower limb to find . . . a stick. A chicken leg. The first time John saw it, he mumbled, “Oh, my God.”
I don’t know how much weight I lost in the hospital and after I returned home, but it was all muscle atrophy. The strong body I’d once had was gone. The achievements of a year’s worth of excellent nutrition and cardio, free weights, squats, crunches, planks, kickboxing, Zumba, and walking had been obliterated by my illness. I was a limp and floppy blob. There were two main reasons for my blob status: I barely ate anything and I spent most of my three months in the hospital flat on my back.
 My first attempts at building strength were pitiful.  Simply being propped up in the hospital bed was too exhausting. But as time went on I learned to grip the bed rail and roll to one side enough to use a bedpan. That was followed by other fitness milestones – lying on my side for a few minutes, sitting on the edge of the bed without fainting, and turning over on my stomach and lifting my head.
My biggest accomplishment occurred during the week I spent on the rehab unit of my local hospital prior to skin graft surgery. With the help of two nurses and a male orderly, I slid across a board and transitioned from the hospital bed to a chair, where my goal was to sit upright for ten minutes. This fitness regimen wasn’t exactly the Insanity workout from cable-TV, but it was a huge mental and physical shift for me. For the first time in months, I found myself somewhere other than a bed, gurney, or operating table in a position other than prone. There was no time to pat myself on the back, however. After reaching my ten-minute goal I was completely exhausted and dizzy – and I had to somehow get myself back in bed. This meant I needed to push myself from the chair and pivot to sit on the sliding board. I couldn’t do it. I didn’t have the strength and I didn’t understand how I was supposed to get a one-legged body to do what I wanted it to do. I started to shake all over as I realized I might very well fall on the floor.
Right then, it hit me: My life was changed forever. This body wasn’t the old, reliable friend I’d had for fifty years. This body was alien to me in every way. I didn’t understand how it worked. I couldn’t trust it. I wasn’t sure how I’d be able to live my life in it.
I didn’t want it.
It was high drama getting me back into that hospital bed. The nurses and orderly were scared I was going to fall, too. I was a trembling, crying mess. But they somehow helped lower me to the board and slide me back to the safety of my little bed island. I was so worn out from this ordeal that I could barely move.
It was a start.
A few days later, I was thrilled to be able to I transfer myself, without help, into a wheelchair. To celebrate, my best friend, Arleen, and her brother, Martin, took me for a spin around the hospital. It was a cold, late-January day, but I told them it didn’t matter – I had to breathe fresh air and feel the sun, if only for a few seconds. I did it, and it was glorious. We continued our indoor excursion, but after about fifteen minutes I was spent.
It didn’t help that I wasn’t eating. When first admitted to Shock Trauma, I was hooked to an NG tube, a feeding tube inserted through the nose that provides hydration and nutrition. Once that was removed, I continued to receive IV fluids and was offered cans of nutrition shakes benignly labeled as “chocolate,” “vanilla,” and “strawberry.” Privately, I thought of them as “pretty bad,” “vile,” and “the pink shit.” But the nurses insisted, so I tossed back those loathsome concoctions until I couldn’t manage another mouthful.
I was rewarded for my effort with solid food: Trays of sometimes-recognizable vegetable, starch, and protein combinations fresh from hell’s kitchen. My personal favorites were the fifty-shades-of-gray meatloaf and brick-baked chicken. (Not to be confused with chicken baked in a brick oven.) I’d usually manage to swallow a couple bites, especially after the nurses explained that my healing was slowed by my lack of eating.  When the nutrition shakes showed up on my tray again, and I got the hint. So I tried my best to eat more.
"Fifty-shades-of-gray" hospital meatloaf 

Maybe this is where I should explain why this is so bizarre. My problem has always been making myself stop biting and swallowing, not this weirdly anorexic relationship with food. The nurses said it was due to my pain medications and the constant general anesthesia, but my guess is the complete absence of salt, flavor, or real butter had a lot to do with it, too. The only time I had any appetite was when someone smuggled in actual food for me. The hottie brought me chicken noodle soup. A friend who owned a coffee shop in Baltimore brought me homemade soups and sandwiches. Arleen and another friend, Frank, brought me cranberry juice, teas, fresh fruit, and soups. (Yes, soup was my fave.) But it was a real challenge to eat the hospital food.
I remember how thrilled I was when, two days before I was to be discharged from University of Maryland, my dinner tray was delivered with a “VIP” card placed on it, along with a cloth napkin instead of the usual paper variety. I glanced at the covered plate, then looked expectantly at my nurse.
“Why does this say ‘VIP?’”
She shrugged. “Maybe because you’re an author.”
“Uh, OK. But why now? I’ve been here almost three months.”
“Maybe they just noticed,” she said.
I perked up. “Does this mean the food will be better?”
“No. It means you get a cloth napkin.”
Near the end of my last round of rehab, friends started bringing me treats. I had no interest in them. Arleen smuggled in some Thai coconut shrimp and it was delicious, but I could only eat a few bites.
The next culinary shock came when I was discharged for good. Imagine the abject horror of my fellow romance writers who were there to greet me on the day I came home. I found my house stacked to the rafters with chocolate, and I had to tell them the sad truth – I’d lost my taste for it. Along with my taste for coffee, sweets in general, Doritos, melted sharp cheddar, and anything too fatty, salty, or rich. In other words, every staple known to the romance writing community. It was downright blasphemy.
Thank God that once I started physical therapy and got back in the gym with my trainer, my muscles began to rebuild. And once I weaned myself off all narcotic pain meds, my appetite roared back to its previous vigor. I must report that coffee, chocolate, and cheese have reclaimed their proper place in my life, and I’m back to my familiar goal of trying tame my appetite, not boost it.
Goodbye extra-skinny chicken leg! Hello Extra Crispy KFC!

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