Thursday, October 21, 2004

Fun with gurneys

Yesterday was quite an adventurous one in my little world. It was supposed to be a routine day. My latest column had been published (more on that later), so I went downstairs early and grabbed the paper. This little ritual of mine seems to become more quaint as autumn wears on - I end up reading it in a darkened kitchen, surrounded by total silence, with only the cat at my feet to keep me company.

And so it begins

As I was scanning my article and other opinion pieces around it, I realized I didn't feel all that well. Simplistically, I could have called it a tummy ache, but it quickly became much worse than that. Although I've never been beaten up, I imagine that it would have been similar to what I was feeling now: my lower abdomen felt as if someone had kicked it really hard. Regardless, I still tried to read the paper, only by now the words weren't having any impact on my brain.

When I felt my head go light and my skin go clammy, I decided to head back upstairs to the relative safety of bed. The thought of face-planting onto a hard floor while everyone else slept suddenly terrified me.

I figured a few minutes lying down would relax me enough to get back into the usual morning routine and get on with my day. Wrong. The pain worsened, and I started envisioning ambulance rides and hovering doctors and nurses.

My wife said I looked white as a ghost. I kind of felt like one, but didn't have enough energy to muster a funny response. The kids all came into our room and gently climbed into bed with me to make sure I was OK.

A quick time out - Carmi 'n docs 'n drugs

I thought now would be a good time to let you know how I generally feel about doctors and hospitals and the like. I'm the kind of person who almost never takes anything for a headache. I'd rather live with the pain and tough it out than submit to the easy way out. I believe I inherited it from my Mom, but I'm not entirely sure.

I go for my regular checkups and do a pretty good job staying healthy and strong (the biking and all that helps, as does having a wife who can outcook Martha.) But when I get sick, my first inclination is to work it out at home. I'll go to the Doc if I think it's more than a mere cold. But simple things like aches and pains I'm just as likely to try to get through on my own.

Why today was different

The aside above illustrated why everything changed when I told my wife I thought I needed to go to the hospital. I was bypassing the tried-and-true neighborhood Doc and going right for the big stuff. That was pretty much all she needed to know: I was hurting. Her voice immediately changed as she shifted into another gear.

So off the kids went into the car. I quickly called work and left a message, barely able to get the words out. My wife said she'd call the rest of my day's appointments/deliverables and let them know (funny how fast a schedule can be disassembled.) I tossed on my sweats and trench coat and walked like an old man to the car.

Getting there

I didn't want my wife to be late for work - she teaches, and I figured that was a little more important than my boo-boo - so I insisted she let me off a few blocks away from the hospital so she wouldn't have to detour too far out of her way.

Bad move. Walking was hard. I'm sure passers-by thought I was drunk. It easily took me twice as long to negotiate the few short blocks to the ER. Worse, the weather was cold and incredibly damp and added to my overall sense of misery. I did see a really beautiful tree along the way with red leaves that almost glowed. And for the first time this season, I tightened my big, soft coat and turned up the collar. So it wasn't a total loss.

The patient patient

As soon as I walked in, everything changed. Unlike all those times when I've been a visitor to those who are ill, I was on the other side of the equation. I no longer had the sense that I would simply chat with whoever, then leave. I had no idea where this was going to end up, when I was going to leave, and what I was going to go through between now and then. It was somewhat unsettling, but I decided worrying about it wouldn't improve matters.

I explained my predicament to the triage nurse, who listened to my whining, jotted down the particulars and sent me to another nurse who gave me a funky bracelet and asked me to wait to be called. There was only one other person in the waiting room - I guess morning is a good time to get sick.

Long story short

This post risks becoming a blow-by-blow accounting of my day, so I'll cut to the chase. I spent the entire day at the hospital, evolving very gradually from a room deep inside the rabbit warren of the ER to the ultrasound department upstairs, and ultimately to a central spot in the hall where I got to watch paramedics bring in a never-ending stream of new patients.

I was poked, prodded, tested and analyzed from every angle imaginable - and a few that I hadn't previously imagined - and was ultimately sent home with a prescription. They couldn't tell me precisely why I woke up in such pain - "maybe an infection" seemed to be the general concensus - but they were confident I wasn't suffering from some sort of horrible affliction. So home I went, just in time for supper. I'm hanging out at home today, still hurting, but nowhere near as acutely as yesterday. I'll take it as easy as my Type-A personality allows, and will hopefully be able to get back to the office tomorrow.

A number of observations

When you're sitting in a gurney on the other side of the patient/visitor equation, you realize many things:
  • There's always someone there who's worse off than you. The ravages of illness, age, and life in general seem to converge on the people who are brought into (notice word choice) the ER. If you haven't counted your blessings today, feel free to do so now.
  • Time becomes immaterial. Each step in the troubleshooting process depends on the availability of the next resource in the chain. It's normal to wait an hour or two between "events". Which is one ever said healing had to be delivered by a drive-through window.
  • You are disconnected from the outside world. As a sort of extension to the above, you have no idea what's going on outside. Indeed, the complete lack of windows, combined with the catacomb-like maze of the jumble of buildings and additions that make up the facility render you completely unable to tell what direction you're facing, where you're going, or how yo'ure going to get back to where you started. A GPS receiver would work wonders here.
  • We should all be thankful that we have access to the world's greatest health care system. Maligned as it is, it somehow manages to work.
  • Visitors matter, immensely. You have no idea how much you cherish a friendly face. When my wife managed to find me and spent the rest of the day with me, my stress level dropped by a couple of orders of magnitude because I no longer had to go through this alone. I can only imagine the multiplier effect on someone who spends days or weeks in hospital for something more significant (belay that: I practically grew up in a hospital...I should remember this better!)
  • People care, immensely. You can look, but you likely won't find people more expert or more dedicated to their calling than those in a hospital.


Oz said...

I was in the ER with abdominal pain last February. Trust me when I say I know exactly what you mean when you say you were poked and proded in a way you "hadn't previously imagined." Uh-huh. Right with you. They were also unsuccessful in finding anything wrong with me. The pain I had experienced subsided very quickly once they said that they couldn't find anything wrong, and I felt better by that night (I went in to the ER in the middle of the night and left in the morning).

Wheelson said...

Ok first...feel free to cut to the chase at the START by explaining that everything is ok before relaying a hospital story.

My wife had a similar experience...severe pain, sick enough to go to ER but regardless of tons of tests and scans, and a very long time spent waiting in the ER, we got sent home. After a few hours things got better and it turned out to be just normal sickness. Maybe it's a certain kind of flu? The "Kick You in the Belly" Flu?

Tara said...

Hope you're feeling better soon, Carmi!

Leanne said...

I hope you are feeling better soon Carmi.
Works not the same without you.


Dean said...

I have to say that I agree with your general assessment. Last year, I had an operation that men my age who have finished having children get. All went well until an infection flared up.

I think it was the most equisitely painful thing that I have endured. I ended up going for a course of IV antibiotics to nuke the thing.

opinionatedguy said...

Well Carmi, your post brought back memories for me (I'm returning the favor). Last year I went to Emergency because of abdominal pain and ended up staying for 5 days. You certainly do appreciate the care you get when you are basically helpless and at their mercy. I could have done without the quasi-frat party that the nurses were having outside of my room at 3:00 am each morning, though. Glad you're doing better and, as I learned, it's important not to hesitate to go to the hospital if you think it's necessary.

Carmi said...

Thanks, everyone, for your kind wishes and warm thoughts. I can't tell you how much I appreciate your sentiments.

I've always contended you can tell who matters and who doesn't by how they respond when others are in need. I learned a lot about some folks in my immediate sphere.

The ones who mattered were right there, calling the house, offering to drop everything to take the kids and do whatever they could. So many people - like all of you - stopped what they were doing to drop me a line or call to say they were thinking of me and my brood. It reinforced my belief that people are fundamentally good.

The ones who didn't matter also showed their colors by simply not even blinking. Some of the Non-Matterers surprised me, as I had expected better from them. At the very least, it helps me prioritize who, from this point forward, gets my time and attention and who does not. It's an opportunity to focus on the good ones, a filtering, if you will.

Hopefully, the weekend will enable me to get fully back up to speed so I don't feel so vindictive :)

Wheelson said...

Yup, exactly. That's exactly what happens. It's an aweful lesson to learn made even worse by the time and place in which you learn it.

Danya said...

Holy Smokes Carmi! I'm certainly glad that you're feeling better. I had no idea that you hadn't been well. It sucks to be sick and it can be scary! It's always reassuring to have people that you can rely on to help take care of you, even if you thik that you can just wait it out or sleep it off.

My meningitis memories from this past August are still quite vivid and your descriptions of the poking and prodding are right on the money. This spinal tap will only take a minute...Here, bite down on this towel. Ow!

As you said too, there's always someone sicker than you. Even though I was in tremendous pain, I certainly didn't begrudge the guy coming in on the ambulance his VIP pass into the ER. The quarantine room they put me in later was actually rather cosy...

I also experienced the Non-Matterers. And I was also surprised. The Non-Matterers don't matter to me as much as they once did and the people who were there for me matter even more.