It’s twenty minutes to the new hospital on Thompson Peak Parkway. Bernie drives, and I dry heave into a plastic bag, then gasp for air. Bernie asks how I’m doing? “Not good. Just go. Go.”
“What do you think it is?” she says.
But it’s impossible to think — my head hurts too much now, and later it will be useless anyway. Thinking will have so little do with the next week of my life that its place in the hierarchy of my nervous system will be forever altered.
The emergency room lobby is so large, amply furnished and empty as to seem unfinished and possibly useless, like some pre-grand opening resort where we’re going to be sold timeshares. I make it to the nurse’s station with my bag of vomit spittle and focus my faculties on getting them up to speed. But the nurses apparently have no interest in speed, responding instead with enforced calm, even disinterest. They’ve seen it all before, their tone tells me, their expertise coming at the expense of all novelty. Nothing is new about my situation, it seems, and for my own good, nothing is more important right now than my name, address, date of birth, social security number and contact information.
Finally, we fill out enough forms that they can put me in a wheel chair and wheel me to a bed, where they cut the shirt off my back and plug me into morphine.
I’d woken at around five in the morning to use the toilet, but by the time I reached it, nausea had overtaken me and I vomited, my back surely bending and pulling in ways it’s not yet ready to just two days after an outpatient surgery for a ruptured disc. Bernie said the bed was soaked. We thought it was sweat, but it was cerebral spinal fluid, CSF, which keeps the brain properly afloat, leaking from the surgical wound at the base of my back.
The surgeon who performed the discectomy is not answering his phone, and doesn’t check in until hours later, when he orders me moved to his hospital at Osborn Rd. A twenty-minute ambulance ride that will appear as a $1000 line item on my insurance statement takes me there.
But a different surgeon shows up that night. Surgeon One was called away to California on Air National Guard duty. Surgeon Two says: “There was probably a tear in the spinal dura. It could have just been a pinprick. But we need to stitch it up.” He spends ten minutes with me, and schedules this second surgery for two days out.
Morphine makes this make sense, but I am leaking CSF at such a rate as to soak my bed through a bandage and a pad. After a day, the head nurse starting her midnight shift calls the surgeon, insisting I need surgery now, probably saving my life. An MRI is ordered. The pain of moving to a wheeled bed is exceeded only by the absurd agony of lying in the MRI tube, back flattening down on its own displaced nerves, and having to hold still for it. As the MRI tech rolls me back, the hospital in the middle of the night is as timeless as a casino.
I request to be anesthetized for surgery so I don’t have to crawl mewling onto the room bed only to grovel and groan my way to a rolling bed again, but at the nurse’s station, they want me back in the bed. I object, to the degree someone in my condition can object to anything. A doctor — tall, bald and of ambiguous purpose with the bedside manner of a bureaucrat out of Kafka — steps in, telling me to “calm down”, as if I’m threatening public disorder. The nurse again intervenes for me and I am anesthetized where I lie. As I sign off on the surgery, I learn from her it’s July 9th. “What a birthday,” she sighs on my behalf.
I come to cracking one-liners I don’t remember by the time they leave my lips. I see the nurse smiling. I see Bernie smiling. And I didn’t know why. They explain to me I was making jokes, like an actor poking his head through the curtain of anesthesia to deliver one last line. The surgeon had told Bernie he found an advanced staph infection in my spine. Looking shaken, he said: “I think I got all of it.”
Massive anti-biotic IV’s to resist the staph’s return make nausea a constant companion, which I combat primarily with Percocet on the hour, mainly because it’s less stupefying than the rufie-like anti-nausea drug on offer. The nurse, a handsome young man on speed himself, judging by his rapid-fire conversation, readily complies.
A day later, Surgeon One, whose patient I technically remain, pokes his head in the door, and not recognizing me, pulls back, thinking he’s in the wrong room. He must have checked with the nurse, because finally he does enter, asks a few cursory questions, then leaves quickly, as if he still can’t quite place me.
Who is this invalid? A physical therapist shows me how to roll myself upright in bed, flop my legs over the side, and follow them to the floor. She holds me with a canvas belt around my waste, so I don’t topple, and I shuffle as far as the nurses station where they gape at my acute case of pillow-head, a medusa shaped record of my ordeal. Due to the loss of CSF, I can stand upright for only minutes before crushing headaches, chills and nausea over take me. As I turn back, my glance strays into rooms with patients bound to their beds by all manner of rigging, and I fix my eyes forward; I have no margin for sympathy.
I’m too busy not vomiting and finding some kind of position in bed that hurts less, wheeling my IV stand with me to the toilet to pee, and watching the Water Channel, which shows lakes and streams and waves breaking on the beach. They check my legs for signs of paralysis. They take my blood constantly to measure my SED number, which detects infection by measuring the amount of sedimentation in the blood. But it almost doesn’t matter. I am in a tunnel, made of my own focus, and the focus of others; together we are seeing me through this. Bernie visits me, and Jim and Ilana, and Kevin and Ori, Lori, Juanita and others. Their names are the litany of my healing.
A surgical nurse inserts a pic line into my right bicep, a plastic spigot that dangles out of my arm, which they can tap to pump in antibiotics and draw out blood instead of pricking me with a needle each time. The Kafka doctor stops by, and with an air of friendly skepticism, as if detecting a whiff of freeloading in all this pain and nausea, asks me how I’m doing. He makes some notes on his clipboard, walking away like a cop who’s generously decided to let me off this time.
Lori, a nurse, helps me take a shower. I wear a plastic glove and sleeve that extends to my shoulder to protect the pic line from wetness. Back in bed, the sleeve is still on when the infectious disease doctor comes in, startling him as he shakes my hand. “I believe in safe handshake,” I tell him. Bernie laughs, further startling the doctor who apparently didn’t account for her quiet, magazine-reading presence either. Dr. Salas, the first doctor I meet not entirely self-contained and implacable, I like immediately, even though he will insist on maintaining my sickeningly high levels of antibiotics for the next two months.
Before, during and after the surgery, I go days without eating. This fast clears my palette so the detergent in the sheets, the hand sanitizer pumped from a wall dispenser, the flowers brought by friends, all are overwhelmingly smelly. Now I start eating again. I gain enough strength to watch TV other than the Water Channel. I walk a couple times a day, not for very long, but I am improving.
During the operation, if things had gone wrong, as they threatened to, I would have died completely unaware. Yet every cell of me fought to defeat the staph infection, to survive the surgery, to live. My healing seems to happen without me as well. That is, I am happening, but have little mental part in it. The critical work of returning to life occurs as if in another department from my brain, whose main job is to stay out of the way.
On the sixth day, the Kafka doctor comes in to tell me it’s time to check out, a certain amiable sternness in his tone, as if, my goodness, this tomfoolery has gone on long enough, hasn’t it? Then he softens, and with a literal wink, promises me generous prescriptions of Vicadin and Percocet if I’ll agree. Realizing we are negotiating, I decline. There are people in life one should say no to on principal alone, but I’m also scared; how will I function on the outside? Who will I be?
On the seventh day, the insurance asserts its biblical authority, and I’m required to check out. A volunteer steers my wheel chair towards the front door to meet Lori who will see me home. This girl just moved from Seattle, she tells me, and is volunteering as a way to meet people. Wheeling me down the hallway, she tries to meet me. “So how long have you lived in this area?”
A grunt is all I can spare her as I swallow back nausea and tears. At the hospital sliding doors, with the Scottsdale summer burning outside, my head is trying to take charge again, but the balance of power has shifted, and feeling is flooding me like the rising water table of a permanently changed landscape, as I exit one world and enter the next.
Joe Bardin is a writer and messaging strategist. Joe’s creative nonfiction is upcoming in Rock and Sling and has appeared in Outside In Magazine, JMWW, Eclectica, Burrow Press Review, Toad Suck Review, and the futurist magazine, Immortal Life, among others. His plays have been performed and well reviewed. His screenplay, Seeing Maya, is in development with Alive Productions. (www.joebardin.com)