Watershed

I wrote this piece about 1 1/2 years ago, on the 7th anniversary of my colectomy surgery. I have been free from Crohn’s colitis flares for over 5 years, though almost 10 years ago, the disease threatened my life.

Seven years ago I was preparing for major abdominal surgery. Friends of mine gathered on two occasions in the few days before the surgery to wish me well with my surgery through song, music, and cheers (literally). They helped me to prepare for the challenges ahead.

It is strange to me that it was seven years ago. Seven years is one-fifth of my life! Indeed, so much has changed since that era of my life. At that time, my health hung on a tenuous brink and every day was difficult…and pain, exhaustion, and debilitation were my constant companions. I was physically spent.

Parts of the day of my surgery I can remember as if they happened yesterday. Parts of that day are a complete blur. And a good chunk of that day is completely absent from my memory and my consciousness; I was under general anesthesia.

It was an elective surgery. I chose to have my colon and appendix removed, and yet, at the time, it seemed like I did not have a choice. In the 15 months prior to the surgery, I had been hospitalized three times, each for about two weeks. Each hospitalization involved massive amounts of intravenous steroids that gave me insomnia, doctor-ordered two-week long fasts (and I mean no water and no food whatsoever), parenteral nutrition (my only food was intravenous), and severe inflammation of my intestines. The inflammation was so severe that my colon almost burst several times, which could have killed me. With each hospitalization, I lost weight, I lost hair (my hair was falling out from malnutrition), and I lost a sense of myself as being able-bodied. And yet despite all of my losses, I gained insights. I gained clarity about what was truly important in my life. And I gained gratitude for the simplest of things – walking, eating, and sharing time with friends and family – everything was a gift.

On the morning of my surgery, my father and I went to see the collection of musical instruments from around the world that was located in the Smithsonian. We were in Washington, D. C. Unfortunately, we saw only a few instruments because the exhibit was largely closed off. We still enjoyed our visit though. And on the way to the hospital, we stopped in a park and practiced qi gong. My Dad had introduced me to qi gong about fourteen months beforehand, during the first hospitalization for Crohn’s colitis. It was wonderful to be able to practice qi gong with my father just then. I felt fortified and ready even though I had not eaten in two days.

At the hospital, we waited until they called upon me to do the surgical prep. The waiting part of the day is something of a blur for me. I remember going into the operation room about one hour before the surgery. I had thought I would be lying down, but the nurses positioned me on a special chair in which there was a sort of shelf about chest-high, where I was to rest my arms. It was sort of crucifix-ish, if that’s a word (that I just made up). I was a bit nervous and I tried to mindfully breathe with my anxiety. But the nurses thought I was anxious and they gave me a shot of Ativan, which is often used as a sedative before surgery. Within a few moments, I was completely out.

I woke up in the recovery room many hours later. I don’t know how many hours went by because I could not see a clock. Everything was surreal. I had to remind myself where I was. There was a cast around my whole torso and a tube down my throat. I couldn’t move, though I had no inclination to do so. I was barely awake. Everything seemed to be a dream – my body, my mental state, the room – they all floated in and out of my consciousness. I fell back asleep.

Hours later, in the middle of the night, I woke up to some of the most horrendous pain I have ever felt. The general anesthesia had been wearing off and I was hooked up to a pain pump. I could press a button and the pump would deliver pain medicines intravenously, but only once every eight minutes. Of course, I pressed it just about every 30 seconds to give myself the feeling that I was doing something to relieve the pain. I tried to breathe with the pain, but it was overwhelming. I cried loudly and a young medical student came by my side. I was practically hyperventilating, which was making the pain even more intense because my abdomen was bouncing somewhat with my breaths. This medical student, Amy, simply held my hand and stayed calm. She was so kind. And present. I could feel her kindness and how much she really wanted to help me to feel better. Just by wholly being there, she helped me to feel more peaceful. The medicines began to work and I was able to drift back to sleep. Of course, I woke up several more times throughout the night, whenever the medicines wore off, and felt the throes of my wounded abdomen.

In the few days that followed, I felt relatively good considering I had just had major surgery. I was happy that there had not been any major complications. My whole body was stunned, that was clear. But I was in good spirits. I practiced qi gong in the hospital bed. Friends visited me. My Dad made sure the doctors were treating me well and offered a lot of love and support. Forty-eight hours after the surgery, I went off of all pain medicines. I was still in pain, but it wasn’t nearly so bad as that first night. The doctors told me that my healing progress was “off the charts.” And the pain medicines made me groggy and zombie-like. I wanted to be as much myself as possible. I had to take steroid medicines, which were harsh enough on my body and mind. It was hard enough to stay present.

My father left and my sister, Liza, came in his stead. She helped me to convince the nurses to let me walk outside with my rolling IV stand, which was such a relief. I felt like I had been released from prison during those short walks. Liza was there for me everyday, as were my friends. La and Wendy visited and gave me a fabulous reiki treatment. The doctors granted me permission to leave the hospital soon after their visit. My sister helped me at home.

About a week after the surgery, I woke up with horrible pain. Liza took me to the hospital and we made the mistake of going to the chronic pain clinic instead of the emergency room. I had to endure an hour of questions and then more questions while I felt like I was being stabbed in my belly. My sister finally went up to the doctor and said something like, “Look lady, my sister is in a lot of pain; she needs the medicine, not more questions.” The events that followed led to me being readmitted to the hospital. I was hooked up to another pain pump and given some antibiotics and denied all food. It was the next morning that my sister walked almost two miles to the hospital with a heavy tray of pancakes for me. The doctors had not quite given me the okay to eat again, though thankfully that followed shortly thereafter. And with my shrunken stomach I could barely eat two pancakes. But they were so delicious. Liza had a special touch with all that she brought me.

Those were trying times. At the same time, there was so much richness in all of those experiences. It was a richness of love and human connections and kindness. I am so grateful for all who were truly present with their compassion and understanding. I can look at the scar on my belly without any sorrow. If anything, it is a reminder of all the love I was able to experience through those hellacious times. I believe in a kind of healing that transcends the narrow confines of conventional perspectives on health and illness. I was terribly sick seven years ago, but my heart was so well. The love and compassion I have received over the years has been the ground of my healing. For me, healing is a vigorous and sometimes clumsy movement towards wholeness. Writing these words now, as I bring these memories back into full view, I see how the experiences of “me” seven years ago shaped the “me” of today. I am more true to my heart now – the essence of me that feels connected and whole – because I saw through the suffering into what it could teach me. And it was my family and community of friends that ushered me towards this truth, for which I am deeply grateful.

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: The meaning of pain « Determined To Heal

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