Posted by: Kate | April 15, 2010

Simultaneous Emotions

A long hospitalization (at least, one which contains 10-plus surgeries – I can’t speak for the other sorts of stays) is, among other things, a seriously intensive crash course in several key topics.  You take Helplessness 101, Hypochondria I and II, Deference for Non-Majors, Honors Passivity, and at least 21 credits of Indignity for the minor.

The helplessness is the quickest learned, I think; things just hurt that shouldn’t hurt, things like rolling to your side or taking a deep breath.  You learn that you simply can’t do things, that you need help to clean your own nose, hands, face, nether regions; to take a sip of water; just everything.  You’re helpless, like it or not.  And me?  I leaned toward not.

Hypochondria, that’s not my normal scene.  I just kind of accept that we cohabitate with germs of all manner and sometimes they attack.  This time, they attacked me and won, hardcore… but even so, I wasn’t immediately converted to the Church of Hypochondria.  I was willing to accept the supremely unfortunate series of events that dumped me where I was without fearing the rest of the germs out there.  But watching as every medical staff person, administrative type, housekeeping employee donned protective gowns and gloves before entering my room, and immediately discarding them upon leaving, watching the laundry bins fill by noon even if there wasn’t a Grand Rounds (in which eight to ten students or residents trooped into my room, listened to a lecture about my case, and then filed out again, one or two occasionally bothering to make eye contact with me but none of them ever reaching the audacious point of acknowledging me as a person), that helped convert me.

Was I really that sick?  Were the microbes in my abdomen really that scary?  Apparently, yes – at least until I completed all three different courses of antibiotics.  Which, once I had done so, one of the doctors who had bothered to talk with (not just at) me, Bill, made a big display of tearing down the “NO CONTACT PRECAUTIONS FULL COVERAGE REQUIRED” signs that decorated the anteroom to my actual room.  A nice gesture from a nice guy, but by that point I had already received my membership card for the Hypochondria Church.  I’m slowly deprogramming myself now, but for a while in the hospital – and immediately post-discharge – you wash your hands at least as often as you obsess about germs, maybe more.

Deference, there’s something that’s about as foreign to my personality as one could imagine.  But after  just a short time with people standing over you, literally and physically talking down to you, you start to lose your edge.  When doctors impatiently listen to your opinion about any given thing and then ignore you, you learn to stop trying.  You just… fade out.  I’m popping back – just ask Willem, I’m sure he would love for me to defer more for just a little longer – but I’m not me yet.  Passivity has a heavy overlap, but it’s more with actions than words… stepping back when someone walks by, letting people take your dinner tray at their convenience instead of yours, that sort of thing.

And indignity.  I don’t even know if  I have the words for that one.  I spent eight days in a complete coma, medically induced, while they performed something more than ten surgeries. (I have the complete write-up, but haven’t memorized it just yet… it’s hard for me to read, that which they did to me at MGH to save my life.  It’s harder, to the point of impossible, for me to read that which they did not do at the other hospital – Willem got the medical records, and I have not been able to touch them, much less read them.)  After that, I had two or three days with perhaps a total of an hour or two awake, interspersed with very vivid, intense dreams and no warning when one state of consciousness would replace the other.  And then I was awake and asleep on roughly regular schedules, with lots of naps early on that slowly faded out and unpredictable periods of lucidity mixed with confusion.  So I don’t really know what was done to me, with which audiences, in those early times.

But I attained awareness and started to form memories again – my short-term memory is still spotty, but I am forming long-term memories again.  And thus I can remember the number of times that I had strangers stride into the room, lift my snazzy hospital johnny, and check my stomach, often without a word.  I can remember nurses cleaning me after complete incontinence.  I can remember just sobbing and hanging on for dear life, when they needed to change the linens but I couldn’t yet get out of bed, so I would be rolled from one side to the other as they did whatever needed to be done to the sheets.  And it was so painful to be on my side, and so scary because I was certain I was going to rupture something if I even breathed wrong, and so humiliating as the johnny fell open and I was just there, for all the world to see, and no one noticed.  Just no dignity at all, and except in the privacy of my own home I generally try to carry myself with some semblance of dignity.  And I generally succeed.

When I commented on it, I got a universal brush-off.  “Don’t worry about it, we all see so much of this that we’re immune to it.”  Great, it’s lovely to know that you’re so overimmersed in unintentional nudity and childlike sobbing and loss of bodily control that it doesn’t faze you; you’re in the right job.  But I’m not used to any of that.  I am, in fact, feeling a little bit traumatized by it all.  And now  that I’m home, I’m trying to regain things like a sense of privacy and pride and, just overall, dignity.

So those were all courses involved in hospitalization, but the major – and the one that has followed me home and I am continuing to take undesired coursework in it even now – has most certainly been Simultaneous Emotions.  I spent 36 days in the hospital.  I was so sick that, before I was airlifted to MGH, I heard one doctor tell another, “I hope she gets there in time for them to figure out what’s wrong.”  Others told my family that they had never had someone that sick, get better.  The original prognosis was that I would be in MGH for three months, and then a long-term acute care hospital, and then probably a rehab facility after that, and I might be home in the fall.  I am grateful, so unbelievably grateful, to be home and healing now.  It’s bigger than fortunate; I don’t know exactly to whom I should attribute my fast healing, some combination of the doctors and my own body and perhaps something bigger (I had long, long moments, especially in the evening hours when I was awake and the various check-ups and doctor visits were done, but it wasn’t yet bedtime, in which I truly wished I believed in some more tangible, solid religion, a God to lean on or a set of beliefs that someone else had put together to explain the whys of life… but I don’t, and it’s firmly on my list to find a way to find something that ties together what I can believe in.  Sometime.)… but I lived, and I am filled with gratitude.

I am also angry.  And resentful.  And lonely, hurt, frustrated, angry some more, in pain, sad… all at the same time.  They’re not at war with the gratitude, they’re co-existent.  I can hold more than one emotion, sometimes three or four, and parse them out and experience each one, a little bit like a juggler… I can spin those emotions all around so that all you see is the blur of them all mixed together, or I can spin the rest in the background and show you one, in full force.

This has continued since returning home, and is one of the reasons I’ve fallen off the blog since returning.  I have so many words, so many emotions, and some of them will not be committed to pixels because once they’re posted they’re permanent, and the most negative of them are also often the most fleeting.  I will be incoherently angry at something or someone, and I could write it out and show the world, but very often, it has faded within moments of when I would have clicked on “Publish,” and now I’ve thrown negativity out into the world and it wasn’t necessary.  I’m a firm believer that the more positive you push out into the universe, the higher your chance of having some of it bounce back and land on you… so why complain?  Why vent that rage?

Well, because venting is healthy and I shouldn’t keep it inside, and so on… sure.  Right.  Or I can live through it, kick a rock or glare at the cat for a while, and then get tired from the sheer magnitude of it all and close the computer and move on to other things.

So, yes, I’m home, and I do have stories to tell.  I want to write about the one moment of pure, unadulterated indignity, in which I demanded that an ICU fellow (i.e., fairly high-ranking doctor) take off his pants.  I want to tell you about my doctor at the long-term acute care facility (Can I just write LTACH and you’ll know what it means from now on?  Thanks.), assuming I can find the words to capture his uniqueness.  I want to tell you about the kids’ reaction when they learned that Jenny gave me a DS as an early birthday present.

And I will.  But not tonight, because it’s over 1700 words after I started and I need to take the baby so my mom can do her taxes.  And of course I need to write about her, too.

Bear with me.  I have lots to say, I just need to find a routine, and time away from the rage (which lessens a little each day, to be true), so that I can do it.



  1. And as you are ready to speak, I will be here to listen. One good turn deserves another, no?

    I saw a very deep thought in the comic strip, “Funky Winkerbean” today, I think it was. I won’t go into the story line, but one character said, “Chicken today, feathers tomorrow.” As long as the chickens outweigh the feathers in the long run, I think that sums life up pretty well. I wish you a little more chicken every day.

  2. The rage does subside, but it also reappears when you least suspect it. ‹sigh› It is a long fight; the rage decrease proportionately to the amount of time you are recovering. 😦 I’ve found it to be replaced by an understanding that all of those you raged against simply don’t understand the indignities they’ve foisted upon you. Nor do they feel that simply ignoring you as you speak fears and concerns is abnormal. You are not a person to most medical folk, you are a problem that needs solved. They want you to accept your place as an object in their world so they can get on with their job.

  3. Smaller things turn people into hypochondriacs. It takes a good long time to regain that sense of “I’m OK” — even for people who haven’t been through a hundredth of what you’ve been through.

    And yet… you told the doctor to take off his pants. I don’t even care about the circumstances. That alone makes you awesome.

  4. I look forward to hearing about it all! :OP

    Sending you a great big hug!

  5. should be required reading for people in the medical business….keep writing it down and putting it out there.
    BTW, a fellow is one step above a resident, but one step below a staff doctor…so he shoulda taken off his pants, trust me.
    Beth (MNKNIT, RN)

  6. I look forward to your stories…and also want to hear about Isaac and your reunion!

    Love you much!

  7. I am looking forward to “hear” it all. Especially all of the baby Isaac stories. Love to you all

  8. Just briefly: 31 years in direct patient care, and I still listen — and always will. It’s actually my favorite part of the job, truly listening.

    More later, but you do know that you have a book here, right? Keep writing, and sharing, and another suggestion: many medical and nursing schools have former patients come and speak on these issues of dignity, active listening, etc. When you’re farther out, and the kids more independent, you’ll know when it’s time. You have a gift to give others here, in time, if you choose to. I hope you will; articulating all this so eloquently is valuable to so many! Hugs…

  9. Hey there, I’m still reading, not always posting my thoughts about your thoughts, but always thinking of you. I’ll email you hon. Love you.

  10. I love the way you say things. Keep strong. I understand what you mean when you talk about the humiliation of bodily fluids. After I had my tubes tied I was quite numb from hear to there and there went splat and there was such a mess that it took three nurses to come and clean. Two for the bed, bedding, and floor, and one for me. Totally gross. Totally shocking to me. I didn’t even know until I got up that all THAT had happened. I feel your pain that way.

  11. Just smiling here, because you’re alive and you’re writing on your blog! I hope you gave them hell wherever and whenever you could.

  12. I support you totally in writing through the anger … and then hitting the ‘delete’ button. Or not. Let me know when that book is published – I’ll be first in line. I’m so so glad that you’re home.

  13. Great that your home Kate. I’ve been following on Facebook. Write it all down, all of it.

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