This semester has certainly not been without a its fair share of excitement, but the most noteworthy event so far is without a doubt my surgery at the beginning of the month.
Let me preface this by saying, quite simply, I have a deep, paralyzing fear of three things in this world: vomit, needles and germs. I have vivid childhood memories of having to be physically restrained in order to get shots. I steer clear of people who catch stomach bugs for weeks after they recover and wash my hands until they crack and bleed. As a result, I am as fond of hospitals as I am of airports or gas station bathrooms or E. coli. I had done a successful job of avoiding them, too, until the end of this September.
I was sick. I was viciously sick. I was so sick I could barely sit up. At first, I chalked it up to a nasty stomach bug or food poisoning. It’ll go away, right? I spent my waking moments in a hypochondria-fueled haze, alternating between WebMD’s symptom checker (which declared “appendicitis” or “cancer” no matter how I typed in my symptoms) and e-mailing the school nurse. It’s going to just go away, right? I sat in a terrified fever-dream. Hours and hours later, when I couldn’t even muster the energy to play Fallout, I could ignore the signs no more. It was with great anguish that I made my way to the Ospedale Civico’s pronto soccorso (emergency room).
Wendy, my dear friend and the on-duty RA, helped me catch a cab to the hospital. With our combined Italian skills (read: Wendy did the talking), we explained my symptoms and they told me to sit in the waiting room. After about an hour, a nurse came and took my temperature and gave me some pain medicine. I was bored and my stomach was in blazing agony, but the room was almost empty and Wendy and I just sat and chatted. Two more hours later, however, and our patience (and the pain medicine) was wearing thin. Wendy had responsibilities on campus and had to take off.
I sat alone in the ER and tried not to think about the woman next to me who was periodically running out of the room to vomit. The waiting room was slowly filling up with people and there was no end in sight. I had almost reached my limit after another two hours of waiting, at which point the pain medicine was completely gone and I was completely stir-crazy. I debated just leaving. I’m probably overreacting. This is a waste of time, I thought to myself. I went up to the desk and asked the nurse for more medicine. She seemed startled so see that I was still there. Never a good sign. She just nodded and told me it would be another half an hour.
I arrived at the hospital at 14:30. I was admitted at 20:45. By that point, I was physically and mentally exhausted. The nurse hooked me up to an IV (I was so worn out at this point that I didn’t even flinch at the needle) and some glorious pain medication. I sat in a trance brought on by resignation, medication and exhaustion. Doctors and nurses came in and poked and prodded; they took a blood test, a CT scan, and an ultrasound. My doctor spoke English fluently, but many of the nurses and technicians did not. Quite a few instructions were lost in translation to some degree or another, the most notable occasion being the contrast CT scan. Before the radiologist injected the contrast dye, he pointed at me and said simply, “two minutes, very hot.” The contrast dye produces a strange hot-flash, as if someone is lighting your veins on fire or replacing your blood with boiling water. As the eery feeling spread from my stomach out through my fingers, I thought numbly, “Oh, that’s what he meant.”
The final verdict was appendicitis. By 2:30 in the morning, they had called in an anesthesiologist and a surgeon who introduced themselves to me and handed me paperwork. I still have no idea what I signed; when I asked about it, I got a noncommittal response about needing permission to do some things. They had me document the amount of money I had in my wallet so that none of it went walkabout. They let me call my family to tell them the news. Then, it was time for surgery.
“Wait,” I stopped the anesthesiologist. “I’m terrified. Absolutely terrified.”
“I can fix that,” he said. “You Americans are always so scared.”
He whipped out a syringe, shot something into my IV, and in an instant I was so content that I barely remember being wheeled into the OR.
I awoke, quite literally, in a blur. The nurses had misplaced my glasses, and so I looked aimlessly about the fuzzy orange room in despair. I tried shifting around and, to my great dismay, found I was connected to numerous tubes and instruments. I vaguely remember my surgeon coming in, and I remember a couple of frenzied conversations with the nurses about 1) my glasses and 2) the plastic tubing protruding from my gut. The nurses in the surgical recovery ward spoke much less English than even the ER nurses had. I spent much of the day in a silent, blurry, post-anesthesia, glassesless fog.
Later, both my uncle’s brother, Raz, and the school nurse, Chris, showed up. Chris found my glasses and Raz sat and kept me company for the rest of the afternoon. My vision restored, I was able to see that my room had 4 beds and an awesome view of the lake. I chatted with Chris and Raz as well as with the girl in the bed across from me.
Hospitals are boring. My bedrest was so uneventful that it was a thrill to be able to walk across the hall to the bathroom. In the mornings, I endured the awkward silence and then the doctors’ morning rounds. In the afternoons, Raz sat and kept me company as long as he was allowed to, and I had visits from my awesome roommates. My mama was incredible and flew on the first flight she could out Switzerland to see me. She got in the day after my surgery, and sat with me for the rest of my recovery. I chatted with the lady in the bed to my right about her job as an acupuncturist and her studies in Santa Fe. People cycled through my room fairly quickly, and I tried to ignore the sounds of pain and the smells of the bedpans of my less fortunate sisters-in-medicine.
The nurses who were on shift by my second night spoke no English at all, and so we communicated through an array of facial expressions, shrugs and single-word questions (“dolori?”). My day-shift nurse was harsh and somewhat mean. My night-shift nurse was peppy and sweet. I made the mistake of asking my night-shift nurse for some anti-nausea medicine on one occasion. She nodded cheerfully and ran off, and then in a flash returned and jabbed a needle into my thigh. I didn’t ask for any more medicine after that.
Finally, the day came when I was allowed to remove the tubing from my gut and leave my wretched plastic bed. I clutched my mama’s hand so tightly my knuckles were white as harsh day-shift nurse began to pull on the surgical tubing. She tugged and tugged and, 8 inches of agony and flared plastic later, I was free of my medical shackles. I met with my doctors one last time, got my discharge papers, and was officially allowed to leave. We gathered my things and took off (well, crept out the hall and down the stairs and then had to take a break at the benches. I had the stamina and movement capabilities of a 90-year-old).
My mama and I stayed in a local hotel until I was strong enough to walk again. She nursed me back to health and kept me in far better spirits than I was in in the hospital. Unfortunately, she had to depart for home, and I had to get back to classes. C’est la vie. I’ll be leaving my appendix in Switzerland, and all I’ve got to show for it are a couple of scars and a sheet of paper that says “Diagnosi: Appendicite acuta gangrenosa.”
That’s right, bitches. Gangrene.