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I didn’t think I was dying.
When I thought of hospitals, I thought about death. I thought about cancer and incurable diseases. Maybe it was because of my long-term love affair with “Grey’s Anatomy” that I didn’t think of going to the ER when the pain first came. After seeing the weekly guests involved in traumatic accidents with bombs, plane crashes, and sharknados, I knew what a serious injury was. I just had a stomachache.
My initial thought wasn’t, “I should go to the ER.” It was, “Eh I’m probably constipated.”
My mom had similar views when I called her from school. “You don’t eat enough vegetables,” she said, “Take some laxatives.” I had no reason to think anything could possibly be wrong. I was a relatively healthy junior in college who maybe had an unhealthy addiction to coffee and “The Sims.”
I stayed in bed for a week and I couldn’t eat anything. I had begun to notice my stomach distending. I was so nauseous, but I’ve always been afraid of throwing up. I hadn’t vomited in nine years and I wasn’t about to break my record.
The nausea wouldn’t go away after eight days, so I finally went to see my doctor. He performed some minor physical tests on me before diagnosing. It took 10 minutes.
“A virus,” he told me, “If you had something like appendicitis, you would be in a lot more pain right now.”
I even felt better when I went back to bed.
I woke up the next day feeling like my insides were being cut open. It was worse than the most intense period cramps. It was what a magician’s assistant would feel actually getting sawed in half. I walked around my house hunched over like Quasimodo. I feared that I was in one of those “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant” situations, like that “Grey’s Anatomy” episode I re-watched last night.
The day after that, I had to slap my face in the shower to keep myself from passing out. I went back to my doctor’s practice and was urged to go to the hospital for a CT scan. My mom drove.
We were the only ones parked outside the hospital. Someone rushed over to ask if I needed a wheelchair. I said, “Nah I’m good.” I was thinking about the people who would need a wheelchair after coming out of a burning building or after getting stabbed. I didn’t need it. I clutched my stomach with every small step, checked myself in with my mom at my side, and I was put on hardcore pain medication and an IV.
The E.R. was pretty quiet. I saw two people sleeping and some lady was told she had to have her gallbladder removed, but that was about it. No one was running around yelling medical jargon, or pushing a guy on a gurney with a pole stuck in his head. I was a little disappointed.
A bunch of white coats and nurses kept scurrying in and out of my little section in the E.R. to ask me questions, run tests, and send me to get scans. They looked a little nervous. After four hours, they finally had an answer for my pain. I had severe abdominal infections from a burst appendix. There were so many abscesses that they couldn’t even see the appendix on the films. I finally felt like I belonged in a “Grey’s Anatomy” episode. I was close to dying. Insert Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” here.
A surgeon had two drains put in my abdomen to start siphoning out pus from the abscesses. I don’t remember anyone doing it. I was careful not to look at the tubes so I wouldn’t break my no barf streak.
The Intensive Care Unit became my new home. I was the youngest patient on the floor by 80 years. I had my own nurse and pain medication whenever I wanted, but I wasn’t allowed to eat or drink anything. All I wanted was a drink, one drink to savor, a cold, sweaty drink that would damage a coffee table. My mouth was a desert. Sometimes the nurse would feel really bad and sneak me one tiny ice chip. I was an addict: “Hey, can you hook me up with an ice chip? Just one, man.”
According to the surgeon, I was “too weak and dehydrated” for surgery when I was admitted. I asked him for some more ice chips. The next day I had another scan, which showed the infection was getting worse. By the evening, I had developed a high fever and started to show signs of sepsis, or blood poisoning. The surgeon was called at midnight to perform emergency surgery. That’s when I really knew I was a dying patient.
It wasn’t the pain. It wasn’t the tubes. It was the nurses and residents saying, “Everything’s going to be okay, you won’t feel a thing” and “Dr. X is going to take great care of you.” Add my dad interrogating the surgeon about his credentials, and my mom telling me not to cry while she’s crying, and you have one nervous Kelly.
The last thing I remember is being pulled into the operating room and hearing a song repeat, “Don’t let me go. Don’t let me go. Don’t let me go…”
When they opened me up, it turned out my appendix had dissolved in infection, leaving a hole in my colon. The surgeon placed a cecostomy tube, or what I call a, “temporary poo bag,” through my abdomen because my colon was too infected to stitch up. All of my abdominal organs were inflamed with infection and my fallopian tubes had collapsed. I had multiple abscesses throughout my abdomen and several around my intestines that could not be removed so they put more drain tubes in. I also had a six-inch deep vertical incision left open to drain.
The surgeon said, “You had the most severe case of appendicitis I have ever seen.”
He waited a moment for me to let it sink in.
“Are you confident in your work?” I asked, totally out of it.
He looked at me assertively, “Yes, yes I am.”
I just had to make light of the situation. That’s all you can do when you have six tubes, a poo bag, and the need for pain medication every hour on the hour. I told my nurse and the surgeon I looked like a Christmas tree with all the tubes hanging off of me. They laughed a little. My medical student sister loved it. We both have the same twisted sense of humor.
I remained in the ICU for 11 days where I endured high fevers, pancreatitis, residents changing my wound dressings at 5 a.m., and Bravo’s TV programming.
I moved to the recovery floor and this time I was the youngest patient on the floor by 50 years. I remained there for 22 more days while tubes were added and removed to drain out whatever was left. I had friends and family supporting me every day, including my awesome aunt who works as a nurse in Haiti and my uncle who drove them both from Columbus, Ohio. My sister sat with me in the mornings, and my mom did the rest of the day.
I was finally released over a month later. It was weird being admitted into the hospital in a winter coat, and leaving on a warm spring day. I’ll never forget that first breath of fresh air after a month of hell. I was finally on the road to recovery.
Three months later, I awoke late at night with the familiar pain wrenching in my gut. My surgeon had said whenever I felt anything out of the ordinary, I needed to go to the doctor or the hospital. At first I didn’t want to go because it was so late and I didn’t want to make my family get up if it was just gas or something. I got over it quickly because I wanted the pain to go away. My mom and my sister took me to the E.R.
I was a VIP from the moment I entered. Everyone knew my name, and I was given the finest painkillers and warm socks. I had more scans, more tests, and more questions.
“Are you sure you had your appendix removed?” a surgical resident asked.
“Yes. We were just here a few months ago.”
The original surgeon was on vacation so another surgeon pulled me into a private room in the early afternoon to tell my family and I that I had acute appendicitis.
Everyone freaked out. My mom was yelling at the surgeon, my dad was yelling at the surgeon, and I was just in awe of the situation. I laughed for a bit, and then cried.
I had the surgery, again, and the surgeon finally removed my appendix. A small section of my colon needed to be removed as well. My parents requested photographic proof as well and he obliged with a cell phone photo.
So what the hell happened? We still haven’t received a full explanation, but there were a few theories.
1. Because the infection was so bad originally, it’s possible that the surgeon couldn’t see the appendix and just assumed it had dissolved.
2. The appendix dissolved partially, but healed itself.
Luckily the recovery for this stay was a lot easier. I only had one tube for drainage and I stayed at the hospital for a little over a week.
I did learn a lot through this weird experience. You cannot ignore discomfort or pain. Even if you think it’s nothing, go see a doctor, and if you’re not happy with what they’re saying, get a second opinion.
I also learned just how much money every little thing is in the hospital. I can’t imagine someone without medical insurance going through it. My bills in total were close to $1 million for the duration of my stays. I can see why it’s scary for people to not want to get checked out, for fear of having to pay so much money.
Bottom line though, if you feel sick, you shouldn’t think that nothing’s wrong. Get it checked out before it gets worse! Otherwise, you could end up really sick and with a scar that makes your stomach look like a butt.
And if you were wondering if I vomited during this entire experience, the answer is no. I am going on 10 years of no barf.