Most Surprises are Good Ones

After extolling the virtues of accepting life’s serendipitous gifts along the quotidian way, I got another big surprise. Ironic, I suppose, that I was surprised. It was, though, of a far less delightful sort: a quick descent into serious physical discomfort, followed by a trip to the hospital. Again. Only the third time in my entire life, yet the second time in less than a month. Not at all ‘life as planned.’

If you’re uncomfortable with reading about illness or medical stuff, skip the rest of this post and know that it’s about my having been sick but still being alive and well enough to write the post! And I’ll see you tomorrow. ‘Bye, now!

Saturday, sometime in the mid-morning, I started feeling less than fabulous. A slight pain around my middle started to come and go in varying waves, accompanied by a host of related symptoms that something unpleasant was lurking inside. From then into Monday evening, the symptoms worsened between shortening periods of calm. I was irritated, as much as anything, that I felt just as lousy as I had at the beginning of this month when I paid that previous visit to the Emergency Room and went home with a flu diagnosis and antibiotics, albeit feeling much better, on my release, for the ER treatment I’d received. It was more than a little irksome to think that I would have a case of gastroenteritis strong enough to make me think I had kidney stones not just once-ever, but twice in one month.

Monday night was kind of ugly. I already felt rotten at bedtime, enough so that I sent my spouse off to our bed by himself and tried to get comfortable enough to sleep elsewhere, since I felt too awful to lie flat. After hours of perching awkwardly this way and that on various pieces of furniture and the floor, alternated with pacing and a multitude of trips to the loo that were neither especially productive nor reassuring, I was no better, a bit worse, and much more anxious. I couldn’t even decide whether the success of those anti-nausea pills I’d been given but not needed after the weeks-ago hospital jaunt was that much of a boon, as (having taken one now) I was glad not to be spitting out my soul in a foul fountain of retching wretchedness, but still felt horridly nauseous. And I was loath to wake my beloved and have him drag me off to the ER again not only because I felt a bit like I was ‘crying wolf’ and just going to get hydrated, mollified, and sent off home again, but more importantly, because the upcoming day was the final day of recall-auditions for my guy’s larger university choir, after an already intense four days of preliminary auditions and the complicated, concentrated consideration of who would come together to make the fittest, most balanced choir out of the 180-some singers who had started the audition process.

All of that agonizing of his, and mine, went out the window by 3:30 yesterday (Tuesday) morning. I just plain felt horrible, and it wasn’t showing any signs of stopping. Fifteen minutes later we were off to the hospital again.

Photo: Are We Having Fun Yet?

Are We Having Fun Yet?

I had the good fortune to be taken in instantly and examined by the night’s ER team in rapid succession. I had virtually identical symptoms to those of my previous visit, so the tests and questions were pretty much as expected. The one benefit, I suppose, of my having waited longer this time was that although I’d had longer to feel bad, I’d also had those brief windows of feeling marginally better, and thinking I’d kicked the bug or it had at least retreated, I’d been able to eat a bit at times and, more importantly, drink fluids, so I wasn’t nearly so dehydrated. The immediate bonus of that being that on ER intake, I did actually have more than a half-teaspoon of fluid in my bladder when asked for a sample.

That ‘donation’ of mine should have been easily more healthy by mere reason of better hydration in the days and hours preceding the visit, but it was concentrated and looked orange. The latter, it emerged, was because it contained a bunch of red blood cells. To my surprise and, I think, to the ER doctor’s. Because everything was generally pointing flu-ward again. He’d generally ruled out appendicitis (yay!) and heart attack (YAY!), but said that this small curiosity was not one to be brushed off casually, so he sent me down the hall for a CT scan. Where, in a couple of pictures that looked comically like those prenatal sonograms with their adorable babies waving in amniotic bliss, my “baby” was a little alien blob, quite egg-like in shape and about the size of a brand-new pencil eraser, perched slightly below my right kidney. My own personal meteorite, staking its territory inside and making me feel kind of nasty and more than a little ticked off at its invasion.

Let me just say that I don’t fault the previous ER doctor in any way for not finding this, although I can’t imagine by any stretch that it took less than a month from start to finish for me to produce a stone of this size. It was already there, and on the move. But because of its size, it seems entirely possible to me that the thing hasn’t wandered as much as typical kidney stones, not having so much room to maneuver, and so has paused at whatever cubbies and intersections it could squeeze into, thus having those in-between times of stillness when my system could temporarily adjust and not keep actively trying to evict it. Still, it would have been nice to uncover the culprit by showing the right symptoms on first try, rather than having to come back for a sequel.

The sequel to this actual diagnosis should have been straightforward enough. Question: is it small enough to ‘go through the pipes’ and leave under its own momentum? Answer: not likely. Safe to guess that passing a pencil eraser through plumbing that narrow would be ugly, if not impossible. Impassable. The doctor’s recommended urologist happened to be ‘in the house’ at the time of my visit, so he was consulted on the spot and tentatively recommended ESWL (extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy), to be done at his outpatient clinic after a consultation. That consult happened earlier this afternoon. Tomorrow (Thursday) is the procedure. Yay?

Meanwhile, back at the ER, among the many tests administered were those aimed at determining whether I’d had or was having a heart attack, despite the complete lack of chest or arm pain on my part. I’ve read that women’s heart attacks do sometimes present less obviously than men’s, and of course, that anyone can have an anomalous episode of pretty much any ailment. So I wasn’t alarmed. But my heart enzyme levels were just enough higher than expected that the ER doctor decided to monitor them, strictly for insurance and assurance if for no other reason.

That’s when the second-most unexpected element of the whole episode came into effect. He had me admitted to the hospital for overnight observation and re-testing of something almost entirely unrelated to the cause of my hospital visit in the first place. The downside of this was, of course, being put in the hospital. First, and I hope last, time ever. Chances were fair that any elevation of the enzymes might have been attributed to the stress and pain of having a kidney stone, not to mention the concomitant upset of having to go back to the hospital for diagnosis and treatment.

As there was little worry on my part that anything dire was about to be revealed about my heart, and I already felt worlds better for having been ER-treated for my pain, the prospect of my observational stay in the hospital wasn’t frightening. I decided to treat it as a cosmically granted day of education and R&R. So while I don’t recommend hospital visits as either a cool substitute for a community college night course, let alone an even trade for a spa vacation, I found I got a few similar values from it overall.

As the twenty or so professionals who took over my life and well-being for the remainder of my stay were unfailingly kind, patient, and willing to answer any question or explain any mystery, I found them to be highly informative company. As the majority of them were also tremendously gracious and good-humored, they were just plain good company—the sort I’d happily visit with over lunch any old time. Assuming I didn’t require a morphine cocktail just to sit through lunch, on the day. Hospitals being what they are, I wouldn’t necessarily trade the amenities of a designer-decorated seaside spa with its celebrity chef and rose petal-strewn massage chamber for a place where even the sweetest people are wont to wake you every twenty minutes to two hours to stick needles in you, squeeze your arms and feet, ask how often you’ve visited the toilet lately, or—without a trace of sarcasm—ask how you’ve been sleeping. But (hospitals being what they are), I had a fairly peaceful and definitely worthwhile recovery from feeling anxiously, very uncomfortably, unwell.

Now, if I can just get this blasted nephrolith blasted. Delightful as it is to learn all kinds of new and interesting things about my heart through my echocardiogram yesterday, about hospital procedures and history through talking to staff, and about yet more of my million limitations as a frail humanoid creature through the last few days’ adventures. Oh, and I learned why I’ve always been so averse to mathematics: internalizing calculus turned out to be a regrettably vexatious experience for me.

Here’s to ejecting the little pest and returning to my delightfully dull self!Digital illo from CT scan: Extreme Closeup

Sometimes It’s Better to Part Ways with One’s Parts

When something goes wrong inside, for most of us it’s no big deal; just an off day in the old innards, whether physically or emotionally, and it’ll pass. But when something goes wrong in a more complicated way, I tend to think it’s pretty good luck if “all” one has to do to get well is remove a malfunctioning part and either replace it or live without. Modern life makes that possible: a swift appendectomy with a tiny scar to show for it, a manufactured hip here, a transplanted kidney there. Lots of things that, if not chronic, are reparable and survivable when they used to lead to long, slow, miserable declines or instant death.

There’s still plenty of the latter kind of illness and injury to keep doctors busy and patients unhappy and money funneling from the latter to the former in ever-widening streams, and that’s no joke. But I think it remarkably good that I live in an era when far less stuff is fatal by default. I was especially glad that when my poor brother-in-law was violently attacked by his own gallbladder recently and it tried to stone him to death, there was adequate artillery to fight back and win. What did he ever do to it, to deserve such lousy treatment! I can tell you from (supposed) experience that gallbladder pain is horrendous. I can’t tell you what it’s like to have the offending organ removed, or even have the stones destroyed and extracted, because either I don’t have a gallbladder at all or it is an expat living in a foreign part of my body from where they are normally located: the doctor and ultrasound technician spent a lot of time hunting and could never find the little hunk of meanness before the pain, thankfully, dissipated on its own.

Photo: Plumbing

Don’t you just hate it when something goes wrong with your plumbing?

My BIL was not such a fortunate escapee, and the pain persisted and worsened until he ended up with several exceedingly un-fun procedures to zap the stones and remove the offending organ, which if you ask me did have a heck of a lot of gall to treat him like that. I am ever so glad he has already begun a full recovery! I wrote him a silly poem, ’cause I love him.

Parting with Parts

is Such Sweet Sorrow

Can anything be worse, or sadder,

Than to give up one’s gallbladder?

Well, perhaps one worser quirk:

Still having one that doesn’t work…

And one worse yet: the wails and groans

Induced by one that’s filled with stones.

So I’ll amend Assertion One:

Having a gallbladder’s no fun.

But then again, I must concede

That surgery is bad indeed.

It all comes down, if I should guess

To what will save my happiness

More fruitfully: intact gallbladder?

None? Can’t say: it doesn’t matter,

Since the choice will not be mine—

‘Til then, I s’pose I’ll be just fine—

I hope. Of course, I still don’t know

Whether I even have one, though.

A Bit of Illumination

photoAll it should take is a small glimpse of the undesirable alternatives to remind me, if I’m ever so forgetful, of how fortunate I am.

This morning I had many such reminders on the Sunday commute. It’s been very rainy, a generally fine thing given its kindly relief of and recovery from last year’s drought, but of course never quite so gentle to travelers on the road. As we leave fairly early Sunday mornings to head south, and last night was the semi-annual celebration of tiresome Spring clock-changing, it was utterly dark when we got underway. Unfortunately, and quite predictably really, the first substantial appearance of light before us was not dawn (a grey and undifferentiated one, to be sure) but a veritable wall of red taillights as we came upon the first roadblock. It turned out to be a literal one: a five-car smashup that closed the entire freeway for nearly twenty minutes yet after our arrival on the scene until we were all able to squeeze past it and all of its companion emergency vehicles on the shoulder of the road and restart our journey.

But as much as I dislike sitting still in traffic on the road, I spent the time not just watching the taillights ahead–at least, when engines were turned back on–for any sign of movement but also contemplating how much I appreciated not being just those few minutes earlier when we’d likely have been caught in the midst of the pileup, and all the more so when we saw those crumpled cars and trucks, the flashing emergency lights, the officials in their uniforms scurrying to aid and comfort those still on the scene, and the debris strewn across three lanes and more. It was no surprise to see remnants of at least two more accidents, these not blocking traffic on our side of the freeway but also evidently serious enough to require tow trucks, aid cars and police, before we got to our destination. At every point, a good chance to send up silent wishes for the welfare of all who suffered or served at those points of departure from the planned sojourn of the day.

My little forays for annual medical updates in the last couple of weeks were another fine mnemonic, if I needed one, for how blessed my life is. There I sit, potentially fidgety as I wait for an appointment that, like many, is delayed by overbooking and under-staffing, no matter how well the good folk at my doctor’s office generally try to plan, and look around at people who are obviously less well and far more needy than I am and think, my life is so easy. And I came out of all of it with pretty cheering news.

I was most acutely aware of this, as I said the other day, because while I was just getting a pretty basic exam and gentle inquisition updating my physician’s information about my habits, health and happiness, my mother was lying on an operating table with her spine sliced open for nearly seven hours while her surgeons worked to correct and stabilize her spine. I am incredibly glad to tell you that the preliminary reports following her surgery are good: her doctors are satisfied that they did all of the good things they could do for her (including returning yet a bit more of the five or so inches of height she’d lost over the last several years of her back’s deterioration), and despite the inevitably terrible post-surgical pain, she actually stood upright a mere twenty-four hours after the operation. At that, the second surgery in two weeks, which in my estimation is the equivalent of her being run over by the same freight train twice in a row. The road ahead to full recovery, whatever that will be, is bound to be long and arduous–but it appears to be an open road, and one she is alive and able to take, after some years of wondering whether anything good lay ahead.

Mom is a much tougher character than most people would ever guess.

And once more, I am humbled to look at all that she’s been through and think how glad I am that I have never suffered like that, and that I have a doctor who, when I told him that Mama was ‘under the knife’ for spine repairs at the moment of my simple wellness exam with him, had no hesitation in saying that yes, maybe at 51 and with a mother in that situation, I should get his referral for a bone density check now. To know that my own struggles, whatever they seem to be in the moment, are tiny and petty in the relative scheme of things and that I am very happy to live in such a brightly illuminated place of grace and good

Thank you all for your kind thoughts and words about Mom’s health progress. I know she will appreciate it immensely when she’s well enough to sit up comfortably surfing a blog–or doing pretty much anything besides just working on healing. For now, it’s a comfort to the rest of us, and a perfect reminder that I have a great life.

The Doctor will Devour You Now

photoI’ve established a kind of détente with seeing the doctor. That makes me one unusually fortunate human being, as far as I can tell. Let’s face it, doctors are stuck in the same unloved House of Horrors where we go with cringing reluctance to visit lawyers, last-ditch tech support professionals, tax collectors and disliked distant relations: the Office of Last Resort, so to speak, because we don’t go there unless we absolutely have to go there. Anyone I see mostly when I’m at death’s door is not bound to be my first choice as fun-time playmate.

The dread I used to feel when the mere word “doctor” was mentioned in my hearing, let alone when I had to visit one, was undoubtedly exacerbated by my larger than life anxiety issues, but I know I was far from alone in the general pool of enmity and avoidance. Amazingly, the cure came to me before I got successful treatment for the extremity of my anxiety. It turned out to be ridiculously simple: get the right doctor.

It turns out that despite all of the docs I’d seen in my younger years having had all of the requisite starry credentials and, in many cases, references that glowed like halos, they simply weren’t the right fit for me. Sounds so obvious, but if you’ve never had that good fit, you can’t really conceive of such a thing, so the miserable one you got stuck with is the unwillingly accepted norm. It was such a shocking revelation to me to discover that my new physician was at the opposite end of the spectrum from all of my previous ones that I didn’t quite realize what had hit me at first. What?? No distance, no intimidation, no obfuscating or condescension or inappropriate levity or inflexibility?

She may have started at an advantage, this new doctor, having been my then-fiance’s respected physician for some years already and with my being in good health when I saw her for my new-patient checkup. But she was so no-nonsense, calm and attentive to detail from the start that when the inevitable episodes of viral attack or other pains did come, a trip to her office promised comfort and healing rather than fear and further pain. What a concept!photo

It’s not like I suddenly began craving any excuse for a visit to the doctor’s office, but I can’t overstate the immensity of going from a state of perpetual terror and revulsion at the mere thought of such a visit to one where I could go in for a wellness check at regular intervals and even–stunningly–make the appointment for one when prompted and then forget about it until the appointed date appeared on the day’s agenda rather than spending all of the intervening days or weeks actually making myself sick enough with fear and worry to need a doctor.

Now, I also understand those for whom the nuisance factor of giving up precious time to do this is tipped to oblivion by the dislike of the visit. And I truly empathize with those for whom the expense of medical care is impossible or too daunting: I am, after all, resident in a Two Artist Household and live in a country where if one or both of us hadn’t the luxury of Real Jobs as educators rather than always going freelance, the whole concept of regular physician visits might have easily been moot anyway. I am certainly grateful that my life has allowed me to choose to go to the doctor when I’m not unusually near death’s door. If nothing else, I guess I sort of feel karmically compelled to take that step since it’s available to me when it’s not there for everyone. And as an instant payoff, I discovered that being a generally very healthy person not only is its own reward but getting a good report, a Clean Bill of Health, from a wellness visit to the doctor even feels as cheering as crossing something off of my famous To Do list as DONE. That’s my favorite benefit of wellness, I admit–the smug, snug satisfaction, however temporary, of feeling just that little increment closer to invincible.

Why, you ask, is all of this on my mind just now? Well, I wrote the majority of this post while sitting (extra time, of course) in my doctor’s waiting room for my annual wellness physical. I did get generally pleasing news and no particular scoldings for any of my known bad habits, and no obvious findings of internal systems gone awry or organs gone missing or anything like that. Far more significantly, it’s very much on my mind because my mother is in an operating room two thousand miles away having a second spinal fusion surgery to attempt to correct some of her scoliosis and the effects of spinal stenosis, laminar deterioration, bone density deficiency, medication interaction, and a whole host of other physical trials that have had us all simultaneously marveling at and agonizing over her fortitude through years of debilitation and pain and sending up innumerable wishes for healing and hopes for relief in every way we know how to do so. I’ve never met her team of surgeons, physiotherapists and other caregivers (besides Dad and my sisters and our other family and friends), but let me tell you, my gratitude at being able to go, quite healthy, and sit talking with my physician about ways to keep my own body healthy as long and as well as I can–my gratitude at having a fine doctor and being able to see him just to make sure I don’t need to see him more–is immeasurable.

I hope that tomorrow I can tell you that Mom’s future visits with her doctor will become simpler and less dread-worthy rather soon