By Richard Holmes
Looking up from my hospital bed on a warm April afternoon I see two tall women in green scrubs. One of them is the doctor who will be taking out my gallbladder, I think the one holding a butcher knife in her hand. I could shorten this tale by saying the day began with a trip to the doctor to look at a sore thumb and ended up with removal of my remaining gallbladder.
Somehow, I don’t think the two are directly related. There are interceding events. The sore thumb developed from a previous cut that didn’t want to heal.
I had severe stomach cramps the night before––one episode around bedtime and another an hour later. But I seemed to be all right in the morning. So I called the doctor’s office about the sore thumb, which was swelling and feeling warm.
I was in no hurry, so after coffee at a friend’s house and a trip to Costco I drove to the Urgent Care building. Just as well, I thought, as the stomach pains returned while at Costco. Ignoring my sore thumb the doctor asked some questions, poked around at my stomach, said she couldn’t see inside, and that I should go to the emergency room where they could do a CT scan.
I did that. It was a short drive, and I put my car in the parking garage and walked into the emergency room. The pain in my stomach was really increasing. After describing my stomach cramps they had me put on a pale blue cotton dress with the back missing and lie down on a narrow bed where they began poking around my abdomen.
An IV tube was put in my arm, and a clip was placed over my finger to measure oxygen level. Little pieces of adhesive with electrical connectors were stuck to different parts of my chest. After all this was hooked up I twisted around to see a monitor displaying pulse rate, oxygen level, blood pressure and…it didn’t show anything about my sore thumb. Not only was my stomach cramping again, I was beginning to feel nauseous.
They took a CT scan, and later an ultrasound, which confirmed a large gallstone mass in my gallbladder. I was set up for surgery for the next day. My friend Connie had arrived in time to watch me throw up. She called my daughter Joyce in Denver, who then texted my daughter Laura. Laura planned to drive over from Carbondale the next day. I felt miserable.
Eventually I was assigned a room for the night and was wheeled through corridors, up an elevator, and deposited into my final resting place on the third floor. Actually, I don’t like that terminology––let’s say a temporary resting place for my stay in the hospital.
For some reason no one seemed concerned about my swollen thumb. They looked at me, acknowledged I had one, and continued about their business. Nearly every one I saw was a woman, mostly blond with a ponytail.
The first morning I awakened to a blue sky, fluffy clouds, and a genuinely fine-looking day. Not that it mattered. I was within the hermetically sealed space of a hospital.
The gallbladder removal would be a procedure where, instead of ripping my abdomen open to work from the inside, several small holes would be poked in me so they could work from the outside. One hole was for a camera and light. Another was used to pump a gas into my stomach, making it swollen to better see inside and maneuver the tools required for removal of the gallbladder. I wondered about the gas escaping out my other end, but I later saw a cork on a table in the operating room.
Easing myself onto a gurney I was wheeled through various corridors toward the prep room. Someone waved as I went by. I held up my swollen thumb. In the prep room I was hooked up again to check vitals.
A man with a wadded up tee shirt in one hand and a bottle of chloroform in the other, introducing himself as the anesthesiologist, came in for a few words. Actually, words are in short supply in a hospital. There is some preliminary talk at first, then people silently go about their business. That’s ok for many aspects of life, but when you’re flat on your back awaiting an impending event on your body you would like to hear some conversation regarding the matter at hand.
Wheeled to the operating room down the hall, I looked everything over in the room as best as I could. They said I wouldn’t remember much, and they were right. I didn’t. The next thing I knew I was lying awake asking when they were going to do the surgery. They told me they had finished. Unencumbered by rational thought processes, I objected they couldn’t have–– I just got there. They persisted, that the surgery was actually finished. Apparently, confusion and disorientation are part of the general anesthesia process.
I guess I was finally convinced they did what they say they did when I realized I was no longer in the operating room. I looked at my thumb––still swollen. Apparently, they only attend to one thing at a time in the OR. After a half hour, they wheeled me back through the labyrinth to my final resting place––or my room, rather. My daughters were there when I arrived. I think. It’s hard to remember. Anyway, I got hooked back up to the IV.
Sometime after surgery it was determined that a camera should be plunged down my throat to see what else was down there. A different doctor would do that. He came into my room and talked about using a long tube with a light and camera on the end of it to explore my insides. The procedure was set up for the next day.
I had a new nurse that evening, a male nurse. He had been a military medic in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or someplace hot with a lot of sand. It’s hard to remember things clearly while confined to a hospital bed. Twice, I heard someone say I had good veins, whatever that means. I think it must have been the needle-poking people commenting on an easy jab.
Sleep can be elusive in a hospital. Around midnight someone came to check what they call my vitals––blood pressure, temperature, oxygen, pulse rate, IQ, and general temperament. I got back to sleep, but someone woke me up again at four in the morning to see how I was doing. I was doing fine until I was awakened at four in the morning. Again––blood pressure, temperature, oxygen, pulse and perspicacity. General temperament was beginning to flag.
Laura was already in my room when I first looked up in the morning. She had arrived early to hear what the doctor had to say, ask pertinent questions, and generally observe what was going on.
Off to the operating room again after a stop in the prep room. The operating room looked familiar, but they wouldn’t let me look at it very long. The guy with the chloroform did his thing, and the next I remembered I was back in the prep room asking when they were going to do the procedure. Receiving the same answer, I said they couldn’t have, that I just got there. I was reassured a camera was indeed shoved down my throat and pictures taken. I was wheeled back to my final res…my room.
The gastroenterologist came in later to say he didn’t see anything abnormal, and that he increased the size of my sphincter. Wow! He really went deep. But he explained it was not that one, it was the sphincter in my esophagus, to more easily allow the passage of food.
He thought I should remain in the hospital one more night. One more night? I wanted out of there. People have been known to die in those places. I showed him my thumb. Maybe I should have elevated a different digit. But at least I was allowed to eat. I had not had food in over two days.
Apparently I was being fed through the IV tube. A menu was placed before me, and I was told to order whatever I wanted. I had thought hospitals brought around meals, maybe a bowl of gruel, and that was the end of it. Not anymore. If I didn’t pick up the phone and order I didn’t eat. So I picked up the phone and ordered.
Thursday morning. Laura was there early. We were told I could go home if my oxygen level stayed above 90 percent for half an hour. Laura is a nurse. She knew what to do. When the level dipped too low she would say “Breathe, dad”, and I would inhale a couple deep breaths. On the monitor I could see the oxygen level move up over 90. This would also be seen on the monitor at the nurse’s station out in the hall.
We kept this up (breathe, dad) for over a half hour until finally someone came into the room with discharge papers. At last I was free to go home. I had inhaled myself an exit visa. I could get out of my dress, put on pants, shoes, shirt, and escape. But the escape had to be orderly. I didn’t walk, but was wheeled through the labyrinth out to the front door. Laura was bringing the car around. Once outside I saw a bench and began to rise toward it. Not yet, said the wheeler. As the wheelee, I was to remain seated until the car pulled up and I could get directly into it.
Thus, the responsibilities of the hospital were fulfilled, and I could be off on my own. Holding up my swollen thumb, I turned to wave goodbye.
The dumb thumb began to heal on its own.