This week marks my 41st trip around the sun. It isn’t a big round number, but it IS a prime number, so I guess that’s something. We’ll be having some folks over this weekend to mark it. There may be bean dip involved.
5 years ago, in 2018, things were very different. Five years ago, I was in the surgical ICU, fighting a case of severe, end-stage septic shock. The septic shock was a result of my colon, which had torn itself open some weeks prior, and had been leaking all sorts of disgusting goop into my body for that entire time frame.
My body, as could be expected, was not happy with that situation, and decided to fight back. The problem with sepsis is that it’s a blood-based disease, and as it turns out everything in our stupid meat bodies needs blood, the body was looking at everything that had blood in it as the enemy.
Sepsis is really your body fighting itself to death to try to fix the infection it sees everywhere.
But first, several weeks prior…
I hadn’t been feeling well. My stomach felt off. I took some laxatives because i was “irregular”, and that turned into An Event in the bathroom, an “Event” that didn’t really stop. I took the following day off work. i was experiencing extreme bouts of sweating and shivering – and when I mean extreme, I mean uncontrollable shivering for 20-30 minutes, followed by 20-30 minutes of excessive flop sweat, and repeating itself on a loop, when not also vomiting and doing other unspeakable things in our bathroom.
I took a trip to the urgent care, as it was in the afternoon and the state of the US health care system meant I couldn’t see my primary doctor right away. I recall sitting in their reception room, sweating through my shirt.
I got called back, and a nurse took my vitals, waited a beat, and then informed me that my heart rate was so high that they were calling me an ambulance. By the time the ambulance arrived, my heart rate had gone down to “elevated”. They still insisted on the ambulance ride (fun fact: the compulsory ambulance ride was less than a half mile, and, billed to insurance, well over $1000. hooray!)
The ER visit is a blank spot in my memory, but I recall the discharge instructions to be essentially “rest, drink lots of fluids”. No great shakes. Some blood work was taken.
(Writer’s note: There is an official timeline, somewhere, of the exact cadence of events from this point forward up until my discharge from the ICU several weeks later, but my experienced, lived memory of the ordeal is out of order and fractured. Some of you may have read versions of this story before in various ways; if you notice an incongruity, kindly ignore it – everything is still true, just out of order, partially forgotten, or worse. Sorry about that. Turns out trauma is a whole thing.)
I went home and tried to get better. The blood work I had done at the hospital would take several days to get a result. Until then I was on my own. I drank lots of fluids. I rested, or tried to; sleep was unfortunately not happening.
It turns out that when your body starts attacking itself, you lose some body functions. For me, one of those functions was sleep. I simply could not. I tried. Oh, I tried. I was so tired. I was essentially entirely bedridden, so I had nothing to do but try to sleep. My wife suggested sleep podcasts. I tried listening to those. I tried listening to other podcasts i was enjoying at the time. I tried calm music. I tried meditating.
All of these things are extremely difficult when your body is simultaneously shutting down and exploding everywhere. Shivering gave way to flop sweats, which gave way to diarrhea, then vomiting, then more flop sweats and shivering.
If my body came to rest for any amount of moments, I would close my eyes and try to will myself to sleep, but then i discovered another problem – lucid, body-dissociating hallucinations.
I’ve never dabbled in harder drugs, the kind of chemicals that would send your consciousness to Jupiter while your body stays put on your couch. Thus, I’ve never experienced body dissociation before. Readers, I am here to tell you: It was not great.
During these dissociative episodes, I hallucinated. Any time I closed my eyes to rest, the hallucinations would manifest. Two particularly memorable hallucinations:
- My body feeling like a series of bloated, at-capacity liquid semi trailers, and my brain was a traffic control truck, literally moving tankers around a gigantic, disorganized field; these tankers, i think, represented my various organs and body functions, and the truck was attempting to keep “regular business” afloat. My brain could not stop thinking about that little truck, moving these sloshing containers of fluid around a parking lot, desperately trying to create order from chaos.
- My body parts and functions disintegrating into space fighters, flying around, shooting lasers at enemies, and themselves, and my eyes
Every time I blinked, I thought I could also see the veins in my eyeballs.
A day or two passed in this state. I think. Maybe more. At some point I went to my doctor, who dismissed it as “just the flu” and told me to do more of the same as before. Rest, drink fluids.
I remember calling the nurse at the doctor’s office at end of business to get my test results from my impromptu ER visit. i don’t remember what they were, aside from the advice being to essentially stay the course – drink fluids, rest.
Look, guys and gals, I probably don’t have to tell you this, but if two separate groups of professionals are telling you that your extremely painful, scary, and nonstop symptoms are “just the flu”, and you should “rest, drink fluids”, and you’re already doing that… things get mentally distressing real fast.
There may have been another trip to the doctor’s office. There was an overnight stay in the same hospital, after I insisted to drive myself to the ER for another visit, because, surprise, rest and fluids aren’t fixing the problem. I recall getting admitted. I recall a doctor saying “I promise you we will figure out what’s wrong with you”. I also remember never seeing that doctor again. I remember staying up overnight in a hospital, with blood being drawn every couple of hours, then staying until late afternoon in that hospital, and never seeing a doctor or nurse visit to check on me. I remember wanting to go home, very angrily.
I got home. More blood work. More hallucinations. More vomiting. More shivering.
At some point I went back to my primary care doctor. I remember being in the fetal position on the exam table. I remember begging anyone in the room to help me. I remember being sent home with ativan, which is an anti-anxiety medication.
At some point shortly thereafter, i remember coming out of my sweat-soaked bedroom and shaking my wife awake on the couch, yelling, crying, certain that I was dying (it turns out I was, but more on that later).
My poor wife, terrified of my behavior as I am essentially sobbing and uncontrollable, tried to talk me down from my panic. i took some of that ativan while she made me a meal that i dictated – scrambled eggs and beans. It was what my brain was telling me it needed – something ‘healthy’ and nutritious.
She made me a small plate of maybe one egg and 20-30 beans. It took me at least 30 minutes to finish it, which is wild considering it was the first solid meal I had tried to eat in many days.
The hallucinations, sweating, vomiting, diarrhea, and shivering continued. The dismissals from the ER, hospital, and doctor’s offices continued (at one point I was admonished for drinking too much beer, which may have been a fair point as a lifestyle decision prior to this illness, but considering I could barely keep down water or saltine crackers, was not a present concern).
I was approaching serious despair. The experts I was turning to were ignoring my increasingly desperate pleas for help. My wife was getting scared. I was terrified. I did not want to die.
I made the probably foolish decision to drive myself up to the University of Michigan hospital, which was a good hour away without traffic. I had to pull over a few times for the sweating and shivering to subside.
At this point, i was probably not thinking clearly. I recall wandering through the Taubman Center corridors (for those not well versed in Michigan Medicine buildings, Taubman is connected TO the hospital, and does lots of services FOR the hospital, but isn’t, technically, THE hospital…), looking for the department that dealt with… whatever was wrong with me. I thought i had found it. Internal medicine. What luck! Staggering and swaying into the offices, they sadly informed me that they don’t take walk-ins, and the soonest they could schedule me was… several months later. I was sure I would be dead by then. I walked away.
I remember slumping over on a bench inside Taubman, reading a text from my mother in law about something. I remember feeling crushed. Defeated.
I stumbled down to the ER and presented myself to the counter. I remember seeing a stack of nurses, EMTs, security guards, and other folks watching a soccer match. i remember the slightly bored ER technician checking me in as I tried to list my condition and symptoms.
I remember waiting in an ER curtained area. I remember a doctor, who I will forever remember as “Doctor Hotshot”, flinging open the curtain, joking and flirting with a wide-eyed, mesmerized medical student of some sort. I remember him asking me earnestly if my symptoms were all “just in my head”, and I remember weakly telling him no, they were not. He said he would be back.
Instead of him returning, the person who came back was the on-call resident, which also just happened to be some sort of internal medicine director with something of a national reputation on sepsis. He took a look at my state, took a look at my vitals, and said “Unfortunately, you are not going anywhere tonight – I’m prepping you for emergency surgery”.
He then explained what was going on.
What was going on, it turns out, was exceedingly grim. My colon, at this point, had burst open, having started as a minor bout of diverticulitis (it’s a condition most of us will get where your gut strains to get something out, tried too hard, and creates little stress pockets where food or bacteria can fester). Because it was not caught, the minor bout turned into a major bout, and the major bout turned into necrotic tissue disintegrating into my body cavity. As a result, anything inside my intestines from that moment forward started leaking into my body.
Readers, let me tell you: this is Very Bad. The human body is robust enough to withstand a hell of lot of abuse, but one thing it is absolutely not prepared to deal with is to have the very long tube of food and poop you have in your gut erupt into your body cavity. It is a major emergency, full stop.
Anyway, the necrotic tissue and infection turned into sepsis, and the sepsis, at this stage, was classified as “end stage septic shock”. Survival rate, given the best medicine in the world: about 15%.
I have never had major surgery before. And now here I am about to have a very major, very emergency, surgery.
Before i was wheeled back, Dr. Hotshot came back (sans fangirl), and, to his credit, profusely apologized for his suggestion that my issues were mental. I don’t recall if I accepted his apology. (I do now, just in case you’re reading, Dr. Hotshot)
From here, memory gets even more weird, fragmented, and increasingly second-hand, as I was not lucid or awake enough to experience it fully.
The emergency surgery, it turns out, was one of two. The first was to simply clean me out – I had so much pus, infectious goo, poop, and God knows what else swimming around inside my body cavity, they simply had to clean me out. They split my open from sternum to belly button and hoovered up all of the bad stuff, and, I think, also removed the dead chunk of colon that was the cause of all of it.
The next surgery was the next day. Rather than sew me up, they apparently medically plastic-wrapped my torso when i went back to the SICU. I was wide open. My wife told me she could see my insides (I try to forget that part – it is very weird knowing that people I know and love have seen my internal organs).
The next surgery re-routed my intestines from my butt to a hole in my gut – this was going to be my new ostomy situation. But that came later.
After the second surgery, they stapled me back together and sent me back to the surgical ICU.
I remember waking up, and beginning to panic, because when i came to, I felt a lot, a LOT, of tubes coming out of my body. I had tubes for draining, tubes for stomach acid, tubes for waste, tubes for medicine, tubes for drawing blood, and, most unpleasantly, a tube for breathing.
I was intubated.
Most of us are probably familiar with intubation from hearing about the horror stories of COVID – before treatments of entire wards of people losing lung function over weeks, only to be intubated before dying alone; or, if we’re being less charitable, of folks who refused treatment or vaccines and ended up in the same way some time later (rest in peace, Pops). Thankfully, most of us will never experience intubation.
I did. It fucking sucked.
Imagine a tube, which my brain says is about the size of the plastic hose you might see on a vacuum cleaner, but which is probably narrower, but it’s the same idea in any case….. ANYWAY, imagine a tube from your vacuum cleaner, being pushed not simply down your throat (to, one might imagine, your stomach), but instead down your bronchial pathways and into your lungs. The tube pushes air into your lungs, so you don’t have to breathe; a machine does the breathing for you.
Do a mental exercise for me; stop breathing. Don’t inhale, or exhale, but don’t hold your breath either. Just sit there, for as long as possible, without doing any sort of inhalation or exhalation, at rest.
It starts feeling very weird very quickly, right? Well, you have to tell yourself to do that all the time, because there is a very large inflexible tube doing this for you, and if you try to breathe yourself, you get an overwhelming urge to yank the tube out of your lungs (pro tip, don’t do that)
While you’re intubated, you obviously cannot speak. With no ability to speak, i couldn’t advocate for myself. I begged for something to write with. Somebody, either a nurse or my wife or a friend, got a clipboard for me to write on. So I wrote. And wrote. And wrote. Questions. Comments. Thoughts. A recurring theme: I wanted a Diet Coke.
I could not have a Diet Coke. I just had surgery involving my intestines. I wasn’t going to be having anything anytime soon.
There are periods here that I simply don’t recollect, but i know from others that I coded at least a few times; that I had a 107 temperature and a subsequent ice bath; that my story, in some other alternate universe, ended on those nights.
But in this timeline, I didn’t die. I remember having entire TEAMS of nurses watching me 24/7. I recall them having their starting shift meetings around me, detailing my round the clock care. Some, bless them, volunteered extra shifts to watch over me.
This period of time, my “intubation” time, ended abruptly; I recall a team of doctors (or nurses?) coming in, telling me they were taking the intubation tube out.
I remember a count. “One… two…. three!”
I remember the sensation of harsh plastic dragging along the sides of my lungs.
I remember a lot of fluid coming out with that tube.
I must have passed out. There’s a blank spot in my mind.
But I could talk!
At some point in all of this, my birthday came. A friend, Derek, arrived with some decorations to boost my spirit. He asked where to hang a banner that read “Happy Birthday!” in sparkling letters. I told him to hang them around my neck. (I was not feeling great, so morbid humor felt appropriate).
The intubation tube gone, but the sepsis still a threat, I had nothing to do but rest and probably be heavily sedated. I don’t recall a whole bunch here. Except more hallucinations.
At this point, i’m not sure if they were septic hallucinations or ICU hallucinations (which is a thing), but I had ‘em.
At one point, I recall a very long, narrative hallucination involving a slowly sinking moon base, with me on it. I could not escape the slowly sinking moon base, being consigned to watching the moon’s infrastructure slowly disintegrate around me as we all drowned in space.
On another, I vividly recall opposing teams of demons and angels fighting pitched battles over my bed… for my bodily fluids. They wanted them. They needed them. At some point, I remember calling for a nurse and calmly asking her if she could see any demons in my room. She said no. I said thank you. My brain tried to reason with itself that these angels and/or demons were not real, and were not stealing my phlegm.
There’s a stretch of time. In the ICU, time begins to lose meaning, especially if you can’t move and can’t eat. You have no frame of reference of “normal” living. Visitors coming and going. The wife sleeping fitfully in a chair in the room, refusing to go home. Teams of doctors huddling around my ICU room door, reviewing my vitals and treatment plan. (A funny thing about Michigan Medicine is it’s a teaching hospital; the system as designed will not let a Teachable Moment go unused, so every morning at around 5am, a Resident and a veritable GAGGLE of babyfaced medical students would come into my room, ask me questions, answer my inquiries, take my vitals, proclaim my progress, and vanish until the next morning).
i just wanted a goddamn Diet Coke.
But you see, I couldn’t HAVE a Diet Coke. I was still battling sepsis. i had a ream of beeping medical devices behind my bed, dispensing a cocktail of antibiotics and whatever else to keep me afloat, into the various tubes that were in my body.
I also still had the dreaded, no good, awful, fucking brutal gastric tube up my nose, down my throat, and into my stomach.
I hated this tube. I still do, truly. It was my nemesis, my perennial reminder that I was nearly dead, but not quite, and that I couldn’t have a drop of water, or a piece of candy, or a hamburger, or a GOD. DAMN. DIET. COKE, until it was gone.
But first, sepsis.
There was a point, i don’t quite remember how long between surgery and that point, where the director of the ICU, a very no-nonsense doctor, came by rather casually to inform me that I was “probably” going to beat sepsis. The 10% chance, it turns out, was just the kind of odds I needed (along with the flotilla of exotic modern medicine pumping into me 24/7 behind my bed of course).
I remember her looking at her no doubt very important chart and walking away, while I floated away on cloud nine. I did it! I did the thing. Get bent, angels and demons, nobody’s getting my bodily fluids today!
Alas, that was just step one. And certainly not a step anywhere CLOSE to going home.
My sepsis cocktail was slowly, gently wound down, with a dozen medicines becoming 9, becoming 5, becoming 3, as i recovered. I was still a ghastly pile of meat and tubes, but as the medicines were wound down, some tubes were taken away.
Not the gastric tube though. Not yet.
Imagine you have had an illness where you have not slept for several weeks. Now imagine that once you have a system that believes in your illness, you then have to survive that system. And in that system, you can’t sleep very well, because every couple of hours, some person with a needle and a quota comes by and steals your blood. And if they aren’t stealing your blood, there’s a gaggle of interns and a surgeon kicking open your ICU room door every morning at Farmers Are Still Sleeping O Clock and asking you a barrage of questions, taking your vitals, brain-dumping a lot of important information at you, maybe taking out a tube or two, being much too chipper for 4:45am, and leaving.
Sleep was a precious, precious commodity, one that I struggled with during my entire stay. Part of the problem was, sure, the blood thieves, and sure, the wide-eyed neophyte gaggle. But the number one impetus for useful rest was the series of tubes coming out of my body. And especially, my nemesis, the gastric tube.
Here’s the thing. As an object, the tube is not very menacing. It’s a medical grade plastic doohickey that isn’t very wide, that goes up your nose, through your sinuses, down your throat, and rests somewhere inside your stomach.
Your stomach, or in this case my stomach, even if it isn’t getting food, still produces stomach acid. Normally that stomach acid, if unused, just gets dumped into your intestines. Which is cool, if you have working intestines. At that point, i didn’t. So if you don’t get the stomach acid out, your stomach eventually eats itself, and that is, it turns out, also bad.
So, the tube. The tube sucked up excess gastric juices and kept my stomach from eating itself. It was a useful tube. But it was not comfortable. At all.
I remember, at some point in some night, where I had finally, FINALLY, dozed off, but was awakened by a nurse fiddling with the tube, which had become dislodged from my nose (and thus was starting to pull itself out), her saying ‘I’m so sorry…’ before pushing the gastric tube back into my stomach.
I’m pretty sure I cried. It wasn’t the first time, nor the last time, I cried during this ordeal.
Recovery in the ICU settled into an uncanny rhythm. Doctors coming and going. Nurses changing shift every 12 hours. Visitors. Cycling through emotions of giddiness, despair, boredom, sadness, shock.
Somewhere in this, a surgeon came in, with their requisite intern geese, and informed me the gastric tube was coming out to see if my stomach and intestines were in a good enough state. But i was warned that if recovery went in the wrong direction post removal, it was going back in.
I vowed to do anything on this stupid earth to not have to deal with the gastric tube ever again.
A few nurses came by shortly after to remove the tube. Another count.
“One… two… threeeeeee ”
The tube out, I immediately began sobbing. Huge, uncontrollable sobs. The nurses immediately thought the worst; that somehow in the removal they had caused some sort of horrible pain. To be clear, the removal of the tube was NOT the best feeling in the world; it felt like a very thin sword was being snaked out of my throat through my nose.
The sobbing, though, was not from pain. It was relief. Delirious relief. I was one step closer to going home.
But not yet.
So you get the tube out. You don’t get a cheeseburger immediately. Instead, someone has to approve you are fit enough to have a tiny bit of ice.
Readers, keep in mind; at this point I hadn’t had a drop of water or a piece of food I hadn’t immediately vomited up in weeks. I forgot what water felt like.
Having ice was like Christmas. Finally, a non-taste taste that wasn’t medical plastic.
A time later, another doctor, on another shift (i think it was the weekend shift, because the guy running the ICU was not The Regular Guy), approved me to upgrade from ice to…. hard candy.
I haven’t had a Lemonhead since I was 8. They gave me Lemonheads. They warned me not to have too many, that my stomach needed to wake up, that if things went bad, the gastric tube was coming back in.
Lemonheads were a revelation. The first flavor I had tasted in what felt like eons. Tart, but sweet, with a hint of artificial lemon. i savored each and every piece in that box, not chewing, only sucking. Basking in the flavor.
(If the company that makes Lemonheads wants me to write ad copy, I’m your guy)
Lemonheads, eventually, graduated to other candies, and then, blissfully, a first meal. Another doctor sternly warned me of the risks of solid foods at this point, that if it failed, yada yada, GASTRIC TUBE.
Michigan Medicine has a fleet of kitchens to make food for staff and patients alike. To be honest it’s surprisingly not bad. Alas, i was not given the full menu, only a smattering. I chose what felt best in the moment.
A turkey burger. On white bread. No condiments or vegetables.
AND. A. GOD. DAMNED. DIET. COKE. (6 oz, caffeine free)
Readers. The Coke. Everything I hoped and dreamed.
The turkey burger, white bread, dry, was also delicious, but because the doctors and nurses put the fear of gastric god into me, took me several hours to finish, at the stern insistence of one of the nurses who had been taking care of me since leaving surgical ICU and entering, er, regular ICU.
I am happy to report that both the coke and the burger stayed put, inside my belly.
But here’s a thing; during my emergency surgeries, the surgeons rerouted my intestines to my belly, which means that…. wait, what’s going on with the food?
I don’t know what the term is for the mental shock of self body horror, but I got to experience it real fast.
During most of my stay up to this point, my brain started throwing up a lot of defense mechanisms. There was the cathartic crying, of course. There was the anxiety whenever a medical procedure had to be done (like when they had to insert another, special, tube right next to my heart, by way of inserting the tube in my wrist and snaking it through my body, and by the way, i was awake and couldn’t move a millimeter for over an hour while they did that because if i did so much as cough, the tube would nick an artery or my aorta and kill me immediately).
The best trick my mind did to itself, though, was to simply pretend the gigantic wound in my belly did not exist.
When your intestine gets rerouted to your belly, it is as gross as it sounds; your intestine, a fairly autonomous organ in its own right, pokes out of your skin, and just sort of… wobbles there. It oozes. It snakes. It pulsates. it’s the Alien chest-burster, except real, and part of your body.
Also poop comes out of there. It’s an ostomy wound.
Up to this point, the ostomy had been covered up, a mere footnote in the litany of tubes and devices and medical things I was dealing with. But now, with my eating real food again, obviously there was going to be a limited period of time until something shot out of it, and I would need to learn how to deal with that unpleasant reality.
Now, I knew, intellectually, that i would have to. But it didn’t register, not immediately. Michigan Medicine, as it happens, has a whole department of nurses dedicated to stopping by, being very friendly, and explaining to you how to take care of your newly liberated intestine and the resulting mess it would cause (spoiler: you poop in a bag).
The first time she came by, I am not proud to admit, I was not happy. I wasn’t listening. i was not prepared. My wife, who is much more used to body horrors like this than I was, dutifully took notes for me and learned on my behalf.
it took me another day or two to even muster the courage to look at my ostomy wound. to see the end of my intestine, wriggling around, doing whatever it’s doing there, occasionally threatening to shoot out shit at any moment.
I may have nearly fainted the first time.
By the third visit or so, I was a very compliant ostomy patient, but my (ever suffering, ever patient) wife did most of the care for me at first.
So the poop was contained. For now.
(Ostomy wound care is a whole thing; if you know anyone who has an ostomy wound for whatever reason, please, give them grace. It is excessively embarrassing, frequently annoying, and pretty gross.)
Once the ostomy nurses gave me a crash course in poop-bag-ology, I had another problem.
Sure, man, I can eat. Sure, man, I can finally pee on my own after the surgeons unceremoniously yanked my catheter out without much warning. Sure, man, i can deal with the eventual mess of my ostomy bag.
But guess what? If you spend any amount of time in a hospital bed, not moving, your muscles atrophy EXTREMELY quickly. I had to learn how to walk again. At first, I was incredulous. What? I’m in my mid 30s. This is absurd I just gotta…. uh. i can’t move my legs. I CANT MOVE MY LEGS.
Once the panic subsided, I was patiently informed physical therapy would start.
It is an incredibly humbling experience, getting out of bed for the first time in over a week, after getting close enough to the Grim Reaper to tug at his hoodie, and realizing that you cannot move under your own power.
Now let’s be real here; I’m not exactly a paragon of fitness. I am a blob-shaped engineer just coasting through life. But i could still walk.
i couldn’t walk anymore.
So i had to first, swing to the side of the bed.
Too hard. Collapsed, sleep.
Next day, swing to the side of the bed. Great, now… stand.
Stand for ten seconds. Exhausted. Collapse back into bed. Sleep.
Next day… Use a walker for five feet. Back to bed.
Ten feet. Thirty Feet. Down the hall. And back.
Move to the chair. Sit. Stand. Move back to the bed.
i was getting frustrated. i was worried I was going to be a useless invalid cripple at 36.
My only window to the “outside world” of people was my ICU room’s door. it was often open, at my request. I would often see a very thin guy, laden with IVs, trailed by a cart of oxygen containers and two nurses keeping pace behind him.
And he was hustling with a walker.
Every 5-10 minutes, I’d see that guy, with his entourage of tubes, oxygen, and nurses, shuffling past, at pace.
At one point I asked one of my nurses, “Hey, what’s up with that guy?”
Well, what was “up” with that guy is he was waiting for a lung transplant. His current lungs were, basically, useless, but in a bid to keep them functioning just enough to let him live, he would get up and zoom around the ICU ward a few loops a day while waiting for the news that he was getting some lungs.
Well, if that guy can do it, in a much worse state, so can I, god dammit.
He motivated me. (And, it turned out, he got his new lungs a few days before I was discharged).
Physical therapy was hard and exhausting, but I made steady progress. Enough to even explore some of the ‘deeper’ halls of the hospital.
I recall, during the discharge process, a physical therapist came by with a pile of accessibility contraptions and was explaining how they all worked; in the meantime I had fully dressed myself, something his pile of contraptions was supposed to help me with. He said “oh!… guess you won’t need this stuff” and left.
Discharge came soon after.
There’s a few important memories embedded in my brain prior to discharge, that fit somewhere in the narratives above. In no particular order:
- Watching the World Cup between France and Croatia with my friends, whom i had earnestly requested fast food from (they arrived with McDonalds, which was a revelation at the time even though I rarely ever eat fast food)
- Crying, a lot. Something that I more readily do to this day. It turns out a near death experience and the grueling recovery process can affect a person.
- Talking with the resident hospital chaplain, who was a retired Detroit cop in a past life (he was very nice; even though i wasn’t remotely religious, he still prayed with me and my family. He also was the one that pushed the idea of therapy, an idea I took to heart once i got home…. therapy is a lifesaver, ya’ll)
- Getting “wellness” visits from a group of volunteers that bring dogs into the hospital. I got to pet a St. Bernard as well as a greyhound that was blind and toothless; both were a welcome respite from the despair of the ICU
- Similarly, at one point a religious choir of some sort showed up and sang for me. I think there were hymns involved. I cried. Of course.
- A late night mild scare where the chest wound from my surgery was consistently bleeding; nurses couldn’t get it to stop, so they had to page the on-call resident, which, unfortunately for him, had just finished a marathon surgery and was completely exhausted. He eventually used something called silver nitrate, which is straight out of the Middle Ages, to chemically cauterize the bleeding.
- So much crying.
- Holding my wife’s hand, when we were particularly stressed from all this, and forming a sort of call-and-response of “you’re my rock”, “you’re my home”, over and over, until we calmed down
- So much garbage TV. American Pickers, Live PD, and Forged In Fire. All day. Every day.
- The power going out during a storm; thankfully the hospital had a fleet of generators for my medical devices, but it was decidedly weird seeing the lights switch to emergency dim mode and hearing all the ventilation systems go quiet.
Eventually I was cleared for discharge; i still had an open chest wound that was healing from the outside in and required twice daily meticulous cleaning (wife, again, coming to the rescue as my body horror shock was still happening), and I was going to have several weeks worth of in-home nurse care (mostly to monitor the wound and adjust my medicines), and i had to be on blood thinners.
(Oh right, the blood thinners. During septic shock, chunks of your organs get destroyed, and clots form all over the place. The doctors found several in my liver, pancreas, and kidneys, and probably elsewhere. I had to take blood thinners to eat up most of the clots for a year. Fun fact: If you ever overdose on blood thinners, you can eat a lot of spinach (or anything leafy green; they are high in vitamin K) that will get your blood back to clotting in no time.)
Getting home, I received the last body image shock; seeing my emaciated frame in the bathroom mirror. During the entire ordeal, I had lost about 60 pounds; i weighed less than I did in high school. i looked like a skeleton patched together with paper mache. It was extremely unsettling and something I’ll probably never get out of my head.
Most of August was spent recovering at home. I was incredibly, indelibly, blessed to receive an ad-hoc network of friends and acquaintances who organized a GoFundMe and a meal train to our house, to make sure we had enough to eat and live by while I recovered. That caused more crying.
I, eventually, recovered enough to return to work, where I learned my position was in the process of being eliminated, and i had the ‘choice’ of either taking a severance package (the sensible choice my coworker took) or, if I REALLY wanted to, I could learn to become a software engineer on the fly in six months, or lose employment. I needed the insurance (total billed to insurance: a million bucks), and I actually liked my coworkers, AND i was stupidly stubborn, so i chose the latter option.
Nobody involved in that ultimatum thought I’d succeed, but I did, and I’m still employed at the same place 5 years later.
Never underestimate a man who needs insurance.
Therapy, a successful reversal surgery, and several retellings of this tale later and I am mostly back to normal. Detailing my experience again and again is therapy in its own way, of course. The ‘reversal’ surgery was its own ordeal, and probably best left to another post (and involves a lot of bargaining with God regarding constipation). My feelings of gratefulness at the circle of friends that nursed me back to recovery has unfortunately dulled with the tarnish of time, but it’s still heartfelt. Probably another post.
Relatedly, during recovery I found even the smallest acts of kindness enough to push me over into a weeping sobbing pile of thankfulness, an emotional response I wish I would have held on to, as it was very centering. That’s probably also another post.
Anyways, i reflect on this, again, five years after the ordeal. Some parts of it still feel like yesterday. Other bits are lost to time or remembered out of order.
As a result of this whole ordeal, the weeks leading up to my birthday, my birthday itself, and the weeks after, put me in a weird mental space, which usually compels me to tell the story, again, and again.
I’d like to think that sharing it again, in this post, a full five years later, might be the end of that cycle. But I doubt it. Therapy rarely works in a straight line; I’m sure therapy-through-writing works the same way.
Some ending thoughts:
- God bless nurses.
- Therapy is important.
- So are friends and family.
- Advocate for your own well being. If you think the care you’re getting is substandard, speak up or get a second opinion. The on-call doc who took me in at the Michigan ER said if i had waited another day or two, I would have died, full stop.
- Treat every day as some sort of a blessing. Even if you aren’t religious, it’s at least worth reflecting on your existence, in the now, every day. Be present.
Til next time. Thanks for reading.