I've been thinking a lot about hospitals. I spent nearly two of the last five weeks in one and it's a hard life. It strips you bare psychologically and physically. It teaches you a lot of things about yourself that you didn't know before.
On Good Friday, there had been 15 guests for lunch.It had been a fine, if unusual event for a work day, given for some artists from out of town. Then I'd rushed to the office to tinker with my Saturday column, and to polish off the one for Monday's paper.
My stomach socked it to me at midnight. I thought I had classic flu and the medical people at Group Health Association, hearing my symptoms by phone, concurred. But the symptoms hung on.
I thought of all my obligations as I writhed in bed on Saturday -- the Monday column needed the touches I did not give it at 9:30 Friday night, there was a dinner invitation and three houseguests due. I was determined to make it business as usual. I called my editors, promising the Monday column on Sunday. But my decibel level had diced so low that one said, "Forget it and get well."
By Thursday I had the verdict: this was no simple stomach flu. A fibrous scar tissue from a decade-old operation had wedged its wicked way into my small intestine, obstructing the passage of food and drink. I would have to be hosptalized.
An irrelevant thought flickered across my mind as I was rushed to George Washington University Medical Center in an ambulance: Thank goodness it wasn't food poisoning, since my Scotch salmon and Jump-Up Rice had scattered with my guests around the county.
I don't like hospitals. Except for three brief healthy childbirths, I'd been in a hospital only twice. It's scary suddenly to be halted in your tracks, knocked literally off your feet. In a typical busy week, my time is carved up as carefully as a hotel roast beef at noon between interviews and writing, research and deadlines, composing talks and attending meetings, my husband and three children and home.
Now it hit me that I was sick, really sick, lying in a bed in a blue-walled hospital room, being fed intravenously and with a catheter that ran from my nose to my intestinal tract. The tube procedure was barbaric -- like swallowing a sword. Where was this vaunted modern medicine we journalists keep writing about? Even at home, beign sick makes me feel like a whirlwind tamed. But the hospital leaves you bare, out of control. Somebody decides at what time you get a hospital gown, when you're washed, whether you can have a shot if you're hurting. I felt my intellect regressing.
I began to feel less like a person.
I was determined to be a civilian, not to get special favors as a reporter, but not to be one of those demurring patients who gets forgotten. So I became agressive. I asked incessant questions. I borrowed an anatomy textbook to see illustrations of the abdominal region. I became impatient. I called my medical doctor for a gastroenterological consultation. I phoned the surgeon for a surgical consultation. Why aren't doctors ever there when you need them? Why are the nurses so overworked and harried?
My universe shrank. Interest in the wider world that days before had been boundless now all but disappeared. I couldn't even concentrate on Robert Ludlum's newest espionage thriller.
Now I was really scared. I thought of the frailty of life, even of death.
"Why me?" I began to ask. I fretted about the column, probably to make myself feel important.
But all patients are the same in the hospital -- you share your most intimate feelings, yet you may never see one another again. One of my favorites was a tiny, depressed woman named Evelyn who slept in one of the four beds in my little ward. With failed kidneys, she was practically a full-time patient, with dialysis three times a week and frequent hospitalizations. I felt guilty with my flowers and visitors while for several days she had neither. When I shared the flowers, I felt patronizing, but she was happy. "I really love flowers, she said, softly.
Another memorable companionship developed when my husband finally was able to get me a semiprivate room in the crowded hospital. We figured I'd fell better with less traffic and activity. It was becoming increasingly clear that the tube wasn't going to clear the obstruction and that I would need surgery. So I was wheeled to my new room, feeling rotten.
There stood Elizabeth, 58, exuding cheer and energy, wearing makeup, three days after having a cancerous breast removed. I recoiled like a snake in sunlight. She saw me off to surgery the next day when my aggression turned really obnoxious and, through a narcotic haze, I chastized a quarrelsome operating room cleanup crew.
Elizabeth was waiting with my husband, Sam, when I was wheeled back into the room two or three hours later. Each day, this woman walked miles around the hospital. Recuperating later, I thought. "If that woman who is nearly 60 can get up and move as she does, I can too." I became known as the Purple Flash, for my lavender robe as I walked to speed my recuperation, holding a disconnected tube in one hand and pushing my I-V pole with the other.
Being driven home a week later, the sprouting trees going for life rebutted my grim hospital thought -- they represented life's longing for itself, not just its fragility, but its quintessential endurance.
Being sick and getting well made me swallow my pride and ask for help -- I needed friends and relatives as never before. It made me know how lucky I am to have health insurance and liberal leave -- when millions have neither. I saw my family anew, savoring life's gifts. Sickness is hell, but wellness is a great feeling.