I wasn’t quite myself before the operation. Recently I’ve written about how I’ve tried to resurrect my writerly self. For more than a year now my writing life has jackrabbited, at times bounding at a clip, then halting altogether at the edge of the road as if awaiting the uninspiring ghostly hiss of a truck’s tires to pass before moving on. Last month the sense of myself as a writer faltered even more.
Sometime around 5 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 19, I had an emergency appendectomy at Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco. Two or three hours later, stunned on morphine and anesthesia, vaguely aware it was dark outside and that my surgery had lasted more than the estimated 45 minutes, I wasn’t musing any significant life change or an alteration of a sense of myself. I only craved seeing my wife. She needed to know the surgery was done. That I was OK. And I needed to feel her lips graze mine once the drugged scrim hovering over my eyes cleared. Which turned out to be soon enough, though all I could see when I first was wheeled into my room was a pink-shirted silhouette. At that moment, nothing had altered in my life, except I no longer had an appendix.
Four days earlier something was about to go wrong.
From about 3 p.m. Friday, Feb. 15, until late that night I felt I might have needed a Tagamet; my stomach quibbled with me, warmly gurgling and cloudily rolling, but not threatening a storm. We were out of my favorite cure-all for stomach ailments. Since we were going grocery shopping that Saturday, I decided to wait until then to medicate myself. I tried something different, though, because the gurgling and rolling had gone away. I now felt bloated, as if there were too much gas in my system. The generic gas pain reliever seemed to work. And it worked most of Sunday, until that evening, when a pain plucked my abdomen above the right hip, but, still, I felt no portents. I tried to sleep it off like a bad hangover, finally, after several sleepless hours, conceding to a generic pain reliever around two in the morning.
Several weeks before this pain struck, my wife had been cajoling me to go to the doctor because of some mild problems with abdominal cramping. My resistance, however, was close to rebellion, though it would turn futile. The last doctor’s appointment I made was almost two years ago, and that was a painless visit to the optometrist because I needed new glasses. I didn’t want to make an appointment for something as mild as abdominal cramps, when they faded away for weeks at time, and weren’t really troublesome, except on occasion.
Also, my mind was making a home for portents, as it sometimes wants to do. In December 2006, my former managing editor at the newspaper died from colon cancer, his insides slowly eaten away over the course of about a year. My abdominal pains, my anxious psyche was telling me, could be foreshadowing cancer, which my wife thought was ridiculous. I acted a mule, but only momentarily, and listened to my wife anyway, because I love her, and by Sunday night, Monday morning, somewhere along in there, felt crappy enough something had to be done.
I called in sick Monday morning and scheduled an appointment at a nearby clinic with a doctor a coworker had recommended. A urine sample was taken. No anomalies. An X-ray. No anomalies. A prostate exam. No anomalies. A blood test. Results available the next day; call in the morning. Some discomfort still when the doctor presses on my right side, but not enough to cause concern. The doctor believes the cramping and plucky pain, and some of my recent bouts with sleeplessness, which I also tell him about, may be caused by anxiety. So he prescribes Paxil, an antidepressant that’s often used to treat anxiety.
Monday evening I eat a few mouthfuls of baked chicken breast and that night sleep evades me. At midnight pain pierces my side so much I take a hydrocodone tablet my wife had left over from her hysterectomy in November. A scrim of sleep. Another hydrocodone and a handful of tortilla chips and a mouthful of Coca Cola to stifle an accompanying queasiness. Another veil of sleep. Then awake again, searching WebMD on my laptop. Multiple possibilities come up in the search, everything from irritable bowel syndrome to appendicitis to colon cancer. Appendicitis seems the most likely ailment. But WebMD suggests if it is appendicitis that I should seek medical attention immediately. It is three or four in the morning. My wife is sleeping. She said to wake her if I felt I needed to go to the ER. I don’t want to wake her. Of portents, however, I’m again well aware.
Almost 12 hours later, my wife and I sit in the Emergency Room at Hillcrest, thinking we are simply going to find out the result of a doctor-ordered CT scan.
Tuesday morning we had made calls to work and to the doctor. I keep imagining the calls must have sounded frantic, because the pain had tweaked since the hydrocodone wore off hours earlier. The doctor tells me that blood tests from my visit the day before show a slightly elevated white blood count. Because of the elevated count and the continued pain, he says I should get a CT scan.
When a nurse takes my wife and I to an exam room in the ER, the nurse asks, “Do you know why you’re here?” My wife and I look puzzled. No one in radiology had told us anything other than to check in at the ER after my CT had been read.
“You’re appendix has ruptured,” the nurse says.
“Yay me,” I say to my wife.
Later my wife told me I looked worried when the nurse said my appendix had ruptured. Nothing that day had really gone as planned. After the CT scan, I thought I would be sent home with something that didn’t require a hospital stay and surgery. Extended hospital stays had not been kind to my family in the last four years. I saw my dad die from leukemia in the hospital in 2004. My mom died in the ER a year later. She had spent almost five years in and out of hospitals and nursing homes after breaking her hip in 2002. A year later, my cousin overturned his truck about 30 yards from his home. A week later, in the hospital, he died. A burst appendix could kill me.
(To be continued)