I’m not sure why the apple juice brought tears to my eyes. It could just as easily have been the chicken salad sandwich, or the yogurt or jello. But I opened the small container — about 4 ounces — of apple juice last, and I was just so happy to have it, so relieved.
It was my first meal in two days. “A box lunch,” the nurse in the emergency ward said.
They had been making me fast — no food, no water — both to settle down my infected (ex-) gall bladder, which had gone berserk the day before on Monday, and in anticipation of surgery to excise said piece of my anatomy, if the doctors deemed it necessary.
Around 7 p.m. on my second day in the emergency ward, the attending doctor decided it would be best to remove it and said he would have the surgeon come talk to me the next day. In the meantime, I could have something to eat, as long as I returned to fasting by midnight.
I had already missed the evening dinner run at 5 p.m., when all the other patients were served supper. I had pulled the curtain shut around my bed and sulked as I listened to the clang of cutlery on plates and sniffed the aromas of dinner.
I was famished. I won’t say ‘starving,’ because that would be an insult to all the people on this planet who really are starving. Two days of fasting hardly makes for starving. I wolfed down the chicken salad sandwich — on brown bread. They only serve brown bread in the hospital, the nurse told me, which is cool because I only eat brown bread, anyway. And I made short work of the yogurt and jello. But I got all choked up when I started opening the container of apple juice. Thank God for this, I thought. For a fleeting moment, I imagined that starving people in Africa probably cry similar tears of relief and joy when they finally get some food and drink.
It would be the first of three times I would cry during my hospital stay — and not one of those moments were related to the pain I was enduring before or after the surgery.
One of the things you quickly learn when you are lying on a bed in the emergency ward is that there are not enough doctors there to tend to all the patients in the timely manner you might have been expecting. So you then learn that you must wait.
On my first day in that ward, there was only one doctor to diagnose the problems of 20 to 30 patients. He didn’t get to me until 11 p.m. — I had been there since about 5 p.m. He wheeled in diagnostic equipment, ran it over my tummy and spotted the malfunctioning gall bladder. Yes, it was inflamed, and he thought he saw some stones.
We talked about the symptoms — insane pain across my stomach, up my back, in my shoulders — and about my medical history. When I told him I’d had three spontaneous collapses of my right lung about 30 years ago, he used his machine to check it out.
“Bet they didn’t have these machines back then,” he said.
Then came a piece of disturbing news and a lot of questions about my sex and drugs history — no, he didn’t ask about rock ‘n’ roll. It seems blood samples they had taken when I was first admitted showed “elevated levels” of hepatitis.
Which freaked me out, because I never did drugs with needles — too much of a coward — or had unprotected sex since 2005 or so, and I’ve had plenty of blood tests since then and none ever showed hepatitis.
“It’s probably the gall bladder,” he said. “They can produce hepatitis when they get infected. Let’s hope it hasn’t affected your liver.”
I would worry about that for another 18 hours or so, until I saw the next emergency ward doctor who finally found the time to review the results of additional blood samples and of radiology tests on my gall bladder.
The stones had passed, apparently, but the gall bladder was still inflamed. The good news: the liver was OK, untouched by the hepatitis. The bad news: the additional blood tests confirmed the “elevated levels” of hepatitis.
“I recommend that you have the gall bladder removed,” he said, and I agreed.
“Let’s do it,” I told him.
The second session of tears came as I awaited the visit from the surgeon, on my third day in the emergency ward. Around noon, when all the other patients were being fed lunch, I felt left out again and forgotten. I started to worry that the surgeon had been delayed by emergencies, that perhaps he or she wouldn’t get to me that day, and that I would have to spend another night in the emergency ward, fasting . . .
I was losing hope, and I started to cry. Not for long. But cry I did, tears of self-pity, I suppose. I’m not ashamed of the first set of tears, over the apple juice, or the final set of tears. But I am ashamed of myself for crying then.
I shouldn’t have lost hope. There is no doubt that our medical system is overburdened. It’s frustrating for everyone: doctors, nurses, patients. But our medical professionals get the job done. It just takes longer than we would like sometimes. We have to be patient when we are patients . . . Hmm. Patient patients? Did you ever wonder how they came up with the word “patients” for people receiving medical care? (But I digress)
The surgeon showed up at 1 p.m., and I was in the operating room a couple of hours later. Just before going in, the surgeon — a middle-aged hunk with incredible bedside manners . . . sigh . . . yes, do what you will with me, I thought — told me not to worry about the “elevated hepatitis levels” in my blood tests.
“They’re not that elevated,” he said. “Those blood tests are always skewed when the gall bladder is inflamed. You can’t trust them.”
“Yah, but one of the reasons we’re removing the gall bladder is because of those test results,” I pointed out to him. “I hope we’re not doing this for nothing.”
“It’s not for nothing — I still get paid,” he cracked.
(Just the same, when I’m recovered from this operation, I will have my endocrinologist or GP send me for blood tests if the surgeon doesn’t, because hepatitis is quite curable with drugs. I want to be sure it’s gone.)
The nurse — a hunky young man — called it morning champagne. I would hardly call hospital coffee “champagne.” It came with my breakfast, or in this case, the literal breaking of my forced fast the morning after my surgery. It was only my second meal in four days. I didn’t mind that the porridge was bland, that the slice of toast with margarine and jam was cold. I cherished the orange juice, but it was the first sip of coffee — with two percent milk and sugar — that brought tears to my eyes.
Under normal circumstances, say at the office or at home, I would have refused to drink that coffee. I would have considered it to be substandard, but at the moment any coffee would have sufficed, and I was so grateful to have it. It tasted just fine . . . Thank you, God.
Indeed, that cup of coffee summed up much of my experience at the Laurentian Hospital. It wasn’t perfect. Things didn’t move as quickly as I would have liked them to. But the staff did their best for me. The nurses, doctors and other support staff all contributed to making me whole again, as they do for so many people every day of their working lives. And when they can’t make us well, when it is our time to die, they are there to make it as smooth a transition as possible.
Yes, death is a transition, I believe, a journey through a doorway into the next room . . . “In my father’s house are many mansions.” We are immortal spirits cloaked by physical bodies for a time on this material plane.
On Monday when I was felled by the pain of something I couldn’t then define, I felt there was a chance I was about to die. When my g/f arrived to take me to the hospital, I gave her the necessary information she might need if I passed through the doorway of the physical world. I wasn’t afraid of dying; I was simply being practical. There was no emotion, no tears. I was prepared then, as I am now, to return to the spiritual temple from whence I came . . .
But tears over apple juice and coffee? And losing hope in the emergency ward? How could I explain these things to the masters in the temple?
— Jillian, spiritual wanderer