The Interesting Patient
September 21, 2010 § 1 Comment
You know, there’s nothing like an unscheduled trip to the emergency room to upend one’s perspective on everyday life. Take today, for example. I’m having one of those mornings. The kind where you stub your toe right after you just miss the phone ringing because you tripped over the pile of laundry you forgot to fold last night. The kind of day where you haven’t even had your whole cup of coffee yet and you feel like it’s time to go back to bed and start over tomorrow. When I’m having a day like this I have a tendency to look up and ask the universe: hey, what’s up? Are you trying to tell me something?
Not today though. Compared to the stress of being the mystery case in the ER, a crazy morning at home is a fairy princess picnic. So it all goes to prove that all chaos is relative… I think Einstein said that. (Or was it, “All relatives are chaos…”? But I digress.)
It all started on a Friday night when the area just beneath my ribs began to ache. By the next day, the ache had blossomed, developing to the point where I couldn’t do much more than sit in a crouching position and grimace. Laughing hurt. Breathing hurt. Standing up straight was not happening. When dinner rolled around and I was unable to so much as sit at the table, it occurred to me that something was, perhaps, amiss.
I got the call back from my doctor who gave me the advice they always give crazy people who have the temerity to be sick after office hours: go to the emergency room. On a Saturday night. On a holiday weekend. My head filled with delightful images of incontinent drunks, bloody bar-fighters and hours and hours and HOURS of waiting room time. Well, heck, I said, are you kidding me? Where do I sign up?
It’s highly likely I would have put this ER visit off had it not been for the fact that I had my appendix out when I was 18. I learned then that weird, out-of-nowhere pain can be your body’s way of saying to you, in the nicest possible way: “GET TO THE FREAKIN DOCTOR OR YOUR BODY WILL FILL WITH POISON AND YOU’LL DIE!!!” I gained a newfound respect for the wisdom of my body after that.
Not so much for the doctors though. Unfortunately, at that time they couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me and they sent me home. I wandered around like a ticking time bomb for two weeks before the pain returned. I made an encore visit to the hospital emergency room, petrified they’d pat me on the head and send me home with a note suggesting some very nice local shrinks, when suddenly the doctor very calmly- TOO calmly- informed me and my parents that he would like to have me in surgery in, oh, say, twenty minutes.
Hey, nothing happens in twenty minutes in the emergency room. You need to pee? Okay, somebody will be back in an hour to talk to you about that. When I heard “twenty minutes” I knew something was seriously wrong. And I was utterly delighted, not to be crazy.
Fast forward to two decades later. And of course, this ER trip was completely different. This time, no one could figure out why I was having upper abdominal pain! So they did every test they could think of. They drew blood. They did ultrasounds. They drew more blood. They did new and different ultrasounds. They brought in celebrity guests and offered prizes to anyone who could figure out what on earth was wrong with me. Why, for example, was I not throwing up? They seemed rather disappointed about this fact. Was I sure I wasn’t throwing up? No headache-fever-nausea-diarrhea-flaky scalp-embarrassing foot odor- hangnails? No nothing?? I hated to disappoint them, but…no.
Have you ever had a CAT scan? I hadn’t. Over the course of two hours you drink about a gallon of this lovely concoction called “contrast” which apparently makes all your internal organs light up like those glow-in-the-dark necklaces kids wear on the fourth of July. On the outside of the drink’s container the manufacturer doesn’t call it “contrast,” however, since that doesn’t sound particularly appealing. Instead they call it “Super-Delicious Creamy Vanilla Smoothee!!” or something like that. I would like to hereby suggest they could more accurately call it “Milkshake Made Of Chalk.” Also, every ten minutes or so someone asks you if you feel like you’re going to throw up, which is always comforting.
After two hours of not throwing up, the radiologist will wheel you to the room with the CAT scan machine, at which point he tells you you’re also going to be injected with a different radioactive material to make your bloodstream show up a different shade of neon. By now, your insides strongly resemble a poster from the Recreational Drug Accessories shop. He very nicely told me everything that was going to happen: “Okay, first it’s going to feel a little scratchy in the back of your throat. Then you’re going to feel like you have to pee. Then you’re going to get this weird warm feeling all over- but that will pass. If you feel like you’re going to be sick at any point just tell me.”
The thing is, it’s four in the morning, you’re in pain, and since ten PM when you checked in here you’ve been the “interesting patient,” which we all know is the Very. Last. Thing. you want to be. They’ve asked you the same twelve questions about eighty times since you got here. They’ve examined your blood, your urine and every single one of your internal organs including several you’re pretty sure they are making up. You’re walking around in a gown that shows off a nice slice of skin from your neck to your ankle, from- shall we say?- not your best angle. You are bleary-eyed, sleep-deprived and filled to the gills with Chalk- “don’t throw up!”- Milkshake. At this point, you will agree to anything. “Okay now, Ms. Schaub, we’re just going to inject your eyeballs with that greyish scum that collects under the sink faucet. Okay? This might feel a little weird, at first. You’re probably going to want to take up competitive bridge for a few minutes, but don’t worry, that will pass.”
Three doctors and thirty-seven cups of coffee later (those were for my husband) they sent me home, with pretty much no diagnosis that anybody was really happy with. Well, it could be a collapsed ovarian cyst… it could be a very mild case of pancreatitis… but according to the experts, nothing really made sense. Plus, I was told not to eat anything, which was a problem, since I was STARVING and ready to go have a very large meal that included just about anything besides a milkshake. Or chalk.
But I was good. I drank chicken broth. I made Jell-o and got grouchy when it took too long to set. I got grouchier still when I had to watch everyone eat their hamburgers that night at dinner while I sipped my lovely little glass of water. The next day I was allowed to have “soft” foods which included an extensive menu of eggs, bananas, bananas, and more eggs. I started daydreaming of large, elaborate meals that involved actual chewing and lots of digestion. I thought it ironic that the vast majority of what I normally eat and consider good for me was off the menu, replaced by junk food I would normally never buy: vegetables, whole grains, nuts, cheese, and meat were all out. Sugar-infused gelatin and ginger ale, however, were great! If I just switched to a diet of Ho-Hos and Hot Pockets, would everything be fine?
Heck, anything seemed possible at this point, including the fact that I could be a raving neurotic hypochondriac who had conjured up a subconscious imaginary ailment, just, you know, for fun. Then, as if responding on cue, I woke up the following morning with a new, more impressive symptom: a bump. A hard little marble, right in the middle of the pain. Although this new development presented a perfect opportunity for some good old-fashioned panicking, instead I was mostly relieved: Phew! I thought. I wasn’t crazy. Again.
We began again with the game of musical doctors. For about ten minutes I had a hernia- until the specialist gave me some perplexed looks, which I was more or less getting used to at this point, and said to come back in a week. And then the weirdest thing of all began to happen: the pain was going away, and with it the bump. I was almost sad to see the bump go really- it being my proof of not being crazy and all- but since it had been officially documented I bid it farewell. By the following week when my next appointment rolled around, I was… uh, fine. My body had forgotten all about the entire episode and was back to saying things like “Hey, scratch that mosquito bite, would you?” and “Let’s get some ice cream!” and such.
Despite my appalling lack of any symptoms whatsoever the surgeon was very pleasant. He still didn’t seem to think I was crazy, which continued to endear him to me. He told me that 90 percent of cases he sees are pretty clear-cut: A plus B equals Advanced Progressive Antidisestablishmentarianism, and so on. I was – oh surprise!- in the other ten percent. I was free to go about life as normal; either it would come back one day, or, well, it wouldn’t.
It is moments like these that I want to sit my body down and go “Wait just a minute- what the heck was that? What was, you know- all that pain about? And that BUMP? I mean- what was that?? That’s just scary! You want to let me in on what was going on, here? Little help? A teensy, tiny clue, perhaps?”
But there are some things we don’t get to know, even though it is our body and all. For me, this can be a difficult concept to accept. I grew up with the idea that doctors took care of bodies the way that plumbers and electricians take care of a house: A plus B equals Advanced Progressive Leaky Toilet Disorder, and so on. But along with my teenage appendix, the doctors also removed a good portion of my misguided belief in their infallibility.
This most recent ER visit was a strong reminder that we don’t get to have all the information when it comes to our bodies: there is no owner’s manual, no money back guarantee. Oh, and did we mention that every single model is slightly different? (as in: “What do you mean my appendix is in the wrong place?”) We’re so used to thinking of it as “my” body that it can be easy to forget that while in many ways we’re driving the bus, in many other ways we are, in fact, just along for the ride.