Friday, August 5, 2011

Happiness is...

...being able to put on your own clothes, which finally fit again, and sit down to a good meal with your family.

[DISCLAIMER:  This post is far longer and more detailed than anyone actually wants to read I'm sure, even for those of you who have been interested in hearing my crazy hospital story.  I decided to write it all anyway, since this blog also serves a personal memory purpose.  I have bolded small sections for those of you who only want the gist.]

It has been quite a strange week.  Last Thursday (already sodden with unwritten blog posts about the family's trip to England, leaving Cambridge and coming home), I boarded an airplane to Salt Lake City, though after taxiing to somewhere mid-tarmac, an engine light flipped on and we were forced to un-board.  Instead of meeting my siblings at the airport and driving merrily to Population-105, Wyoming together, Dave and I went home, slept in our own bed, and tried again the next morning.  This time our flight departed, we landed safely in Salt Lake, received keys and a set of wheels from Dave's mom, and bobbed around to Beach Boys with the windows down for a few hours before landing at Aunt Su's ranch just in time for lunch at the family reunion.

The only thing I noticed was that my 7up seemed a little too bubbly for my stomach. I really only got through about half the can.  I thought it was odd, but nothing too worrying.  I was having a delightful time catching up with long-lost cousins and settling in as team captain of "Minute to Win It" when I noticed some uncomfortable cramping.  I traded out my team place to walk it off, but about two hours later, I was writhing in pain on the air mattress in my parents' tent, unable to find any even remotely comfortable position.  I felt like my insides were on fire.  Soon my dad was driving the van 90 miles an hour towards Evanston, where the nearest ER was located.  After the worst hour-long drive of my life, I was admitted for severe abdominal pain and vomiting.  They put me on pain medications and tried three different anti-nausea concoctions.  None of them helped me keep down more than two sips of the contrast solution they needed me to drink for the CT scan.  After doing the scan without contrast and determining it wasn't a burst appendix or gall bladder problem, they suggested I start heading down to Salt Lake where the hospitals were better equipped.  Miraculously, Dave and I made it safely to his parents' home after a 4-6 am drive that neither of us remember very well.

I was in pain the next day (Saturday), but wasn't suffering as much as I had been.  I tried to stay comfortable, but I'm afraid I wandered around a bit like a zombie (from all the pain meds) while Dave's family tried to celebrate a fun and normal Pioneer Day.  Sometime that evening I started throwing up again, and this time I wasn't able to stop.  We checked into the U of U ER around 2:00 am.  They put me on more pain meds and anti-nausea solutions, which seemed to work fairly well.  I slept soundly for much of the morning, and by the time I woke up on Sunday afternoon, I had energy and felt well enough to start eating some orange jello.  My family came to visit after church, and I felt very optimistic about my future.

On the other hand, we weren't exactly sure if I was better and anyway, I wasn't quite ready to leave the hospital in time to make my 8 pm flight back to Phoenix.  So I had to kiss my husband goodbye (didn't I say I would never do that again???) so that he could get back to work.  I was released to my family, who drove me down to Provo and set me up on a comfortable air mattress downstairs.  I had a tube of Zofran and a tube of Lortab from Walgreens, and I passed Monday very cheerfully and comfortably.  Problem was, I was still relying heavily on both medications, and my whole stomach area was swollen.  I felt like I was four months pregnant and my pants (which are normally quite loose on me) didn't fit at all.

I threw up again late on Monday night, despite the Zofran.  We decided to try to make an appointment with the GI specialist and were able (somehow) to land an appointment on Wednesday afternoon.  I think mentioning the two ER visits in five days helped.  After the doc had taken some x-rays, he told me he would look at them after he returned from the hospital.  If there was anything serious, he would call me that night; otherwise, he would give me a call the next morning.  I heard from him 45-minutes later, telling me I needed to head to the ER soon.

That's how I came to be at my third Emergency Room in five days.  They x-rayed me again and were able to show me huge pockets of gas and fluid in my stomach and intestines area.  Though the nurses were all terribly sympathetic, they told me that I needed a tube put down my nose and down into my stomach so they could vacuum everything out.  It was bad when they put the tube down, it's true.  But I never got used to it like they told me (maybe a little overly hopefully) I would.  I discovered that my gag reflex is VERY active and healthy.  I couldn't swallow, I couldn't breathe too shallowly, I couldn't breathe too deeply, I couldn't tip my head back, I couldn't let the tube wiggle.  If my throat ever felt the tube AT ALL, I gagged severely.  I was trying to keep the faith, but I was absolutely miserable.

The tube was in me for 12 hours, between 10 pm on Wednesday and ten o'clock on Thursday morning.  I slept perhaps half an hour.  The only thing that passed the minutes was an old BYU-Wyoming game (54-0; Go Cougs!) and my sweet mother reading The Enchanted April out loud.  When the nurse came to check my vitals around 6 am, I asked her when the doctors arrived.  She said they normally toured the floors between 9 am and 4.  I whimpered.  She told me she would try and get me at the top of the list.  The hour between 8 and 9 passed extremely slowly.  I think I saw every tick of the second hand.  Thankfully, the doctor walked in the door at 9:05.  When I begged him if he could take the tube out, he paused and told me they usually clamp it and then release to make sure there was nothing else.  "How long?" I asked, pathetically. "Two to three hours"..............he looked at the vacuum container - which, after bringing up what I'm sure was around half a gallon of fluid in the first two hours, showed almost no increase from the last eight - and admitted there probably was nothing left to bring up.  He agreed to take out the tube.  I shed a tear or two of exhausted relief.

Forty-five minutes later, after a few more checks and some paperwork, I got that cursed thing removed.  Other than that hour drive to Evanston, that was undoubtedly the most miserable twelve hours of my life.  

Unfortunately, there was one essential test that sent the tube's work backwards.  I still needed a real CT scan, and since I refused to let them keep the tube in a bit longer and pour the contrast solution down that way, I had to drink six half-Dixie-cup shots of juice and contrast within the hour immediately following the tube's removal.  I prayed very hard that the solution would stay down and that I would be able to take the scan without any difficulty.  Mom continued to read Enchanted April out loud to distract me, and every ten minutes on the dot, I poured the four or five swallows of sickly sweet liquid down my throat.  As this was now six full days past the last time I had eaten a full meal, I was rather impressed with my stomach.  The juice and contrast stayed down and two hours after I took my first swallow, I was downstairs being scanned for my second time in a week.   

Verdict?  A blocked intestine, right where the small intestine meets the large intestine.  This had been suggested and discarded by doctors at both the U of U and in Provo.  Apparently such things really don't happen much in young, healthy individuals with no history of stomach surgery.  For some reason, my intestines insisted on being an anomaly.  The doctors immediately forbade me from putting any food or drink into my mouth, deciding that the best way to get my system started again was to shut it down completely first.  I would survive on my IV.  

It was the right treatment plan.  My poor digestive system needed a serious rest.  Soon after arriving back in my room after the CT scan, my stomach started burning again and I began vomiting all the juice that had vehicled the contrast solution earlier.  Their anti-nausea shots failed again; it seems that when nothing can exit the normal way, the body will find a way to get rid of it, despite the best medications our modern world can provide.  I was terrified that nothing the doctors had done in the last hellish twenty-four hours had done any good, and that I was right back where I had started.  I thought of the tube and dreaded the possibility that it would return.  My poor doctors and nurses found me on my bed that evening, crying from exhaustion, fear and pain.

That night, I was given a small dose of Dilaudid (stronger than Morphine) every two hours for my stomach pain.  Every hour and fifty minutes I would wake up, feeling the pain returning.  I slept soundly in between doses, though, and I could tell as the night progressed that I was beginning to feel calmer, better rested and even less reliant on the pain medication.  Around five the next morning, I told the nurse I didn't need any of the medication yet.  I was able to go three hours between doses, and then seven hours.  On Friday morning I woke up with energy and optimism.  I took a shower and got on my email for the first time in a few days.  I was able to visit with a few thoughtful friends and family members who dropped by my hospital room.  Despite my fuzzy eyebrows and hospital gown, I started to feel like myself again.

Gorgeous flowers from Aunt Su (and Imagine Learning) and Tera and BJ

I never had to use this particular tub thank heavens! The green chair in the back is where Mom slept on Wed and Thurs nights.  The white cup in front was full of warm water so I could at least keep my mouth from getting too dry while I couldn't eat or drink. 

Starting to feel better!

IV in the thumb.  Terrible place, but I was sooooo dehydrated when I got to the hospital that the ER's best phlebotomist couldn't find any other vein.  

Vacuum container for my stomach juices.  The ring at the bottom was all they got in the last eight hours of tube-suffering.  
The next two days were a steady climb back towards normalcy.  I had my down moments: moments when I was afraid again, when I doubted that I was really healing, moments when I felt tired and weak.  But for the most part, I knew I was improving and felt constantly better.  I was weaned completely from pain medications (and when the pain disappeared, so did the nausea).  This was the most important step in my recovery.  The doctors realized that the narcotics had been keeping my body from working to heal itself, and was only prolonging the problem.  By eliminating food and drink, the source of the pain was erased, and without the pain, the medications weren't needed.  My body was allowed to regulate.  In the meantime, I had some treats - my family came on Friday night and played a five-suite rummy game with me.  I was terrible, but loved the family fun.

On Saturday afternoon, my mom and dad kidnapped me and took me and my IV pole down to the hospital cafe patio for some fresh air and sun.  It's amazing how such small things become such great blessings. I began to feel so grateful for everything - my wonderful parents who were taking so much time out of their busy lives to be with me and make me comfortable; my siblings, who were showing me how much they loved me by doing simple things, like praying specifically for my bowels (how embarrassing!) and doing laundry so I would have clean shorts and underwear (I had only packed for three days); the mountains, which I could see from my window and which were so beautiful!  You forget how beautiful Utah's mountains are until you have been away for a while...  

On Saturday I had to make a medical care decision.  One GI specialist was somewhat concerned that I might have Crohn's disease.  I didn't actually tick any of the boxes but two. One was the location of the blockage.  The other was that there was no way of knowing exactly what caused my blockage, so without another sure explanation, Crohn's still had to be a possibility.  The weekend GI specialist had room in his schedule to perform a colonoscopy Sunday morning just to verify that it wasn't Crohn's.  Having talked with two other gastroenterologists, though, and hearing from them that Crohn's was highly unlikely (given the sudden onslaught of my symptoms) and knowing that a Crohn's diagnosis wouldn't change my current treatment, I decided to forgo the colonoscopy.  I know now to be very mindful of my body and how it is functioning, and if I see any worrying signs, I know to alert my doctor of the possibility of Crohn's.  In the meantime, though, I am more convinced of the alternative explanation the doctors gave me: that somewhere in England, on a plane across the ocean or at a restaurant in Arizona, I picked up a severe viral or bacterial infection that landed in my intestines.  My extreme change in diet after coming home (I did eat really terribly for a week), dehydration from the heat in Arizona, and lack of activity (again from the heat) then led to a blockage.  My body didn't heal naturally because of the narcotics I was given to control the terrible pain.  We can't know for sure if that's what happened, but until I have a very good reason to believe or start testing otherwise, it seems like a reasonable explanation.   

On Saturday night I was allowed to start a diet of "clears": water, broth, jello.  I drank my water and broth slooooowly, but I kept it down without pain or nausea.  I tried two bites of jello before going to bed, but started to feel my stomach cramping and decided to let it rest before trying again the next morning.  On Sunday morning I was told by the doctors to take it easy, but to push my diet just a little.  If nothing changed, I would be allowed to go home that evening.  I ate the rest of my jello for breakfast, and admitted to myself when I was done that I was still starving.  I ordered some tomato soup for lunch a couple of hours later, and felt fine.  I was still hungry and didn't feel any pain or cramping.  Around 3 pm I ordered half a cup of applesauce, some tapioca pudding and a butter roll.  It took me a couple of hours to eat through everything, but I was able to do so and lick the spoon!  I felt great!

I was released Sunday night at 8 pm, and went home without any medication whatsoever, with a flat stomach, and with an appetite.  It was a fabulous feeling.  I was still supposed to build my diet slowly, sticking with soft foods for a few days - no meat, grease or spicy foods.  Funny enough, after my experiences, I really wasn't craving a hamburger anyway.  I soon took care of the only thing I had been craving, inviting a close friend over to help me make it:

The perfect fresh strawberry milkshake.  YUM.
I spent a few days in Utah to rest and ensure that there would be no relapse.  I tried to ignore the tense feeling of waiting - I still wasn't sure if my body was working normally all the way down.  My aunt (who works as a nurse on one of the lower floors in the same hospital) suggested I drink Metamucil every day for six months until my intestines are no longer swollen at all.  Nasty stuff, but it's true: I'm not anxious to make my insides work too hard.  Thankfully, by the time I arrived at the airport for my trip back to Phoenix, I was confident that everything inside of me was working properly.  I feel completely healthy again and oh, so grateful for it!  

I have come out of it all ten pounds lighter.  Remember my pants that "fit" again?  Now I realize they are all baggy on me.  I am suddenly combing through boxes of clothes, hoping to find bottoms from years ago that might finally fit again.  Too bad I gave everything away before I moved...

In addition, I feel very, very grateful.  My hospital room gave me lots of reason to reflect and re-prioritize.  One of the most touching things to watch was the door at the end of the hallway, right next to mine.  There was an elderly woman in that room who was suffering more than I was.  She had a loving and worried husband with her, and the two of them received children and grandchildren all throughout the day.  She was surrounded by people who were infinitely important in her life, and who obviously loved her dearly.  The self-importance of Cambridge academia made for a wry comparison.  

I understand better now how suffering helps us appreciate the beauty of life.  I experienced pain like nothing I have known before.  For the first time, I feel truly capable of sympathizing with others who are experiencing pain.  My heart is able to suffer with them.  Additionally, though, I feel how great it is to live!  It is likely that a hundred years ago I would have died from such a thing, if for no other reason than sheer dehydration.  At least for now, the joys and beauties around me seem so much more acute than they seemed before.  I thank my Father in Heaven for life on this earth, and for the growth and wisdom that comes through our trials and sufferings, as hard as they are.         


Jonathon and Sarah said...

אלה חדשות טובות

I'm glad you are feeling better. It is too bad that you were at the U of U on Sunday (since you had to be there at all). I could have come by any other day.


Dan said...

I feel guilty that I was incredibly entertained by this story - not because of your sufferings, but because of your fantastic writing. Maybe 'entertained' is not the right word, but rather 'captivated', but that sounds like a poorly worded book review. Anyways, Amy, very well written!

I am very happy to hear that you are feeling better and have come out wiser and more appreciative of life. At the same time, I wish you did not have to have gone through it at all. You see? Evoking complex emotion is evidence of really good writing.

(And, admit it, you kind of miss the self-importance of Cambridge academia, just a tiny bit.)

Tyler said...

Good work with the bolding! It really helped relate to the less educated (or attention-spanned) audience including myself. Good thing you didn't tell anyone that a low score was a good score in that game. We'll just keep that hush hush for everyone to think I won! Glad you're feeling better sis!

Sarah said...

Glad you're feeling better Amy!

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