It was about 10:30 when I walked up to the front desk in the hospital. I’d called Mark from the hospital parking lot and told him that, apparently, it wasn’t my gall bladder and that the doctor had ordered a CAT scan. For some reason, Mark sounded worried about this development, while I felt perfectly calm. I told the front desk lady who I was and she told me I needed to get registered. I waited a moment and was quickly called back to speak with another lady. I went through the usual questions and then yet another lady led me to Radiology.
The radiologist receptionist (one out of three) took my name, I sat down, and then I was handed a bottle of clear liquid that I was told to drink. It was ionic contrast for the CAT scan. I drank it and then had to wait 30 minutes. After fifteen minutes, I asked if I could use the bathroom. The receptionist said, “Sure!” and told me where to go. I went, came back, and five minutes later a technician walked up to me and said she was taking me down to labs. I needed to provide a urine sample for a pregnancy test. I said, “I wish somebody would have told me that! I just went.” Long story short, I tried, I failed, I walked back to Radiology, I was told I’d failed, I was handed a bottle of water, I was led back to the Out Patient Surgery Lab, I succeeded, I walked back to Radiology where I waited to be told definitively that I was not pregnant.
Keep in mind that during this whole ordeal I am at a 9 out of 10 on the pain scale. I have a very unhappy face, though I’m bearing it as well as I can. I keep quiet most of the time, but let out an occasional whimper that I just can’t hold back. I’m getting paler and sweatier and more dazed as the moments pass. And nobody but the other patients seems to notice.
Finally, I get to take the CAT scan. I lay down on this long, thin “bed” with a cushion under my knees and my arms up over my head. The tech puts in an IV so she can inject more contrast into my veins. I hold as still as I can for the scan, which turns out to be still enough. The tech warns me, and she’s right; the contrast feels like warm lead in my veins and makes me feel like I’m urinating with an infection. Afterwards, she tells me that she’s going to leave the IV in, “just in case,” and that I’m to wait in the waiting room for the results.
So, I end up back in the Radiology waiting area, but I can’t sit and wait any longer. I ask if I could have a pager and go walk the grounds. I get the pager, I head off the property, smoke two cigarettes, come back in, go to the bathroom again, and head back to Radiology. The receptionist is on the phone, waving me over, and I point innocently to myself, and she nods fiercely. “Didn’t you get my page,” she hisses as she hands me the phone. I shake my head and she says, “I paged you twice!” I say, “Hello?” into the receiver. A quick glance to the clock tells me I was gone less than fifteen minutes.
It’s my doctor’s nurse on the phone. She tells me that it is in fact my gall bladder, that it’s very inflamed, that I’m to go to such-and-such a building, and that somebody there would show me the way. Looking back on this moment, I could have been freaking out. I could have been extremely anxious and panicky. Instead, I was perfectly calm, if a bit dazed. I follow where I’m led, asking few questions. I chat about the wonder of having a skywalk in Janesville. The little hospital was growing up so it was almost like the Children’s Hospital in Madison.
I’m registered at the new office. I hand over my co-pay. Nobody really told me why I was here and I didn’t really ask. I waited, still very much in pain, for what seemed like a long time. I remember that I was told quite specifically not to eat or drink anything. I think to myself that they already made me drink two whole bottles of liquid. I get caught up in random snatches of music. The time passes without much thought. I’m called into the doctor’s office.
The young lady that calls me back is a doctor’s assistant, or something. She asks questions, she probes my abdomen, and I react a bit more strongly this time, loss of self-control. She explains that my gall bladder is inflamed and probably infected. I’ll need surgery today or tomorrow, but it’s not her call. I might even have to stay overnight. She talks about the risks and the reasons. I nod a lot, I speak a little. She tells me that the doctor is in surgery and that it’s his call and that she doesn’t work with him as much so she’s sorry if it’s not exactly what he tells me. Then, she leaves and I wait some more. The nurse will be in with me shortly. Someone pops her head in and asks about my insurance. I tell her. Then I wait for a while longer. I start getting up. I want to walk around. Sitting hurts more than walking. As I start to walk out, someone comes up to my door and tells me that I need to go back to the front desk of the hospital. She doesn’t tell me why and I don’t ask, though she does say something about, “They’ll probably want some labs.”
I decide to go outside and walk to the hospital that way, so I can have a cigarette. I smoke one and that gets me to the place I need to turn. I consider having another, but think that they might be missing me, so I go in. I tell the receptionist, “I’m back.” It only takes them a moment to figure out who I am and where I need to go. It’s not even in the computer yet – she wrote it down on a piece of scratch paper. She leaves her post to the other lady and leads me back herself. I follow without question.
Looking back, it seems that I must have been in shock or something. I was so dazed and so confused. Yet, at the time I was perfectly calm, perfectly at peace. I find myself back in the Out Patient Surgery Lab area, but instead of sending me to the waiting area, she leads me deep into the warren of little rooms. She consults her piece of paper, and then says, “Here you go.” All I could think to ask was, “I get a room now?” And she says, “Yes, they’ll take good care of you here.”
There’re a lot of ins and outs now. Things move more quickly. A registrar comes in to verify my information and give me a new wrist band. She snips off the one Radiology gave me and sets that aside like a souvenir. Another lady comes in for my vitals. I’m told to get in the gown, but not to put my arms in the sleeves of the robe. I do, and then I call Mark. I tell him I have a room now, but that I still don’t know when I’m having surgery. He takes it fairly well, but he’s clearly much more worried about this than I am. A lady comes in to take my blood, so I offer her the IV. She says she can’t use that. While she’s still there, another lady comes in to do an EKG. They work around each other. I almost feel like I’m there. When they’re done, I try to call my mom. I get her machine. I leave a message, though I have no idea what I said. All I know is that, whether I have surgery today or not, I’m no longer safe to drive. The pain feels far away now, but they haven’t given me anything.
Somebody comes in for me and asks how I’m doing. I say, “Not well.” And she says, “No, you don’t look very well, but we’re going to help with that.” She wheels me back to Radiology. This time I get a chest X-ray. I tell them I’ve already been tested and I’m not pregnant. She says, “I’m sure that hasn’t changed since this morning.” The X-ray technician asks why I’m there and I tell him, quite honestly, that I don’t know, that I’m just doing what they tell me.
He apologizes profusely and tells me that I’m probably having surgery, “Does that sound right?” I said, “Okay.” I think the tech must have reported this “conversation,” because people seem much more aware of just how dazed I am at this point. As I’m coming back, someone from somewhere calls out, “Call your mom!” Before I can do that somebody explains roughly what’s been going on and that I should be ready to go home around 5pm. So I call my mom. We talk. She seems so very worried and it’s very upsetting. She asks me questions that I don’t know how to answer. She’ll be there to pick me up around 5pm, she tells me, and she apologizes for not being there sooner. That seems silly at the time.
The surgeon comes in – it’s the first time I’ve seen him – he explains that my gall bladder is inflamed and that it’s probably infected. He strongly recommends surgery today and that there are risks involved – he explains them. “Do you understand? Do you give your consent for this surgery?” “Oh yes,” I say, “that much I get. It’s just nobody’s told me when it’s happening or what all this other stuff is for.” He says, “It’s happening now,” and he turns and points to the bed they’re getting ready for me. “Oh.”
The anesthesiologist comes in and explains her role. I have to give informed consent to both of them and sign their forms, which I do. By now it’s really sinking in that I’m having surgery, but I’m still perfectly calm. Then, they get me up and on the bed and I’m still conscious as I’m rolled into the surgery room. I see the surgical instruments and wonder to myself why I’m not freaking out, but I’m still perfectly calm. The anesthesiologist tsks over my IV, but uses it to give me the medicine that puts me out. The last thing I remember is her saying, “I’ll put in a proper one once she’s out.” I try to defend the Radiology technician, but I don’t think the words ever come.
I wake up and there’s my mom, worried and waiting. It’s not until I’ve slept more thoroughly than I have in years that it occurs to me why. Looking back on everything that happened that day, from the initial impulse to go to the doctor to my circuitous route to emergency surgery, it occurs to me that I was probably in a lot more danger then I ever realized.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
I don’t think I’ve ever quite grasped the meaning of that passage before now.