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Saturday, August 27, 2005

Worse and worse

Right after I wrote the last bit, the old body seemed to fall apart through the night, throat swelling, vomiting, hallucinations, throat closing, temperature rising three tenths of a degree for every passing half hour, even under full medication.

At three in the morning, Beloved called the on-call doctor yet again, and we were ordered into our third trip to Emergency. Driving a pain-crazed animal to the vet through the night can be harrowing experience even if you have a good cat cage, but I'm the size of a small leopard and was in the seat right next to her.

The woman has good concentration.

This time they held me for an eye, ear, nose, throat specialist. He appeared about sunrise, a little unhappy about something (perhaps he, like we, had hoped for some sleep), poked around in the massive callosity hanging around my jaws, called for a cat scan, and admitted me to the sprawling beast we call Sacred Heart.

I was now in the hands of people whose training it is to be bright, cheery and respectful, and whose education is to distrust your identity, your reasoning powers, and your intentions. Everyone checks your wrist label before and after every blood test, of which there are about six a day, and if you have a girl name and and an [M] after the name, they will check it three more times, ask you your birth date, to spell your last name, stand on you head, bark three times like a seal, and change water into wine before they will stick you. But, on the most part, they say "Ma'am," show genuine concern, and pat you on the shoulder before they go. There really aren't that many furrowed eyebrows.

The only troublesome people are the priests -- I mean, doctors. They want to know all your meds, are willing to try to trip you up to see if you have any hidden ones about, and they get bent out of shape over the estrogen and anti-androgen bits. It's, in their religion, part of a self-mutilation ritual, and you have be wide -awake in your responses around them. They keep muttering about the potential for liver damage, as if I didn't know about that already, and I can get only a fourth of the spiro I need in here. Already this morning I had an involuntary erection on awakening, probably the first in four months or more, and I'm losing my face and breasts, even with the patch on.

"Are you able to swallow?"

"No, sir."

"Can you swallow your spit?"

"No, sir."

Things that help. Show an interest in everyone, even brusque high priests and priestesses, and what they need from you and how you can help them help you. Be cleanly. Cooperate in everything. Make requests with "please," receive everything with "thank you," and if they look like they have the time, show an interest in their lives and happiness, especially the housekeepers. Make yourself a promise, which you will keep, to write thank you notes. Remember: things go potty in all lives. You can rebuild yourself after you get out of here. Just get out healthy.

The CAT scan was informative but not conclusive, and the doctor decided to wait a day before committing to a course of action. A steady stream of calls and visitors poured in. This eventually proved tiring, but it's kind of important to a patient, I think, to know who your bodyguards are.

As the list grew, I became humbled by the apparently inexhaustible supply of love and support there is in the world. This was in sad contrast to the traces of national-level and international corporate level behaviors I could find in all the sad things I was reading, between visitors, in my latest copy of the National Geographic, a special on Africa.

Nausea and vomiting were not supposed to be part of the picture, but I lost my gall bladder in a spectacular episode in the early nineties which could have been fatal (can you say pancreatitis), and I have been unable, really, to stomach Vicodin and the like ever since.

When my body thinks its doing that kind of a dive, the stomach sends back everything, and the doctors have fits about it and accuse me of having a dead liver. I think it was just wounded in the original battle and doesn't want to have to be on the front lines when the going gets tough. Can't blame it.

The other thing nobody wanted to really hear about was the hallucinations. Whenever I closed my eyes, while my neck was huge and tight like that, I entered a streaming non-stop (and very tiring) 3-D universe of dark reds and purples, impossibly landscaped and infinitely detailed, rich in swirling motion of armies of misshapen figures endlessly giving birth to one another and to empires of mud-like expanses subject to, mostly, ennui.

It was an extremely unpleasant place to be, but the startling part was that, while I could always dissipate it by opening my eyes, each time it seemed to take me another second longer to decide that this room, and not that other place, was the real world. I had never known anything like this and it was rapidly becoming the most unnerving part of the overall experience.


On the second day, the doctor called for another scan. Another one, the "liver worrier," ordered an ultrasound. After much prodding and zapping I was sent to the OR at 6 p.m. and prepped. This was the most impersonal environment I'd encountered. I was shuffled from bed to bed with a body board, tied down, masked, and treated to a steady stream of "he" and "him" from all parties. Finally the doctor arrived around seven, and I was given about three breaths in which to figure that out.

It's a trip to awaken sitting up, feeling that you have been decapitated and reassembled, with some kind of armor wrapped around you beneath your chin. I felt that I would surely drown if whatever was hanging on my epiglottis fell into the tiny twisted slot through which I was breathing. They gave me an aspirator and I chased glop around with it every fifteen minutes from two until six a.m. Punched the pain button on the same schedule. The vital signs machine ran on automatic, and I could follow progress as it awakened me on the quarter hour to fight off drowning.

165/98. 154/94. 148/100. 137/93. 133/90. 127/87. 129/85. 125/74.

Looked to me like a good progression. Besides, those horrible nightmares had gone away -- totally -- during the operation. I settled back and went to sleep.


I awoke around nine, drenched in sweat but feeling energized and cheerful. I reached for my ditty bag, arose, unplugged my Christmas tree, hung the power cord over its arm, arranged my IV tubes and oxygen tube over my arm, and we all trundled off to the little bathroom.

Omigod. The original wreck of the Hesperus. Washrag everywhere, with the pink soap. Cry over little tits. Shave every limb, belly, chest hair, aureole hair (carefully! and count nipples afterward), under arms, change Venus head, shave all the face and neck not under the mask. Pull out the oxygen long enough to do upper lip. Clean and dry razor. Lip lotion. Eye cream. Skin toner. Concealer. Foundation. Eyelids, liner, lip liner, lipstick, blush. No powder to set. Can't have it all, girl. But wait on the mascara...

Doctor arrives and pokes about, setting off tears. He's happy.

"You had a big pocket of ill-defined pus in there; I don't like to chase those but you didn't seem to have more time. But I landed right on it. We got four cc's out and I sent it to be cultured. Could take awhile to hear back. We threw amoxicillin at it for four days and it's bound to be a little woozy."


"Nah, staph I'm thinking. We'll see. Anyway you look a lot better than you did yesterday."

He met Beloved in the hall and gave a her a cheery update. She and Daughter came in. After tears and hugs, I dried my eyes and did the mascara, then Daughter unpacked her kit and started on my nails.

"I love you, Mama Risa."

"Love you, kid."

"Love you, love you, love you."

"Not gonna die on you, y'know."

"You wouldn't dare. Now hold still and don't curl up those fingers."

-- risa b


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