The second day of recovery began when I emerged lazily and with some difficulty out of a fog of anesthesia, narcotic pain killers and sleep. My wife was beside me, as she almost always was, and as the fog cleared she was asking if I wanted to sip some chicken broth. The doctors had explained that it was important that I resume eating and drinking in order to speed up my recovery. There was nothing I wanted more than a speedy recovery, so I was eager to comply.
The broth was listed as low fat, low sodium. I guess that this is standard for hypertensive cardiac patients, but I thought that low taste, low interest would have been a good deal more accurate. Still, an order is an order, so down the hatch it went. I drank a cup of cranberry juice as a chaser and relaxed back into my bed to continue my nascent healing process.
I knew that my urine was draining out from my bladder through a catheter and found the convenience of that arrangement comforting. All of the peeing in a urinal that I had been doing before my surgery had now been taken out of the picture, and I didn’t miss it. I was actually mildly disappointed when the catheter was removed the next day, which will illustrate as clearly as possible what a lazy man I truly am. I also had one or two surgical tubes protruding from my chest and coursing into a bubbling container. Why the container bubbled is a mystery to me. Those tubes were draining blood or air or anything else which might be in my chest post-surgically but didn’t belong there. I was practically unaware of those tubes at first, but that would change.
My nurse, who was one more wonderful person in a parade of wonderful people, was constantly flitting in and out of my room taking vital signs, checking IV fluids, and generally making me feel as comfortable as possible, and the latter duty involved administering periodic doses of a pain killer called Dilaudid. The dose was prescribed to be given every three hours as needed through a catheter threaded into a vein in my right neck.
My son made his first post-surgical appearance that day and I greatly enjoyed chatting with him, although the pain killer had the exceedingly weird effect of loosening my grip on reality. I have an active if somewhat shallow mind and it is not at all difficult for me to slip in and out of a daydream at any time. Under the deluge of Dilauded which was pouring down my central line I was no longer slipping into daydreams; I was now jack booting down the door and commandeering the residence.
A conversation might go something like this. WILL: “I’m going to go to the house tomorrow and water your garden. Are there any special instructions that you have for me?” ME: “Yes. Use the sprinkler on the onions and just lay the hose at the base of the tomatoes. Don’t worry about the dog (author’s note: I don’t have a dog), he stays in the shade and will fix the bicycle tire himself if you have a…. Wait a minute, that didn’t make sense, did it?” WILL: “Some of it, Dad. You told me to sprinkle the onions and just put the hose in the tomato beds.” ME: “Yes, that will work. Do the same with the cucumbers and squash and don’t worry about the asparagus because they take care of themselves since they moved out of the house and haven’t had much trouble except that one time that the police….” It was like that all day.
As morning moved into noon the pain in my belly began to grow and by lunch had come to dominate my consciousness. Hospitals like to use a pain scale of zero to ten, with zero being no pain and ten being agony. Those scales are highly subjective of course, and for me skinning my right foot and plunging the raw flesh into salt would be about a three. By noon I was at five or six. I sat up in my chair and tried to eat, and the pain seemed to subside a bit, but I was not able to eat much and soon returned to my bed.
The pain began again to cresendo and soon I was begging for more of the pain medications with the result that I became even more stoned but not one bit less in pain. I had maxed out my Dilauded dose and still I was crawling up to an eight-and-a-half. My nurse was truly sorry for my pain and tried anything she could think of to bring it down, including exchanging morphine for Dilaudid a couple of times, but nothing worked.
The nurse’s instructions were to get me up in a chair as much as possible so that the changed position would keep fluids moving and allow me to inhale as deeply as I could on a device designed to help me gain greater expansion of my lungs. I groused about having to move in my pain but complied. It slowly began to register with me that I really did feel somewhat pain-diminished when I was sitting up. Not pain free by any stretch of the imagination, but pain-tolerable. My nurse noticed this as well, and I stayed in my chair until it was time for visitors to go home and for me to try to get some sleep.
“There’s no way that I will be able to sleep if I lay down” I told my nurse. “I know” she replied. “That’s why I’m going to turn your bed into more of a chair.” With that she began to fiddle with buttons and my bed began to move like a Transformer. The head began to raise up almost like the back of a chair and the foot of the bed dropped down towards the floor, leaving me a shelf to be seated on with feet dependent and head upright, then she tilted the whole thing back so that I was reasonably in a kick-back mode. In that bed I passed through the night. The pain level stayed down at a four or so and sleep, with the help of the Dilauded and a benedryl capsule, stole over me and I enjoyed something which approached acceptable comfort the rest of the night.
That second day was one of the worst of my life. I have suffered physical and emotional pain before and this day stands out from all of the others by a long shot. The pain in my belly felt like the larval stage of “The Alien” was eating his way up from my intestines through my liver and diaphragn and into my chest. It was hard to breathe and I performed very poorly on the device through which I inhaled in order to expand my lungs. The pain was almost like a physical entity; a beaked, taloned and tentacled monster from one of the ‘B’ sci fi movies of the 19650’s that I loved so much as a kid
Only there was no love here on this day. The tentacles embraced me with a power which refused my lungs the ability to inflate. The talons dug into my flesh and denied me the opportunity to shake my monster off in any way. The beak ripped and tore through bone and cartilage and muscle to feast on the crying organs at my core. This monster came to stay, and none of the tricks and devices which became available at the end of the ‘B’ movies to enable the humans threatened with destruction to escape the final victory of the monster was becoming available to me. I was the captive of PAIN. I would remain that way. Tough luck, Kiddo.
The pain meds, which no doubt prevented me from shrieking at the top of my under inflated lungs even if they seemed to not be working at all, also kept my mind in the fog that I mentioned earlier. It was a humorous side note to the day when I would prattle on to my family and then stop, both of us knowing that I was not speaking of anything real at all. But there were those times when I was not speaking, when I stared vacantly at the television or at the ceiling or simply into the pain which gnawed at my belly, and they were not humorous. They were dead, or at least deadening. They robbed me of what is peculiarly me and replaced my me-ness with a stoned, mentally wandering imitation of me.
I am not a narcissist by any measure, but I have grown over the years to like myself. I am glad to know that I have some good points and I can clearly see the bad ones and work towards their correction without self-loathing. I have managed with the help of God to be a blessing – a mixed one to be sure – to a wife of thirty seven years, two children whom I adore and three grandchildren. I short, as the saying goes, I’m ‘comfortable being in my skin’. The drugs blurred my self awareness and I became ever so slightly not me. The sensation lasted most of a day and a half and never came to wholly dominate the real me. It tried however and it was not pleasant, and I was eager to cut down on the narcotics as quickly as the pain would let me, which I am told was a great deal more quickly than most people who have undergone my surgery have done. That process would become easier by the events of the next day, which will have to wait for my next post.