That time my appendix exploded

Angela Santillo
Jan 27, 2016 · 5 min read

My appendix ruptured and I almost died. It doesn’t seem like such a dramatic event compared to other catastrophes, like that one time I was airlifted after a car accident. But I spent a week at home, mostly alone, insanely sick and unable to eat anything. After my first trip to the ER, I was diagnosed with food poisoning so I went home to hydrate and rest. My symptoms were a bit unusual in that I wasn’t in constant but fluctuating pain. After 5 days of what I thought was the stomach flu from hell, I became insanely thirsty and no amount of ice water made it stop and began to have contraction like pains. I realized that something was wrong when I wasn’t able to pee after all the water I consumed. Believing my kidneys were shutting down, I asked my boss to accompany me to the ER the next morning.

I spent eight hours in the ER in a maddening level of pain before I was told I needed emergency surgery. I wasn’t even nervous, whatever was on the other side was better than how I felt and I demanded that the surgeon cut me open. While we were waiting for the OR to open up, I went into shock as the pain won and the morphine stopped working. That level of agony is beyond comprehension.

Before surgery, the medical team thought I perforated my intestine. When they put their surgical cameras into my abdomen, they discovered my appendix had been ruptured for days. They cut me down the middle, right thru my belly button, as I was severely septic and they needed to clean me out. My boss later named my new ab scar Towanda-because such an epic addition to my body deserved a name.

My surgeon later told me I was the worst case of appendicitis he had seen in his career.

I spent three weeks in the hospital, one of which was in ICU. I was attached to a wound vac, multiple IV towers, and all kinds of tubes going thru all kinds of holes. For the first 48 hours, I was really close to multiple organ shut down. Eventually my kidneys started again and my body fought the infection. My parents came out from California to take care of me in and out of the hospital. They helped me do a million normal things like wash my hair and a million abnormal things like distract me as I felt my intestines wake up after two weeks without food. By the time I left the hospital, I was 20 pounds lighter and considered to be healthy and lucky 31 year old female.

Towanda has redirected my life. I knew I was dying in the ER, when your body is in mayday mode you just know. When a surgery resident finally told me during a check-up that I was hours away from kicking the bucket, I already realized I would have been okay with dying. Shockingly, I had very few regrets and sure, I never got to experience the torrid romance of my dreams, but I felt I had a good run.

Living life after you realize you aren’t afraid to die does a number to your priorities. Before the surgery, I was exhausting myself in the pursuit of a successful playwriting career. But when you are ready to go, what does that fellowship or production even mean? In the grand scheme of things, absolutely nothing.

In the months following my release from the hospital, I had seven shows go up in NYC, Chicago, and San Francisco and was a finalist for a major national fellowship. I went forward with all my scheduled gigs, even going into rehearsal only three weeks after my hospital release. No matter how weak I felt, I wanted to keep using and used my gigs as a way to recovery. But the usual nerves and worries that came with making theater were gone. I was simply going thru the motions.

So does art mean to someone who almost died? What is the point? I didn’t even want to answer the question. I just wanted to live so after the last show closed, I fought urges to do dangerous things like jump on a motorcycle and drive a million miles an hour or go to a bar and go home with an army of strangers. Instead, I fueled my new obsession: my health. And not health in the way I was raised as a California girl-which was based on looks and thinness. Health suddenly meant the ability to survive and I wanted to enjoy the machine I was living in. So I acted out by eating right and rebuilding my weak body. I started running and ran my first half marathon. I did everything I never made the time to do. I joined book clubs, went to museums, crocheted a dozen scarfs, took forty block walks for the hell of it, jumped on random MetroNorth trains just to see what was at the end of the line, I bought a TV for the first time in eight years to binge watch Netflix, chopped off all my hair, adopted a cat, and moved into my own place.

And for better and for worse, I have stopped caring. The goals of my theater profession have become obnoxious, which would be freeing except I can’t seem to write anything nowadays. Instead of saving all my money for rehearsal space or bigger payments on my student loans, I am starting to travel for fun for the first time. Instead of comparing my life to those of my more stable, married friends I am just thankful I am strong and stare at my scar every morning to remind myself that all of this is really happening.

I also can’t stop from saying what’s on my mind. I openly confess that I was okay with dying and when I do, people freak out. Maybe because it’s a story we don’t often hear? I don’t know but life is too short not to be truthful. So I will say I was okay with dying, that I appreciate you, that I love you, that you’re bad for me, that I’m lonely and lost, that I think about you all the time, and sometimes I can’t help crying in public places over nothing. Fact is, I don’t know why I’m still living or what is the point. It’s absolutely freeing and a bit worrying.

I think about Towanda every day, I would even say every hour. During the first year of my recovery, everything I thought about was prefaced by the thought, “I almost died.” So, “I almost died, do I want a salad for lunch? I almost died, should I kiss my boss’ ass? I almost died, should I read the rest of this book?” This April will mark two years since I was sick and I still talk about it more then I want. I find myself wanting to share my experience with anyone I think because I’m waiting to meet someone who can relate to what I have experienced. Unfortunately, sharing my story hasn’t achieved that…yet. But you know what freaks people out the most about my sickness? The fact that the only visible thing I lost because of Towanda was my belly button. Go figure.

I’m not thankful for my experience because sickness is just one of those you have to endure. What I do know is life is too short for regrets and while I may feel lost, I’m trying to use it as a way to discover something else.

Angela Santillo

Written by

Writer | Corporate Storyteller | Host of the And Then Suddenly podcast

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