One year after sitting in the faded, dirty waiting room in the general surgery unit, I found myself back there. This time the TV was playing Live With Kelly. Instead of reading A House in the Sky, I was reading Never Let Me Go. And instead of getting my rectum removed, I was getting the hole where it used to be re-stitched.
I was also starting law school in two weeks.
I woke up and was allowed to change out of my hospital gown. I had to sit in a chair for 15 minutes. I had to promise I was not going to drive for 24 hours (joke’s on them, I never drive).
I went home and treated myself to a bag of Kettle Chips and a Larabar. I watched True Blood in my mum’s bed.
I took the next day off work, but went back the day after. I only had one week of work left. My manager assured me I could take the rest of it off, but I said I would be fine. I’d been through worse.
I knew something wasn’t right. My wound had been sewn up again, but was draining like it hadn’t been. The drainage was yellow — anyone remotely familiar with matters of the body knows that yellow is not the colour you want to see exiting you.
I waited until the week was over. I didn’t want to leave work again. What if they thought I was a liar? Besides, I’d been through worse.
That weekend, I asked my mum if she would drive me to the emergency room. I told her to drop me off. I’d just take a bus home.
She wound up joining me about seven hours later, after I had switched units twice and called her in hysterics.
A resident doctor came to see me about an hour after I had been moved the first time to “rapid assessment,” which is hospital-code for “not too important.” He introduced himself and looked at my chart.
“We’re neighbours,” he said.
That is exactly what you do not want to hear before someone looks at your rectal wound. It’s one thing for me to be giving up my bodily autonomy for this. It’s another thing to know I’m probably going to see you in my building’s elevator after this.
The prognosis? Infected. Again.
I didn’t believe him. What did he know? He wasn’t my surgeon. I wanted a second opinion. An opinion from someone who knew my unique, special butt.
Can you page Dr. J? He ordered this.
He could not page Dr. J. He could try paging Dr. J’s resident, but it could be a while.
I cried. Stripped from the waist-down, lying on a gurney crying to this person who also happened to live in my building. I shouted all the lines that had been swimming in my head for the past year: I’m only 22. I’m starting law school next week. This was supposed to work.
In total I spent 11 hours in the emergency room, shuffled back-and-forth between rapid assessment, patient education and finally to an honest-to-god emergency bed. I saw Dr. J’s resident, who confirmed that the procedure indeed was a failure. I still had a wound that, while slightly smaller in diameter, was just as deep as it had been all along (if not deeper, considering the scar tissue that had been removed).
I would have to go back to the nursing clinic, two weeks after I had happily told them to remove my file. I would have to go back to Dr. J to discuss next steps. I was told not to let this affect my starting school.
I went back to Dr. J the next day. Evidently, he was not as surprised as I was that the wound was open again. The next step? A Wound VAC.
A had avoided the Wound VAC for as long as I could, because a Wound VAC is exactly what it sounds like. It is a vacuum for your wound. My wound was between my buttcheeks. I don’t think I need to go into any more detail.
Wound VACs are uncomfortable. It is the feeling of having a large, hard piece of foam shoved up your butt while simultaneously having that foam vacuum-sealed like one of those infomercial storage bags.
Wound VACs are inconvenient. The apparatus was designed in the mid-’90s, and it shows. It has all the subtlety of a car-phone and the noise level of a desktop computer equipped with Windows 95. It’s compact enough to fit in your backpack, but not so compact as to allow your law textbooks to also fit.
I dressed almost exclusively in leggings and long tunics with slits up the sides, so I could thread the tube stuck to my buttocks up my pants and into my backpack. The tube was clear, so as to better see the reddish-yellow drainage being sucked out of my wound. I tried, but a VAC is hard to make subtle.
Of course, I was irritable. One day someone asked me why I always carried so much with me. Since the VAC took nearly all the room in my backpack, I had resorted to carrying my textbooks in a reusable shopping bag. The question was enough to ruin my day. People were noticing.
One thing they don’t tell you about Wound VACs is they smell. A large area of your skin is covered in an airtight dressing, and it will begin to smell how I imagine a dead body does.
I began to other myself. Sitting far away from everyone in class. Never stopping to talk to anyone. Living in self-imposed exile in my bedroom.
I wanted it to be over.
Three weeks later, it was. Don’t get too excited — just the VAC. That was enough for me.
The wound had improved — a little. It had gotten to the point where the drawbacks far outweighed any positives. The VAC had rendered itself useless.
By October I was back to the standard three-clinic-visits-per-week, with some flexibility. I took advantage of my relative freedom and booked a trip to Toronto for the Remembrance Day weekend. Things were looking up — my wound was (slowly) getting better, I was going to Toronto and the USA was about to elect its first female president.
One of those things ended up being true.
I stayed up the night of November 8th, 2016. I poured myself a glass of pinot grigio and got ready for the results to come in. I joked with my mum that after this we would never have to hear Donald Trump speak again.
Eight hours later, Donald Trump was the new President of the United States. I didn’t sleep. I texted my dad for reassurance that everything was going to be alright.
The next morning felt different. I stumbled to my appointment with Dr. J in a sleep-deprived state of upset. And then Dr. J told me the wound wasn’t improving. The proverbial straw that broke my back.
I felt stupid. Stupid for believing Hillary Clinton could break the last glass ceiling. Stupid for going into law school. Stupid for booking a flight for that evening.
I locked myself in the handicapped bathroom and I bawled. My poorly-applied makeup melted into streaks of black and tan. I sat on the dirty tiled floor for a while. I could have slept there.
After the fateful post-Election Day appointment, my working relationship with Dr. J did not get any better. I was at this point I coined the term “medical gaslighting.”
It became rote. Appointment with Dr. J every two weeks. Hear that my wound a) had not improved at all, b) had not improved significantly or c) looked worse.
“Is there anything I should be doing?” I would ask desperately. Was I moving around too much? Not moving around enough? Should I be on a special diet? Supplements?
“There’s nothing you can do,” he would say. He would then proceed to tell me what I was doing wrong. Because that makes sense.
The clinic nurses weren’t packing the wound tightly enough — my fault, because I wasn’t speaking up to the people who should have known what his orders said. I missed too many clinic appointments — my fault, for being in a busy professional degree and not having reliable transportation to make it across town in winter. I wasn’t being realistic about my options — my fault, even though I was a young, non-smoker, non-alcoholic with no other underlying health conditions.
I tried. I would go to the clinic when they opened at 8:00 am and waddle to class with 50 cm of medicated gauze shoved up my butt. I would pore over the vitamin shelves at the drugstore looking for a magic bullet. I popped vitamin C like candy. I started taking a B50 complex because I thought it would improve my mood, because maybe that was holding me back?
I worried that my fistula was coming back. I asked for an MRI — the results came back negative. I went to my gynecologist.
“You’re just very unfortunate,” was her diagnosis.
Essentially, my wound was keeping everything below my waist in a constant state of infection.
I was tired. Just once, I wanted to tell someone to stop touching me. I was tired of people touching me.
Did you know that’s what Britney Spears said right before she took an electric razor to her scalp?