My first spinal fusion was a few days before Christmas.
It was a brutal, day-long affair during which doctors cut open my stomach, squished my guts to the side, reconstructed part of my spine with titanium and the bones from dead people, squished everything back, stapled me up and then flipped me over and repeated the whole process on my backside.
The days following the surgery ran together like a deep, narcotics-induced dream, punctuated by visits from family and friends who were as hazy as apparitions in a haunted house.
At some point, my parents stopped by with a DVD of the first Rocky movie, a request I had made pre-surgery believing it would revive my sagging spirits. In my imagination, the movie’s training montages would remind me that adversity can be overcome and with hard work, determination and the “Eye of the Tiger,” my body could do incredible things.
After being gutted open like a fish, this notion seemed a little naive.
In addition to the DVD, my parents also surprised me with a giant stuffed tiger, (whom we named “Rocky”) which they plopped on top of a tall cabinet in the corner of my hospital room.
Watching the movie proved to be a disorienting experience mostly because I was pretty high at the time. Despite having seen all of the Rocky movies a million times, I kept getting confused about which one we were watching.
Sometimes Rocky was happy. Then he was mad. Then he was in the ring. Then he was sad. Then he was mad again. “Where’s Mr. T?” I wondered. “Or is this the one in Russia? Cause Rocky, you can’t beat that guy from Russia! He’s on super Russian drugs!” I fretted.
My foggy brain struggled to keep track of everything as I fell in and out of consciousness.
To complicate matters, during the movie there was a constant parade of hospital staff through my room to check on me, empty my catheter bag, give me meds and review my chart.
A few of the staff got spooked by the giant looming shadow of a tiger perched in the corner of the dark room. Since I was on heavy drugs, this never stopped being amazingly hilarious.
At some point we must have finished watching the movie because my parents were tucking me in and promising to return on Christmas day. I nodded and smiled, even though I had no idea when that was.
After they left, I drifted back to sleep, but was woken (10 minutes? 10 hours?) later by my nurse, Sarah, a no-nonsense woman whom I vaguely recalled meeting earlier in the day.
Sarah pulled up a chair like she had important business to discuss and asked how I was doing.
“Fine, fine…” I mumbled. I was terribly tired from worrying about Rocky and just wanted her to leave so I could go back to sleep.
I closed my eyes but Sarah kept on talking. “Have you passed gas yet, Jen?” she asked.
I squinted my eyes open and saw her leaning over my bed, while Rocky the tiger loomed above her. In the dim light he looked real and I contemplated warning Sarah that a tiger was about to eat her head. But, since she was refusing to shut up, I decided to keep my mouth shut (“If she gets eaten, then more sleep for me!” I figured.)
“Nope. No gas. No, nothing.” I told her.
You see, passing gas is an important task following an abdominal surgery like the one I had. The anesthesia they give you for surgery kind of puts your intestines to sleep. So before the doctors can send you home, they need to make sure everything is woken back up. Passing gas is their wake-up call.
Sarah was scrunching up her face and I could see my “no gas” status was troubling her.
“Jen…I really think we should work on passing gas tonight” she told me. “So, I’m going to make this my special project tonight, okay?”
(And what was I supposed to say to that, ladies and gentlemen?)
I nodded with a seriousness to match Sarah’s, (which was surreal considering we were talking about farts.)
“So Jen,” Sarah continued, “I’m going to start by putting a suppository in to help get things moving.” Then, without waiting for a reply, she bustled off like a magical gas fairy and I drifted back to sleep.
At some point, Sarah returned and was talking again about the suppository. She must have been putting it in me, but to be honest I was so numb, she could have been inserting a garden rake into my ass and I wouldn’t have noticed.
I fell back asleep and imagined her phantom suppository surrendering to my warm embrace.
I awoke again and Sarah was hanging back over me asking about the gas (Seriously, Sarah. Get a hobby.)
“No,” I mumbled. “Nothing happened.”
“Hmmmm,” Sarah said, biting her lip and scrunching up her face. “Have you ever had an enema before, Jen?”
“No, ma’am” I answered. (Cause now Sarah was acting all drill sergeant-y.)
Perhaps more was discussed about enemas, I really couldn’t say. All I know was I said, “nope” closed my eyes, and later when I woke alone in the dark my ass felt warm and wet.
“This must be the enema,” I thought to myself and decided it was not an entirely unpleasant experience — especially since I wasn’t technically around for most of it.
I passed out again.
I awoke (An hour? A minute?) later. The hallway was humming and I could tell there was a shift change happening. Old faces popped in to do a final check and a parade of new ones came in to write their names on the whiteboard in my room.
Sarah came in with a young man she introduced as Tom my night nurse. (Oh hey! It’s nighttime. Good to know.)
Sarah brought Tom up-to-date about all of the gas adventures. It sounded like a lot of people had been involved in this project. I wondered exactly how many people had been inside my ass during the endless night. Had I somehow been in the middle of the the world’s weirdest gang bang while I slept?
“We need her to pass gas as soon as possible,” Sarah explained to Tom.
That made me feel really bad. I’m a people pleaser. Clearly my ass and I had made everyone very unhappy. I looked up and even the tiger looked disappointed, as if he was thinking, “Humph…a REAL champ would have farted by now.”
Sarah and Tom continued to talk about “the gas issue,” (Cause yeah, my ass was an ISSUE now) and Sarah explained that this was Tom’s special project, now.
“Roger that, Tom?” I asked, laughing. “You’re on ass duty now, baby!”
(But apparently I only said that last part in my head and just spontaneously started giggling while Tom and Sarah exchanged a look. )
It must be really annoying to work around high people all day.
I realized I had added all I could to the gas discussion, Plus, no one was getting my super funny jokes and the tiger was making me feel quite bad about myself, so I decided to go back to sleep.
Tom and Sarah floated away and the hospital settled back into the lull of quiet bed checks and gentle footfalls up and down the halls.
I woke and it was STILL NIGHT. (Was I only sleeping for like 10 minutes at a time here?) I sat for a moment in the quiet dark room and went through a mental reorientation. (Rocky movie…mom and dad…Eye of the Tiger…Sarah…my ass…Tom.)
There was a soft whirr from the tentacles of machines radiating to and from my body, each helping to sustain, heal, and monitor some part of me. It was like I was in the Matrix… but less goopy.
As I was laying there thinking about the endless night, the blinking machines and The Matrix (What did the red pill do again?) it occurred to me… I felt a little gassy.
I wasn’t positive, because my ass felt so very, very far away. But I did know that it felt painful down there, but in a new way. And I figured that must be gas.
Then I thought of Sarah and Tom and their hopeful faces and decided, for the sake of the mission and the team, I should give this “passing gas” business a little try.
So, I shifted my hips slightly and gently squeezed. Pain seared across my abdomen but I did manage to release one tiny, lonely, lovely little fart…
…followed by a torrential wave of diarrhea primed by endless (Hours? Days?) of suppositories and enemas.
And I must have very, very high because, while I was shitting myself, the first thing I thought was, “No one will ever know about this.”
Eye of the tiger, bitches. Let’s rise up to meet the challenge.
I was swaddled in layers of blankets. Surely no one would notice if some of them disappeared into a garbage can. And I hadn’t bathed in days. Surely no one would notice if the room smelled bad.
(Trust me, this line of thinking makes a TON of sense when you’re high.)
I tried to lift my hips and slide the diarrhea blankets out from under me, but was caught in the tangle of cords and wires from the machines. The Matrix would not release me. I couldn’t even reach my ass, much less clean it.
Still, like a magician practicing an illusion while handcuffed, I tried to move my arms and legs in a variety of directions anyway. Each time though, I was pulled up short. And the more I moved, the more I was reminded that there were huge incisions on my belly and back that wanted me to calm the hell down and hold still.
I finally realized I was never going to be able to pull this off, and dejectedly pressed the call button.
After a moment, Tom appeared in the doorway, back lit from the light in the hall like an angel.
“Do you need something Jennifer?” he asked with a huge smile.
I struggled to find the right words to break the news to him. “I…I…I tried….I tried to fart like you asked,” I stammered. “But….but…but then I just POOPED ON MYSELF!” I blurted out and promptly burst into tears.
(“Way to stay calm, Jen.” I thought to myself.)
Tom rushed to the bed, leaned over and spoke in a soothing voice, “It’s okay, Jen. Sometimes that happens. It’s nothing to worry about.”
I realize this was the same thing I said to my toddler when her diaper overflowed. This meant I now had the same control over my bowels as a two year old — a fact that made me cry even harder.
Tom turned on the overhead light and sized up the situation. “Well, okay…” he began with a deep breath. (“Don’t breathe, Tom!” I thought in horror. “It smells in here!”) “Let’s just go ahead and get this cleaned up.” And he pressed the call button for someone to assist him.
The nurse’s aid quickly arrived and, of course, it was another guy. (Cause if you poop your pants, you should do it in front of as many strange men as possible.)
The two men took turns logrolling me off the poop, pulling out the soiled linens and wiping me down. The project ended up being pretty complicated, so Tom suggested they haul me to the bathroom while they finished.
The men hoisted me up, each gathering armfuls of wires, IV’s and monitors and gingerly guided me to the toilet. I plopped down, and Tom’s buddy went back to the poop while Tom unhooked all my wires and helped me pull off my soiled clothes.
“It’s going to be okay, Jen. Really,” Tom assured me while patting me gently on the hand. Then he took my soiled gown, handed me a clean one and returned to the other room.
I sat on the toilet watching the two men attempt to make the bed habitable again.
Since Tom had just removed my catheter, I decided to go ahead and take advantage of the toilet by peeing upright, like a big girl.
The pee cheered me up at bit. At least one part of my body was still functioning properly. (Way to be a rock star, bladder!)
“Everything is going to be all right,” I thought to myself. “This is just a dark intermission in the bright, shining movie that is my life.”
Teetering, I reached for some toilet paper and gently dabbed it between my legs. Before I dropped it into the bowl, I glanced down and froze.
It was covered in blood.
Now I had read that occasionally women may get a period because of the trauma of an abdominal surgery. I interpreted this warning to mean “light spotting” might occur, and had packed two pantiliners as a backup.
Looking down, I realized I had vastly underestimated this situtation. This was not spotting. This was a “maxi-pad-or-super-plus-tampon-try-not-to-sneeze-and-avoid-white-pants” full-on period.
I sighed and glanced into the other room. Tom had dismissed his helper and was quietly remaking the bed. He looked up and saw the startled look on my face and hurried over to the bathroom.
“What’s up, Jen?” he asked warily.
In that moment I felt so very bad for Tom. He was just a guy doing his job, trying to make people happy and comfortable. Little did he know he would be attending to Our Lady of the Perpetual Body Fluids all night.
“Well Tom,” I answered calmly. “It appears I have unexpectedly gotten my period.”
For the first time that evening, Tom looked genuinely flustered. He leaned heavily against the doorway and asked, “What should we do?”
Rather than being annoyed, I found his question adorable and strangely comforting. I do not know how to handle it when I shit all over someone’s furniture. But dammit, I DO know how to handle it when I get my period.
“Okay. Here’s the deal,” I began. “I packed some stuff in case this happened. But clearly what I have in my bag is not going to cover it.”
Tom continued to stare at me slightly stunned. It was like we were two war buddies in the foxhole planning our next attack.
“But, I gave birth at this hospital,” I continued, “So I know there are pads in this place — gigantic pads that almost look like diapers. I also know the hospital has heinous stretchy, mesh underwear to put those pads in.”
Tom looked vaguely horrified. (He really should have been. The mesh underwear are a sin against fashion.)
“So, Tom,” I continued “I’m going to need you to go to the maternity ward and get me a pair of those stretchy, mesh underwear and the gigantic diaper pads and bring them back to my room. Cool?”
It occurred to me how strange this must look from the outside — a mostly naked woman, smelling faintly of feces and bleeding like a stuck pig, sitting on a toilet, ordering around a sweet male nurse who looked like he’d just been hit with a mack truck.
Tom was rolling with it though.
“Got it,” Tom replied. “Are you going to be okay while I’m gone?”
“Sure,” I told him. “I got the call button right next to me. I just need another clean washcloth so I can tidy up before you get back.”
Tom handed me a wet washcloth and, without another word, dashed off in search my of menstrual treasures.
While he was gone, I imagined Tom running through the wings of the hospital like Rocky running up those stairs in the first movie. In my daydream, Tom had a giant pad in one hand and the heinous meshy underpants in the other. As he ran down the halls, other nurses, doctors and custodians had fallen into place behind him while the trumpets blared, the music soared, and the chorus sang, “Getting strong now!”
A few minutes later, Tom arrived. Strangely, he wasn’t sweaty or out of breath and there was no cheering audience behind him. This seemed like a travesty.
Tom handed me the heinous meshy underwear and a diaper pad and asked, “Do you need any help?”
I smiled and said, “No Tom, I got this.”
He closed the door to the bathroom to give me some privacy. I cleaned up, tended to my naughty bits and then draped myself in the gown and robe he had provided.
“Okay, I’m done,” I called out to him when I was finished. He opened the door, brought me my walker, and together we began the complicated process of untangling, unplugging, and slowly moving me inch by painful inch across the floor back to my bed.
Tom helped me lower myself to the edge of the bed. Then I leaned back and swung my legs up to the other end. The pain was intense, but thankfully short lived. Then I nestled back against the dinky pillow and scratchy hospital sheets that suddenly felt like the most glorious 500 thread count linens in the finest hotel.
Tom tucked me in like a baby and I corkscrewed myself deep into the covers, while he plugged me back into the gadgets built into my bed.
I looked up again into Rocky’s eyes in the corner, and the tiger seemed to be saying, “Feel better now?”
And I smiled at him, because I did.
When Tom had finished tidying up, he made some notes in my chart (Functional bowels? Check!) and then leaned against the wall facing my bed.
After a moment, he slowly bent his knees and slid down into a squat. He tilted his head back against the wall and closed his eyes, and we both enjoyed the return of silence in the room, save for the soft chirping of the machines and the murmur of voices echoing in the hallways.
After a moment, Tom whispered to me, “Hey Jen.”
“Yeah?” I replied, and turned to look at him down by the floor.
He nodded toward the window and said, “Merry Christmas.”
I looked over and saw the dawn slowly seeping in between the slits in the blinds. My endless night had finally come to an end. It was Christmas morning; the most magical morning of the year.
And I realized I had already unwrapped all my gifts. They weren’t anything I wanted, but had been exactly what I needed: suppositories, enemas, clean linens, warm washcloths, diaper pads, heinous mesh underwear, and the unwavering, unflappable kindness of nurses.
“Merry Christmas, Tom,” I whispered back to him. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” I faintly heard him reply before I fell once more into the deep, dreamless sleep of a prize fighter.