Memoir Assignment #3
James Reimer — On Sickness
Prior to my first transplant, I was in a continuous state of sickness. My nose and chest were constant fountains of mucous, and during the night they would trickle into my stomach. When I woke in the morning, I would cough for hours, green mucous filling endless wads of kleenex, and sometimes I would vomit cups of mucous out of my stomach. Occasionally I would have nausea attacks that would cause me to vomit for days on end, inexorably landing me in the hospital where I would be a trembling mess for days before I was able to absorb any calories without immediately vomiting. Even drinking water was sometimes impossible, and I would be so dehydrated that I would require constant IV fluids. The thirst I sometimes felt during long nights of vomiting was unimaginable. I would vomit numerous times, then during a moment of relief I would guzzle some ginger ale or water, and then shortly afterward vomit it all out again. Even if I ingested nothing at all, I would heave so hard that dark brown, bitter bile would spill into the waste basket I desperately clutched. I would suffer terrible chills followed by feeling like I was boiling hot. Clothes and bedding would become drenched with sweat. I was also on oxygen, and vomit and snot would dangle from the tubing in my nose. I was miserable and depressed, far from home and friendship, and I wasn’t even on the transplant list yet. There was a constant feeling of insecurity and dread that these endless days and nights would never improve. If I did not get the nausea under control, I would never stop my weight’s freefall and would never become stable enough for transplant.
After pursuing all other options, I was eventually put on a risky drug called Cisapride that had been responsible for numerous deaths in Canada and the United States because of heart problems. I was not afraid to take it because nothing could be worse than the situation I was in. While on this one small pill, I suddenly stopped having the debilitating vomiting episodes. I quickly regrouped and rallied myself, eventually managing to get enough calories into my body that I regained some of my lost pounds and then stabilized. My mother was my only caregiver and a constant cook, and diligently recorded everything I ate and drank and counted calories. These pages and pages of notes were provided to the transplant clinic, and several months later I was accepted on to the transplant list. I never would have expected it, but for nearly the entire time I was on the list, I was healthier and less nauseated than I had been for the previous two or three years.
I didn’t become ill again until I was awaiting my second transplant. My lungs no longer produced prodigious amounts of mucous, but they declined at an unbelievable rate. I quickly became too sick to get around without a walker, then declined to the point where I needed to be pushed in a wheelchair. I couldn’t stand in the shower or put my own socks on. The dread and insecurity returned, and this time the nightmare I was trapped in never stopped. It wasn’t until months after the transplant that I began to feel “okay” again. I had to learn to trust my body as it struggled to repair itself. At first I had to learn how to eat again, having spent the previous seven months without using my digestive organs. I had survived on TPN, nutrition pumped directly into the bloodstream. During the months after transplant, I experienced constant pain and nausea related to food and was very disappointed when I would vomit after eating large meals. My stomach had shrunk dramatically, and so I had to struggle to stretch it to a normal size again. My legs, too, had shriveled, and my body craved sleep all day. I would nap for hours between meals and then sleep for ten hours a night. It would be months before I found myself feeling “good.”
I hadn’t felt “good” since I was a teenager, riding my bike around the farm on the island during the endless springs and summers. Laying in the tall grass and reading Lord of the Rings while keeping an eye on the flock, daydreaming about girls. For my entire adulthood, experiences like that had been stripped from me until I was bereft and grieving everything I had lost. My body’s sudden climb toward strength felt unbelievable. For so many years I had felt like my body was a cage, and now it was stretching formerly dessicated wings in preparation for letting me fly. The first few times I rode a bike again, my heart fluttered like a hummingbird in my chest. My lungs were taking in great breaths of air now, but my weakened heart needed time to catch up. My legs felt the old exertion and welcomed it, and soon I was pushing myself up hills that had previously been too daunting to even attempt. And when I went down those hills, I flew like a bird.
Health, for me, comes with feelings of both victory and trepidation. I deserve my health because I have worked hard for it, but what I have gained is fleeting. While I laugh in the face of minor illnesses and random setbacks, these minor illnesses sometimes have a way of knocking me off balance. With no immune system to speak of due to the anti-rejection drugs, my body is ravaged by the simplest of viruses. I take extra care to avoid any contact with germs, but the occasional cold is inevitable.
This past week, my wife contracted a cold from school or work, and after a few days of bringing her orange juice in bed, I caught it too. The old fears all came roaring back. My nose turned into a faucet and my head pounded. My ears and lymph nodes ached and throbbed, and my throat was burned raw. For the first day I sneezed and blew my raw red nose nearly non stop. On the second day my lungs began to show signs of infection, and my old phlegmy cough, gone so many years now, returned for the first time since my transplants. I coughed so hard that morning that I vomited up huge gobs of slime that I had swallowed the night before. I felt terrified and despondent. The sensations were all so familiar and unwanted, and triggered panic at the thought of vomiting for days, spiked veins, sleepless tortured nights alone in hospital beds. My old friends the chills, shivers and fevers even returned, forcing me to spend a day and night sweating through my clothes in bed, trying to get in what meagre liquid calories I could between coughing fits. I felt like curling into a ball and weeping. I was plagued by thoughts of lung failure, torture and suffering.
This skinny body never ceases to surprise me. As quickly as this terrifying wave of sickness and fear crashed over me, it receded again. The symptoms have eased quicker than I could have hoped, and it looks like my lungs have suffered no lasting damage. My lingering cough seems to be getting better rather than worse for the first time in my life. These minor miracles go against everything that has happened before in my life, and yet they must seem trivial to so many.
I recently did some sleuthing on the internet and discovered who my second donor was. He was a young man who seemed much like myself. He was kind, loving, and he adored children. He wanted to marry and have kids of his own. He died in a stupid, unfortunate car accident, and I, laying hallucinating, cut to pieces and tied down in a hospital bed, somehow did not. I will never know why my precarious existence continues, while his which seemed so solid and promising was suddenly swept away. All I can do is face my fears and continue this unbelievable life.