“Omigod, omigod, omigod … No … stop!”
Yep, that was me again, in a scene similar to the first bed transfer hours after my operation. It was Thursday afternoon, a week and a half later, and I was in the imaging lab about to undergo an MRCP (scan) so the doctors could look at my bile ducts. They wanted to see if the surgery had caused any problems, which had been a concern going in. But first, I had to get onto the MRI bed — a flat, rock-hard slab of back-breaking torture.
I was cursing and screaming at the poor lab techs, who were desperately trying to make me feel comfortable. At first they had a single pillow and put it behind my head. I was no longer screaming, but my grunts and groans were significant. I asked how many pillows I could get, but they could use only one. I said there’s no way one is enough, and soon they had a few foam cushions, which they tried out under various parts of my back. Finally, they found a position I could tolerate, and despite not being able to take deep breaths, I managed to make it through 30 minutes in the MRI machine.
I returned to the hospital room feeling exhausted. All I wanted to do was lie in bed. No more tests, no more walks that weren’t facilitating my recovery, and no more doctors. But when you’re in the hospital, there’s no time to relax. There’s always someone coming by who needs something from you. Sure enough, the Jackson team came by, and they wanted to do another procedure — an upper GI series that would possibly tell us more about my “gas problem.” They said I could wait until tomorrow. Whatever. Even if I were in better shape, this test seemed like a waste of time.
As the doctors spoke, all I could think of was that scene from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory in which Charlie and Grandpa Joe are floating toward a giant fan, and the only way to avoid certain death is to burp and let out the gas. That seemed to be how these doctors viewed my situation. If only real life were as simple as the movies.
I let the doctors talk and pretend they were accomplishing something, but unless I felt miraculously better on Friday, I had no intention of going back to the lab. At the time, I was more worried about finding enough strength to take my daily walk. It was getting late, almost 6 p.m., and I decided to give it a try. My mother was there, so she helped me out of the chair and into an upright position. Normally it took me a few minutes to get ready once I was standing. But this time it was taking longer than usual.
“Hang on a sec,” I said. “I need to breathe. I’m feeling a little queasy.”
I was hoping it was “just gas,” as the doctors liked to say, but after a few minutes I began to worry; I felt too much like I did before the Sunday morning incident. I held on to the IV pole and pump machine, taking deep breaths and trying to figure out what to do. The queasiness increased, as did the pain. Yep — it was definitely a repeat of Sunday. Still, I kept hoping it would subside, and I stood there trying to wish it away. But it kept coming, and I had to deal with it.
I knew what had to be done. I wasn’t able to sit on the toilet, so I had to improvise and asked my mom to place the trash bin between my feet. I untied my gown and stood there waiting, seemingly forever. Did I mention it was painful? Or is that just a given by now? To make matters worse, as I kept pushing, I could feel my bladder wanting to empty itself and knew I wouldn’t be able to control it. I quickly grabbed a urinal just in time. Then, a moment later, I felt the urge to puke. I grabbed the vomit bin but nothing was coming out.
I stood there, carefully straddling a trash bin while peeing into a urinal in my left hand and trying to vomit into a container in my right — a trifecta of discomfort. I thought about the situation and could see in my mind a snapshot of what I must look like. I was hurting, scared, confused, and I had no idea how much longer I’d be standing here or if I’d need medical intervention. I wanted to cry, but even that was unsuccessful, so I turned my head 90 degrees and did the only thing left I could do — watch television. Now, normally I’m not one to watch Lifetime movies, but whatever movie was on really took me out of my situation, which is exactly what I needed. Several more minutes passed and eventually so did the “problem.”
I was spent, and all I wanted to do was sleep. Next thing I knew, it was Friday morning. So much for my daily walk.
“Hello, Mr. Budjinski. How are you feeling this morning? Ready for your procedure?”
Oh balls. Was it that time already? It was only about 8 a.m., and though I’d been awake for at least an hour, I hadn’t moved an inch; it was the absolute worst time to ask me to get up. The pain was bad, sure, but the real problem was I felt more bloated than ever. My situation was getting drastically worse, and if the only solution to my problem is “walking off gas,” then I was done. There was no way I’d be leaving the hospital on my own accord. Seriously, I was ready to give up.
My condition was so bad I couldn’t even talk to the doctors. I resorted to grunting and groaning, and my lack of a proper response made it obvious I wasn’t going anywhere. They left without pressing the issue. About an hour later, Allen, an intern on the Jackson team and one of the few people who always listened to me and followed through with things, came back with results from my MRCP.
“It looks like you have some ascites,” Allen said. “There is a small amount of fluid in your abdominal cavity. The good news is we can drain some of it, and you’ll get instant relief.”
Those last two words rang in my ears with all the glory and majesty of church bells on a wedding day. Indeed, I already felt relieved. The best part was, I could undergo the procedure without leaving my bed. I was so happy I almost ignored the fact that the doctors had been wrong about my problem being “just gas.” Almost.
It was about 11:30 a.m., and a new team of doctors entered my room, bringing with them an ultrasound machine, computer and loads of other equipment for the paracentesis (the draining procedure). All I had to do was hold up my arms so they weren’t in the way. I looked on as the head doctor gave me a shot of Lidocaine and inserted a catheter into my belly. The catheter was hooked up to a long tube that plugged into the wall suction unit and drained into these large containers. Immediately, a light tea-colored fluid began flowing through the tube. It was the physical embodiment of my pain, and I was watching it gradually leave my body. After five minutes, though, I averted my gaze so as not to “watch the pot boil.”
About 15 minutes later, it was done. Oh, and that “small amount” of fluid turned out to be 4.5 liters. Try to picture how much that is. Now imagine all that stuff inside of you, pushing up against vital organs and weighing you down, along with all the fluid in your arms and legs (and other places). Because it was removed so quickly, its effects lingered for a while. Rather than instant relief, I felt a few minutes of shock and became incredibly light-headed, unable to sit up or even talk for a couple of hours. All I could do was lie back and wait for my insides to get re-situated.
Around 1:30 p.m., Allen came by to see how I was doing. I looked at him and simply smiled, realizing it was the first time he (or any doctor) saw me do that. Half an hour later I was walking around the hospital wing, marveling at my sudden transformation. Though I plodded along at a snail’s pace, mentally I was jumping for joy. Eleven days of pain, fear and uncertainty were gone in 30 minutes.
The timing was amazing. Obvious though it may seem, this really was like an episode of House, especially with the diagnosis and treatment coming at the very last minute. I woke up Friday thinking all hope was lost, yet there I was several hours later, up and about, finally thinking that I was almost ready to go home. Almost.