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A Balloon among Angels

John MacLachlan Gray's memoir of a particular polyp and what ensues. Second in a three-act comedy.

John MacLachlan Gray 16 Dec

John MacLachlan Gray is a writer/composer who lives in Vancouver. Among his wide-ranging works are the renowned play Billy Bishop Goes to War co-written with Eric Peterson, and mystery novels including Not Quite Dead. His blog is here. Find his previous articles for The Tyee here.

[Editor's note: Yesterday our polyp-ridden narrator reflected on coming to understand his need for a procedure called laparoscopic surgery on his colon, said to be non-invasive and rather simple. He basked in the knowledge that a waiting list pushed the inevitable discomfort months into the distance. But then he received an unexpected phone call: His operation had been moved up to within a matter of days. We pick up the story here.]

I'd been moved up in the queue because someone died or caught a cold or something. Whatever, it was too prompt for my liking. All too soon there I was on a sterile La-Z-Boy, wearing another of those unspeakable backless gowns made of farm curtains, covered by a cotton blanket that has been warmed in an oven -- though you wouldn't believe how comforting that is, in an infantile way. In the same room, other patients waited on stain-proof La-Z-Boys, whispering to family members or phoning or texting.

A nurse asked me how I am, in the tone of voice my mechanic uses when the car is in for a valve job: I am the owner of the body, that body means a lot to me, and I must be worried...

I vagued out. The hospital teaches how you to do that. Your brain submits to the fact it is no longer in control of your body, which is in the care of someone else -- and so it wanders...

Lying on the operating table, covered by another toasty warm blanket, I made jokes with the anesthetist about whether or not people dream under anesthetic, or whether our souls go to some sort of celestial waiting-room and read old editions of Golf Digest.

Then... well, nothing, actually. If death is like this, excellent.

I emerged from my controlled slumber with my lips trying to form words: You dream! Unfortunately, I couldn't remember the dream.

For the next couple of days I lay miserably in front of a wall clock, with a gadget pumping my legs to head off blood clots and my arm attached to tubes hanging from the leg of a chrome stork, while I played host to various painkillers -- chiefly hydromorphone, a morphine derivative stronger that its parent, but which has fewer side-effects and is less fun. In my experience, it also produces terrible dreams involving amputations and chain saws.

Not that you complain when, even drugged, everything hurts.

The nurses were angels of one kind or another. Some, like Hong, could have been my older sister; some, like Meredith, had the outdoorsy briskness of a veterinarian tending a horse -- and removing a catheter.

Most of my nurses were shockingly young -- grandchildren helping Grandpa -- and I'd like to meet the man who can flirt with a catheter on. Instead, my goal was to be the best patient, the most grateful for their work, the most sensitive to their overload, the most tolerant of pain, the one who remembered all their names; that I wasn't just another body with something wrong with it.

Friends and family, bless them, showed up, hung around awhile, then left. Nurses administered needles and recorded numbers -- temperature, blood pressure, whatever. I was as chatty one can be with a catheter, tubes coming out of my arm and a torso like a balloon.

During laparoscopic surgery the body cavity is literally blown up like the original dome over BC Place, so that the surgeon's camera can see what it's doing. In the course of the procedure, a lot of carbon dioxide finds its way into the intestine, with results familiar to us all, but not to the same extent. The sight of my abdomen in the bathroom mirror reminded me of cartoon characters from my childhood -- Major Hoople, Wimpy, Jiggs.

Meredith assured me that this is normal and encouraged me to pass gas at every opportunity. Ever agreeable, that evening as I sank into my synthetic slumber I repeated the mantra -- Free to Fart, Free to Fart -- in the hope that, come morning, the mirror would reflect the flabby mesomorph I once was.


I awoke at 3:00 AM according to the huge wall clock opposite, feeling... sticky. A metallic odour hung in the air that I couldn't place. I flailed about until I found the light switch and looked down: I was lying in a pool of blood. My bed had transformed into a scene from a slasher film.

I tried to sit up but the pain stopped me cold. I carefully rolled onto my side with one leg dangling off the the bed, then eased my other leg over the side, using their combined weight to lever my body to a seated position. With the help of my chrome stork I stood on the floor, careful not to tangle my tubes or dislodge the needles in my arm. Still in a hydromorphone daze, supported by my stork and with one hand against the wall, I looked down at my sopping, backless nightgown, and the pond of red stuff on the immaculate tile floor.

Why didn't I ring for help? I can only think that I regressed to childhood, for it seemed urgent that I clean up the mess I had made without anyone finding out. Having spilled ketchup on the good white tablecloth, I must hide the stain beneath the sugar bowl.

Somehow I gathered the bloody sheets into a pile, picked them up with my unattached arm, and threw them into the laundry receptacle in the hall. I then removed my sopping gown, got down on my knees and desperately started mopping up... when I became aware of someone in the doorway.

Please let me do that.

I had been caught red-handed. Literally.

I looked up at a thin, middle-aged woman, Afro-Canadian, with distinguished features, who could have passed for a Nigerian novelist on the short-list for the Booker Prize.

I stood with her help and stood like an errant schoolboy while she called in a male orderly with a mop, found fresh sheets, remade the bed; and there I was at 3:30 in the morning, looking at the ceiling while an African woman mopped the blood off my naked body. To me it was a scene from the Bible.

In walked Michelle, the night nurse, who is of Filipino ancestry, and together the two of them put me in a clean gown, and put me to bed.

I left the hospital two days later, aware that these women -- Meredith, Michelle, Hong, the African lady -- whom I doubt I will ever see again, were more familiar to me, rather, I to them, than anyone I had ever known other than my mother.

A hospital is the ultimate nudist colony. Even your insides are apparent for all to see.


Back home, my recovery went swimmingly. As predicted, there was a "certain urgency" which, though not as urgent as feared, made it advisable to keep a washroom handy. I walked the dog. My mate fed me bran cereal and bean soup. No doubt about it, I was on the mend.

Until the piano fell on my head.

It still amazes me how suddenly it happened, a matter of 45 minutes at most: At 2 p.m. I was eating smoked salmon with friends and telling a joke; by 2:45 p.m. I lay on the couch, bent double with pain, shaking spasmodically with violent tremors, drenched with sweat, with a temperature way over 102. If this were a movie depicting death by poisoning I would be over-acting, and the director would tell me to tone it down.

My mate and her friend Danielle decided that I was going to the hospital pronto. It seemed to take me an hour to stand up, then to stagger to the front door, bent double, pausing to throw up in the downstairs loo. In the back seat of Danielle's Escape, I ground my molars to powder at every bump and turn, thinking of -- well, nothing, really. One thing you can say for pain is that it puts you smack in the present, the way Buddhists recommend. Who expected enlightenment to be so unpleasant?

At Emerge I sat in a waiting-room containing several young people with soccer injuries, and a number of sleeping people who looked as though they resided there. I held onto my midriff, bent double, and waited for my name to be called; of course, even in that position, nothing could keep me away from the Internet, where I discovered that my symptoms matched the malady that killed Jim Henson and Christopher Reeve...

Septic shock is a response to severe infection that can lead to multiple organ dysfunction. The mortality rate from septic shock is approximately 25-50 per cent. -- Wikipedia

Tomorrow: The story finishes as our narrator battles a superbug and learns what terrifying hallucinations lie on the other side of a hospital curtain.  [Tyee]

Read more: Health

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