I didn’t say why I came to Portland and I can’t just yet. Soon, though, and with great enthusiasm, I shall tell you why I came out west and what happened while I was here.
What I can tell you that I’m not scouting for places to live (heavens!); I haven’t fallen in love with a Portlandian (noo!); and I didn’t have a gig or event to do while I was here. Thankfully, I did not come expressly to relive this glorious moment in the Portland International Airport where I slipped and fell and launched wine and pizza three feet into the air. That was cool.
And though I did not come for medical attention of any kind (phew), I did meet a nurse this weekend. The wife of a business colleague of mine, my new friend was a gracious host, a terrific cook, and generally just nice to be around, so when I found out she was a nurse in a delivery ward, I was like, “Well, that is exactly right and everything in the world is as it should be.”
The three of us had some time in the car together and at one point the conversation turned to illness and medical histories. My business associate had never really heard my story and it was as good a time as any to share the whole dealio. I often struggle not to cry at a few key moments of my tale (e.g., when I woke up from the first surgery screaming; when I learned my first ileostomy takedown had failed and that I had to get a second stoma, etc.), but I did all right.
The only time I wavered was when I told the story of the Best Nurse I Ever Had and what she said to me that changed my life forever. At least, it changed the way I saw myself in the story of my chronic illness and the hardest time of my life so far.
Warning: This story involves super gross details. The squeamish should proceed with great caution.
My first surgery as a result of advanced Ulcerative Colitis was at Mayo Clinic in Rochester in October of 2008. The surgeons took out my entire colon (and some other stuff) and fashioned me with an ileostomy. But the surgery was a disaster. (Check those two links up top for the deets, if you dare.) One of the many v. bad things that happened was that my belly swelled up as a result of all the abscesses, which caused a separation between my stoma and the skin that it was supposed to be flush up against it.
This meant I had a moat around the piece of the small intestine that was coming out of my body. What was in the moat? Why, fecal matter, bile, and pus, of course. And blood. And infection. And just … It was awful. The goop had to be cleaned out with a big, long swab and then packed.
As one can imagine, this process was one I did not look forward to and it happened about every other day. (I was in the hospital for a month following that first surgery.)
When the Best Nurse I Ever Had would come in to my room for the cleaning/packing, I would clutch my stuffed horse, Thunderbolt, look at the picture of Jesus on the wall, and keen softly to myself and weep and shudder and pray, pray, pray it would be over soon. Every fiber of my wrecked, emaciated body would be, ever-so-briefly, pure iron. That’s how tense I was, how frightened. She was poking. A swab. Into my body. She was cleaning. Pus. From my belly. My guts. Were outside. My core.
One day, the Best Nurse I Ever Had approached me for the procedure, saw me ready to retreat into like, total fear and my mental fetal position and stopped.
“Mary,” she said, “Would you like me to show you how to do this yourself?”
I whipped my head over to look at her. “You’re kidding me, right?” I was already hyperventilating in anticipation of the procedure.
She shook her head. “See, I think you think this is worse than it is. You’ve got it in your mind that it’s really bad. And it’s not good. But it’s not as bad as you think. I think if you do it, you’ll see that for yourself and it won’t be so awful. Would you like to try?”
I burst into tears. “No, no, no, no, no,” I said. “Just do it. Please, please just do it and leave me alone, please.” I wasn’t mean to her but I didn’t have anything to give in the way of kindness. She was giving enough for both of us and I had to let her.
She patted my arm and did the thing. Over the next two days, I thought about what she said. When people say things that are true, there’s a finality to it. There’s nothing you can do, no escape. Not unless you go into denial; not unless you put a ton of effort into belligerence, intolerance.
When she came in the next time, I squeaked out that I couldn’t do it, myself, but that I’d help. Just help her, a little, maybe hold the swab or something.
“Hey!” she said, smiling. “That’s the spirit! That’s great. Okay, let me get out all the stuff.”
When I poked the swab into the separation, I realized that the moat wasn’t bottomless. It had a bottom. The poking didn’t hurt, either, not really; it just felt weird. Because I hadn’t actually looked at it until that point (too scared), I hadn’t seen that it was really healing pretty well on the righthand side. The Best Nurse I Ever Had tore off little pieces of the wound-packing gauze (“It turns to gel!” she said), and I gingerly poked them into the moat. I probably held my breath the whole time.
When we were done and my ostomy bag was snapped back onto my belly, I let out a little laugh and said, “I guess this kind of stuff builds character, right?”
The Best Nurse I Ever Had smiled at me.
“No, honey. I think this kind of stuff reveals character you already had.”
So, that happened. And now I’m super-crying at the Portland International Airport, so I’d better go get some pizza to fling into the air. Thank you, Best Nurse I Ever Had, and thank you, all nurses everywhere.