On pain and choice.

“The thing about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the thing that was so profound to me that summer — and yet also, like most things, so very simple, was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do. How there was no escape or denial. No numbing it down with a martini or covering it up with a roll in the hay. As I clung to the chaparral that day, attempting to patch up my bleeding finger…I considered my options. There were only two and they were essentially the same. I could go back in the direction I had come from, or I could go forward in the direction I intended to go… And so I walked on.”
–Cheryl Strayed, “Wild”

It took me awhile to realize just how bad my condition was. Maybe it was all the pain medication, but my initial impression was something along the lines of ok, I’ve got a few broken bones, I’ll just lay here awhile and they’ll heal and I’ll be fine. I asked Greg to get me a smoothie and some of my favorite magazines on my first full day in the hospital, as if I just had the flu and I was laid up on the couch or something. I remember trying to read the cooking magazine he brought me and I got frustrated because it all looked so unappealing. Aside from my complete lack of mobility, I had no appetite. I tried the painting magazine and was frustrated by my inability to see the pictures clearly, and painting felt like the most foreign idea in the world. Pain clouded everything I tried to do, and even just holding a magazine with my floppy clavicle was hard. I had no idea, on that first day, what was really in store for me.

Some doctors called them fractures. Some called them breaks. Whatever they were, there were a lot, and they hurt like hell. A piece of my pelvis was completely broken off, there was a fracture higher in my pelvis near an important nerve, I had three broken ribs, a broken clavicle, a fractured spine, a fractured temporal bone, whatever injury leads to head-stapling, internal bleeding, a collapsed lung, and a hand so mangled it felt like it was full of glass shrapnel. I was immediately put on Dilaudid alternating with Hyrdocodone. They were very effective hallucinogenics.

I very quickly learned to start tracking my pain medication myself. I clarified with each doctor how much I was supposed to get and how often, and found myself more often than not arguing with nurses who wanted to give me a different dosage. They would tell me that the doctor didn’t really mean what he said and then the doctor would make his rounds and I’d tell him and he’d rip the nurses a new one and tell them to give me the medication he prescribed, rinse, lather, repeat daily. And then there was that one day when my IV stopped working and the Dilaudid just dripped down my arm while my nurses all said it looked just fine to them.

It seems like every day in the hospital I was subjected to some horrific procedure or test. Some of them I’ve conveniently forgotten, just remembering a general feeling of constant mental and physical exhaustion. Some of them are seared into my memory for good. I remember every detail of having my chest tube removed. This doctor was a cranky one, and my nurse at the time was one of the few who was pleasant. He started screaming at her from the moment he walked in the room, and he grumped at me that it was time to take my chest tube out. “Will it hurt?” I asked and he grumped yes, with absolutely no pity. They got ready, he counted to three, and I braced myself and then… There are no words that can describe it. I remember once reading about what happens to you if you get stung by a Tarantula Hawk, an insect which delivers one of the most painful stings on earth. The article said that you are physically unable to do anything but SCREAM YOUR HEAD OFF for like two minutes. It was pretty much just like that.

The MRI was just as unforgettable. I asked my nurse to give me my Dilaudid before I headed out and she refused. When I got to the MRI office the tech told me my doctors had ordered a full battery of scans, and each one would take about 30 minutes. Aside from the pain I had a mild blood infection contracted while in the hospital, the doctors think from a contaminated IV line (terrifying when you think about that one for a minute right?), so I was ROASTING hot all the time. And of course I couldn’t close my left eye. So I was a tad bit uncomfortable.

They wrapped me up like a sausage in my bedsheets and slid me into the tiny, claustrophobic oven, for scans that were supposed to take a little over two hours. I didn’t make it. I tried. I literally counted the seconds, to take my mind off the heat and pain and the fact that I couldn’t close my eyes and had to just lay there staring at all the little cracks and scratches in the machine while I dripped with sweat in my bedsheet casing. With just one more scan to go I begged them to take me back to my room. They took me to xray instead (of course), but my nurse met me with the Dilaudid she was supposed to have given me two hours prior and the xray tech was so sensitive he made me cry with relief. He remembered me from some prior xray that I had forgotten, and he kept telling his assistants over and over “BE GENTLE, she has a lot of fractures, she’s in A LOT of pain, move her carefully.”

Waking up from my surgeries was also intense, and the second one was terrifying. They were giving me the maximum dosage of Dilaudid and it wasn’t even touching the pain. During my second recovery I kept setting off all the alarms, and over the incessant beeping my nurse had to keep yelling at me to BREATHE and wake up and open my eyes when all I wanted to do was go back to sleep.

I was always so happy to be done with whatever poking and prodding was on the agenda for the day. Sometimes I couldn’t do anything for hours afterwards but just sit there and stare at the TV, who even cares what was on. As my time in the hospital progressed and as I healed I actually grew less tolerant of all the procedures. By the time I was in the rehab center I could barely even stand getting shots anymore. Granted, they were really painful shots, right to the belly, but mostly it was a visceral reaction. I was DONE. I needed a break.

Being in the hospital and being severely disabled and in constant pain is like that passage in Wild, when Strayed realizes how little choice she has, except when it concerns your health you have even fewer choices. There’s no turning around and going back. You have to have that MRI, that xray, that surgery. You can recover or you can die. And so I walked on.

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