Friday, April 9, 2010

Hope in a Tube of Chapstick


On November 4th 2009, I had a pretty major surgery at Johns Hopkins. I had what is called a Whipple procedure.  My duodenum, my gall bladder and the head of my pancreas were removed, after which they had to basically reconstruct my digestive tract.   There was a tumor on my pancreas. Although it turned out to be a kind of benign and non-aggressive tumor, it had spread to nearby lymph nodes.  Technically cancer.  I say technically because I am fine, I was never really sick from it, I didn’t have chemo and I don’t have to worry about it anymore.  They took it out, and its over.

Only it wasn’t over.  For a few weeks after I was discharged I seemed to be getting better.  Then, suddenly, I was not feeling well.  On Thanksgiving Day I couldn’t keep my breakfast down.  My fever was only 101—the doctors on the phone said a real fever was 102.  I had nothing to worry about.  Then I discovered that I was unable to stand for more than 30 seconds without sitting down in exhaustion from the effort.
“I know my body,” I told my husband.  “I know something is wrong.  I need to go to the hospital now.”  He drove me to the local ER where I waited for my ambulance back to Johns Hopkins.  Turns out I had an infection.  The fever, which very quickly spiked over 102, had pumped up my heart rate so much that just laying in bed it was 150.  The only other time I had ever seen my heart rate get up to 150 was running on a treadmill!  My blood pressure was through the floor and I was extremely dehydrated.

Once I got to Johns Hopkins they quickly got my infection under control, but I was still vomiting constantly.  When I wasn’t grabbing for a bucket, I spent my time sleeping or staring at the photographs on the wall opposite my bed.  I didn’t even have the energy to watch television.  The doctors were baffled and my husband was very worried.

I could have told them, if I had been right in the head. Ten years ago I also had both adrenal glands removed.  Now you are wondering how many body parts can one person have removed in their lifetime! When I am sick, I need a higher dose of the medication that replaces my adrenal glands.   Oops!  There were some days, during my ordeal, when I was barely getting any dose at all let alone double my dose.  Other days I got an oral dose and then promptly brought it back up.   Finally, I was given a strict triple dose twice a day by injection only.

During the time I had spent laying there listless in that hospital bed, I couldn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel.  I have had surgeries before, but I was never so sick I thought I would die. Not really.

The same day they discovered my medicine oversight, a kind older woman came into the room.  She wasn’t a nurse.   I had never seen her before and I had been there a long time.  She asked if she could get me anything. I just stared at the wall and mumbled a negative. “How about some chapstick?” she asked.

I licked my parched lips, suddenly realizing that chapstick was the one thing in the world I could really go for!  I took the little tube of chapstick eagerly.  I slathered that comfort over my lips and the comfort spread to the rest of my body.  Even with the proper medication, hopelessness is a rut that is very hard to get out of. But after that simple gesture of kindness I suddenly knew that I wouldn't be in the hospital forever. I knew I wasn't going to die and I would get better.  And I did get better.

I went from being unable to get out of bed one day, to jumping up and poking my head out of my room when I heard my doctor coming on the next.  Another day later I was watching movie marathons on TV and they told me I was well enough to go home.

Hope comes from the strangest places but it is a very powerful medicine.

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