Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place. ~Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor, 1977
The hashtags of our summer this year could read as the ultimate summer vacation. Two months, two all-inclusive resorts, complete with hand delivered food and beverages. One fountain, but no pool. Unlimited drinks, but no alcohol. Linen service and personal care treatments. Bags of souvenirs and cards sent by mail. The story changes somewhat, though, if you replace “resort” with “hospital.” For us, the summer of 2013 has become the summer to un-remember.
If you were reading here back in April, you might recall that I had emergency outpatient surgery. That was followed in mid-June by a second surgery to correct the problem that had triggered the first one. We hoped that was it, that summer would unfold into a bevy of exploration of our new state, explorations put off during the first year by hospital stays in October and January for my husband, and now my adventures. We were done. All that behind us. We were going to finally get to meet new friends and people outside the medical professions.
We didn’t know how wrong we were. Or that one moment could shudder through a way of thinking, slicing a known reality into jagged bits and pieces. The week after my surgery in June, I noticed my husband was not quite himself. It wasn’t anything big that I could single out, just little things. A fever and chills for an hour or so, the next night nausea. By the weekend, though, I knew something bigger was happening, though we still didn’t know exactly what. We hit the emergency room on Saturday morning, June 22, and the ER doctors agreed that he needed to be admitted. As we sat waiting for a room, the nurses wandered in and out, starting an IV and hanging antibiotics, inserting a catheter — all the fun things one suffers through in the ER. One quiet moment passed when it was just the two of us, finishing a plan for the vacation we both needed. In that moment, with words and breath still hanging in the air, my husband’s head snapped back, mouth and eyes frozen open, and he coded. The moments that followed are an odd mix of extreme clarity and hazy blurs. I remember seeing him like that, the nurse grabbing both my hands as she would a distressed child’s, leading me out of the room against the salmon flow of doctors and nurses running into the room. Of his bed dropping, people teeming around him, hearing only the intensity of their voices but not their words. The small side room they put me in. I held steady until the kindly nurse patted my hand, told me she’d return with updates, and that the chaplain was on his way. It was that last part that dropped me into the chair.
The promised updates came thankfully quick and steady. They had him back, then his eyes were open. He was awake, then alert enough to respond to questions despite now having a breathing tube. After that, time sped up and slowed down simultaneously. Each milestone, how ever big or small, was noted, celebrated. Each challenge met as a team. Two surgeries followed in the next few days; within a week, he was out of the ICU and in a regular room. After another week, he transferred from the main hospital to complete the course of IV antibiotics and wound care in an acute care facility.
On Wednesday, he was discharged after 7 1/2 weeks in the hospital, coming home with the full support of his surgeon. What we didn’t realize was the toll those nearly 8 weeks had taken on him. As I write this on Saturday, we’re back in the hospital, understanding the difficult reality that there is far more healing that needs to be done, and that the two of us are not able to do it by ourselves. A difficult learning experience for two very independent minded folks. As he once again stabilizes, we plan for the next step — a stay in physical rehab before coming home again.
There are a lot of things about this summer that I do not want to remember. And there are some that I will never forget. The kindness of the EMTs and medical staff; the amazing and oh-so-necessary love and support of friends and family. The simple joy of looking across the room, not caring if it is swathed in medical equipment beeping and chirping in odd harmonies, to look into my husband’s precious blue eyes. The knowledge that as we approach our 16th anniversary in a couple of weeks that our hearts do beat as one. The fragility of what separates one breath from another and that minutes should not be wasted.