I’ve been spending a lot of time in hospitals lately. First, a close friend of mine was having elective surgery. One week after I returned home from caring for her, my aunt and her husband were in a terrible car accident. My aunt’s husband was killed, and my aunt just finished having surgeons fuse an assortment of wires and plates to her bones, in order to repair her hand and two smashed ankles. When she was airlifted to Toronto, I returned to pace the hospital corridors with a sense of familiarity.
Unlike many people, I like hospitals. I like the idea that no matter what crazy unexpected shit goes down, the people there can handle it. I like the idea that nothing shocks them. I even kind of like the weird antiseptic smell. I like the timelessness combined with the regular rhythms: people shuffle in and out, shifts change, things change but stay the same. Dinner at 5, respirologist at 7, vitals at 8, Ambien and Percocet at 9.
In a hospital, it becomes painfully evident that we depend on human kindness, empathy, and connection for sustenance. It also becomes immediately apparent that our health and mobility are transient things. At any moment, we can be rendered immobilized, helpless, and dependent. We can be transformed from carefree bipedalism to an agonized prostration. All of us are one head-on collision, tumble down the stairs, or rampaging virus away from this situation.
I haven’t been a hospital patient myself since my appendix nearly went postal when I was 7, leaving me with a funny orange tummy, a lifetime fondness for food in cube format, and an incision scar that I happily described to friends as “ham coloured!” while I ate cubic Jello. My last surgery involved having my wisdom teeth extracted under general anesthesia when I was about 16. I felt quite perky and pleased with myself as I settled into the dentist’s chair, admiring the midsummer tan that turned my outstretched legs a honey gold colour, and my favourite pair of penny loafers, complete with pennies cheekily perched in the slots (hey, it was the 80s). The anesthesiologist poked the needle in my hand and said, “You’re going to go to sleep now.” I looked at the needle, felt the deadness spread outwards up my arm, and said, “Hey, that feels wei—“ [clunk]
I woke up, shivering, nauseated, and covered in blood. I couldn’t walk. My mouth was packed full of gauze. The anesthesiologist leaned his kindly gray-haired head into my line of fuzzy vision. “How much do you weigh?” he asked. “I think I’m going to carry you.”
Not being entirely on the earthly plane of existence at that moment, I wasn’t going to disagree. He scooped me up and carried me Bodyguard-style through the waiting room to plop me prone on the back seat of my mom’s car. I can only imagine what this scene did for my dentist’s business as horrified clients watched a semi-conscious blood-spattered girl being carried out of the clinic. Oh yeah, by the way, this dentist wasn’t very good. He left a giant chunk of bone in my face and I spent two months that summer looking like a chipmunk who’d had a stroke before another dentist, tsk-tsking, removed it.
Thanks to my dentist’s take-no-prisoners-remove-teeth-with-mallet approach, recovery was slow and I spent two weeks alternately sucking soup through a straw, swishing my raw gum stumps with salt water, and tripping out on Tylenol-3s. My golden legs turned skinny and pale. I watched my ribs emerge two by two, like baby birds poking their heads bravely out of the nest, and decided that maybe thin thighs weren’t all they were cracked up to be. The first day I ate solid food was a triumph!
15-odd years later, I approached the matter of my friend’s surgery like a military operation. I planned her post-surgical nutrition, and cooked her antioxidant-laden, fibre-y goodness food every day. Hospital food looks and tastes like reheated ass – if you aren’t sick when you get in there, you damn well will be after a few days on the mystery meat and white paste. And shitting a brick takes on a whole new meaning when you’re trying to hustle along some opiate-sluggish colon action with stitches in inconvenient places.
Every day, to the great amusement and puzzlement of the small town hospital staff, I marched into the ward laden with cooler bags packed with spinach salad, fresh fruit, homemade stews and curries, my baba’s healing borscht (“Gives you roses in your cheeks!” she’d said to me decades ago, and who was I to question the ancestral knowledge of an octogenarian Ukrainian turnip farmer who’d given birth to twins with the same effort as peeing in her cornfield?), and lots of protein. I hovered over my friend as she imbibed fish oil capsules, glutamine powder, and probiotics.
Thanks to my attentive ministrations and home made Colon Blow granola, she had her first post-morphine bowel movement a day ahead of schedule. We were both so thrilled, I took a photo of her on the can, giving the thumbs-up. I was hoping to find a bumper sticker saying “My patient pooped early” in the vein of “My kid is an honour student”, or perhaps “My patient’s bowels are exuberant overachievers and all I got was this lousy t-shirt”.
Priorities change a hell of a lot when suddenly good health and physical security are taken away. My aunt, who has struggled with her weight her entire life, now finds herself greatly motivated to lose the extra pounds she carries on her tiny body, as every additional ounce has suddenly become another incremental burden to her crushed feet. 50 pounds and a cat-herd of tiny unruly bone fragments may stand between her and walking again. My friend, once accustomed to the hard daily training regimen of an amateur athlete, resigned herself to the small victories of shuffling slowly down the hallway, and having a shower standing up by herself, before returning to bed exhausted. Pooping on one’s own in the potty like a big girl becomes cause for celebration. Right now, I’m pretty sure my aunt would eat rat poison if someone told her it would enable her to walk.
Don’t take health and movement for granted. They are gifts, and it’s a gift given by a mildly psychotic stingy deity who might see fit to retract its offer of your unassisted ambulation or intact immune system at any moment. Care for your health, bodily integrity, and movement, and nurture them daily. Reward them. Let them know they are special and important to you. They can disappear, but like cats, if fed they will reappear. The more well-fed the cat, the better your chances that it will return to your couch, purring happily as it sheds copious furballs all over your lap.