18. Chaos

My second stay in the hospital seemed longer than the first. Chronologically, it wasn't. They were both 7 or 8 days each. But I was much more aware upon my return trip. That must explain why that week seemed so damn chaotic.

There was the reason for my return: a pulmonary embolism and possible stroke. The battery of tests at all hours of the day and night. The revolving door of doctors who I didn't known from Adam, who naturally found more things wrong with me. And, oh yeah, the pain of recovering from surgery that ripped out much of my plumbing system, and left me with drains galore.

Let's start with all the docs. One had diagnosed me with an embolism, put me on blood thinners, and gave me the time-tested words -- "there's nothing we can do" -- regarding the blood clots currently in my system. He urged me to walk around to help with my circulation. But another doctor believed that I had an infectious disease, quarantined my room, and prevented me from moving around. Yet another doctor, who didn't seem to know the others, posed the idea of further surgery to block new clots from entering my lungs or heart. And Dr. Schenk, of course, checked on his patient.

When I asked the nurse who was in charge, she paused and looked away. That told me everything. No one was in charge. Indeed, as the docs visited me again and again -- always alone, never together -- they would start talking right away and use technical jargon, assuming I must be: a) awake (not always); b) with a mind not compromised by all the meds (umm); and c) a medical expert (hah!). Even better, they offered differing views on my medical condition.

My only rescourse: I wouldn't do anything unless Schenk and my brother Bob approved. So tell those other docs to get to know Greg and Sure enough, on his next visit, one doc announced that he had counseled with "Dr. Gregory Schenk" -- yeah, I've heard of that guy -- and they agreed to seek a pulminologist's opinion on the need for new surgery. Read: Schenk told the guy to call the pulmonologist. (Schenk actually was an advocate for surgery, but wanted to get a better read through the pulmonologist.)

Thus, a visit from yet another doc. But it was okay this time. The pulmonologist said he took care of me in the ICU after my initial surgery, when I had breathing problems. That calmed my nerves. The guy actually knew me and my condition. I told him that I really didn't want to go through another surgery unless it was absolutely necessary. The surgery in question was inserting a filter in my abdomen to block new clots from penetrating the lungs and heart. Schenk had told me that such a procedure could be done without ripping open my abdomen again; he would thread it through my groin.

But after a good discussion and examination, the pulmonologist weighed in: no need for surgery. If were able to stand, I would have kissed him. Take blood thinners for six months, whose effectiveness could be tracked by current doctors of mine, Ditaranto and Moreas.

All this proves a point. In the hospital, you need to take charge of your own care. Don't accept what the round-robin of doctors tell you. Push back. Force interaction. Seek addition opinions, if you need to. Trust in the one doctor who knows you the best. For me, that was Schenk and -- because I'm lucky enough to have a doctor as my brother -- Bob. Moreover, realize that your state of mind is likely compromised by all the meds you're taking. So trust in your spouse. Assuming, of course, that your spouse wants to help you, not hurt you. If they want to hurt you, well, you've got bigger problems that what I can address here.

Inbetween the comedy of doctors, I was still recovering. And the nurses saved me. Literally. John noticed that my leg was swelling, so he got me out of bed and moving around a bit, checking my oxygen levels throughout. His timing was impeccable becuase I could feel a molasses-like clump in my arm, which was not a good sign. Another John learned how to flush and irrigate my drains, and used his physical strength to remove many of the mucus build-ups that were causing me pain. Trust me, this was not an easy procedure. And Laura, who had been one of my nurses during my first stay, was back, creating a sense of deja vu for both of us. "When am I going to get rid of you?" she asked jokingly. At least I think it was jokingly.

Other nurses came to my aid when I couldn't walk very well. They would prop me up on a walker and slowly take me around the ward. I had to do this three times a day. And each time was a struggle. The hospital ward is really very supportive of one another. So the other nurses would root for me as I leaned on the walker and slowly lurched forward.

Thoughout chemotherapy and my hospital stays, I was surprised that my back had held up reasonably well. I have a history of lower back spams, disc problems, and other fun stuff. And I feared that all my immobility was sure to cause a spasm or worse. Sure enough, one night around 2 in the morning -- in the hospital, problems always occur at odd hours -- my back suffered a major spasm. Muscles tightened. My body contorted. Pain radiated. And I shouted out in agony.

Rushing in was Rod, my night nurse. He's a big guy, probably 6'5" and musclular. He knew I was having problems getting up and walking on my own. So he put his arms around me and dragged me out of bed. He pulled me across the room, propped my back against the cold of the hospital door, and proceeded to work my muscles. After a while, he dragged me to a chair, and continued physical therapy. Sure enough, my spasm was gone! Now, most hospital nurses are petite women, who obviously would not have been able to lift me out of bed. How lucky was I to have Rod as my nurse on that particular night?! Maybe God was watching out for me, after all.

Indeed, the hospital chaplain, Keith, paid me a visit. And we talked for quite a while. We talked about cancer. About God and faith. About the physical and emotional ordeal I had been going through. And what did it all mean. Deep stuff. I felt that God had given me a second chance at life. Keith pressed me on what that meant. So we talked some more about how I would like to live my life once I recovered from all this. "What's your plan?" he asked. I didn't have one just yet. But I understood his point: move forward. And with a purpose.

Another saving grace was a nurse called LeighAnn. She came in, simplified a lot of my physical care -- getting some restrictions lifted -- and expanded my medical care to include emotional support. More than anyone, Kate and I clicked with LeighAnn the way people do when they meet new friends. She's a single mom, has a long commute to work, and for 12 hours each day tends to the needs of patients on the ward. Like the other nurses, she doesn't get paid a whole lot -- and that's a crime -- but it doesn't stop her from helping others when they are most vulnerable.

More than anyone, LeighAnn gave me a roadmap for my life ahead. Recovery, she said, is part physical, part emotional, and part spiritual. Don't sell any of the them short. It would take a while for me to physically recover from what had happened to my body. A year or so. It would take longer to adjust to a new plumbing system in my body. In year two, my new normal could make me emotionally depressed. How to cope with all this? Lean on Kate and my family as much as possible for emotional support. Take solace in my faith in God for spiritual support. And every morning, keep telling myself, "I've been given another day of life; let's make it count."

She is so right. Even now, many months later, I wonder where I would be had I not met LeighAnn. She is caretaker, minister and friend all wrapped up in one wonderful person. I'm blessed that she has been part of my life.

As the days went by, I didn't feel like I was getting any better. All these complications kept popping up. I was convinced that I would only get sicker the longer I stayed in the hospital. So I called Schenk and asked him to break me out of this place.

As he put that process into motion, one event almost changed my mnd. One night, my pain was so bad that Rod injected me with morphine. Knowing that the drug would put me to sleep, he waved goodnight with one hand as he injected with the other. I must say, morphine is unlike any other drug I've experienced. It made me feel like I was floating in air, without pain or worries to consume my mind. I could get used to this thing.

The next morning, LeighAnn lobbied for me to stay in the hospital, saying that the nurses would take care of me so Kate doesn't have to been burdened with me at home just yet. As she talked, all I could think about was that feeling, the feeling caused by morphine. I wanted to feel more like that. And the nurses could do that for me. Maybe I should call Schenk and tell him to hold off on the discharge.

I said I still wanted to go home. I'm not sure what inside me led me to that decision. Maybe it was my yearning for home. Maybe it was my fear of addiction. Maybe it was just time. Whatever it was, it was time to go. On the morning of my discharge, I showered and shaved myself for the first time in a while. Kate went to get the car. LeighAnn wheeled me out of the hospital. As I rose from the chair, we embraced. We cried. We said we loved each other. Kate gave her a big hug.

Now it was time to go home. Finally.

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