1: It Wouldn’t Be Macramé
On March 18th, I thought I had the stomach flu.
We were early enough in the pandemic to be aware of the virus – Italy! New York! – but far enough removed to not think it was Covid-19 with every cough. After a weekend of abdominal pain and a night of fever and throwing up, I called the advice nurse, sobbing. She told me to go to Urgent Care, so I grabbed my purse and a two-year old N-95 mask that I used for yard work, gave my dog a frozen yogurt-and-kibble Kong, and left. I was nervous to go to a clinic with the virus circulating like an invisible terrorist, but I didn’t have a choice. My body chose for me. There were only four people were in the waiting room, but we were masked and sitting as far apart as possible. My fever made me a priority, so I was seen quickly: vitals and symptoms, check, palpate, check, and then the declaration of a diagnosis that hadn’t even occurred to me: appendicitis. “You need a scan to confirm,” the doctor said. “Go to the E.R. now. Can you drive? Should I call an ambulance?” I remember stumbling to my car, finding a half-used bottle of hand sanitizer that my neighbor gifted me, and rubbing it all over my hands, hoping I was strong enough to drive.
Tuesday, March 18, 2020: Covid-19 Cases: Oregon: 20, New York: 1,102, Italy: 4,207
At the hospital, no one wore masks.
I stepped up to the desk in my dirty N-95 but the receptionist wasn’t wearing one and didn’t seem concerned. Maybe it was because those were they early days of coronavirus in Oregon, but it felt strange. She checked me in but then asked me to wait in my car instead of the waiting room, which sent a menagerie of mixed signals that only intensified when they called me to come back in and took me back for my exam.
No one seemed to know what to do.
I followed a nurse into one of three rooms with a yellow laminated Covid-19 sign and was thrown into the world of machines and wires, vitals and fluids, questions and answers. I took off my mask so she could take my temperature – 102 degrees – and then put it back on while she removed hers.
“These things are itchy,” she said, pulling it below her nose. “And I don’t think you have Covid.” She stepped out of the room and took the sign off the door. I took a nap. Moments later, I awoke to a doctor standing over me. “We think it’s acute appendicitis,” he said. “We’ll send you for a CT to be sure.” Twenty minutes later, he confirmed it. “Your appendix needs to be removed,” the doctor said. “I’ll call the surgeon so we can do it today.”
“I’m having surgery today?” My head was swimming.
“Yes,” he said, his forehead wrinkling. “That thing needs to come out.”
When I picked up my cell phone to call my sister, it died. I hoped it wasn’t a premonition of things to come.
“Do you have a phone charger I could use?” I said, showing the nurse my blank screen. “I need someone to watch my dog.”
“We don’t, but you can use this,” she said, pointing to a beige landline phone. She wove the curly cord in between wires and bags of fluid and sat it on my lap. My sister didn’t answer, but I left her a message; Frayn, my friend who lived down the street, offered to bring me a phone charger and leave it at the nurse’s station; Rachel, my neighbor, would let my dog out and Matthew, my dog walker, would feed him and spend the night. My ex even agreed to pick him up the next morning and take him to his house for as long as I needed. I was in pain, but my dog would be okay. I was rockin’ this surgery thing already.
I’d barely hung up the phone when a masked attendant came to take me to the operating room. The prep room was tiny and sterile, lots of cold steel and the bitter smell of disinfectant. I traded shoes for hospital socks and took out my contacts, which is when I realized I didn’t have my glasses. “I can’t see,” I told the nurse. “I’m practically blind.” She put all of my belongings in a bright green plastic bag. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “We have to hurry. The surgeon is ready for you.” Those words echoed – the surgeon. A few hours earlier, I thought I had the stomach flu.
The anesthesiologist gave me something to “relax me” while the surgeon made happy hour small talk.
“What do you do?” he said, walking beside me.
“I’m a writer.” I felt myself leaving my body.
“Are you published?” Metal wheels clanked against the vinyl floor.
“Yes,” I said, feeling woozy. “Young adult.”
“My daughter writes that!” he said. “I’ll get you her Instagram.”
I don’t remember an oxygen mask or counting backwards, the doors swinging open to the operating room or even the room itself, which was disappointing since I used to love Grey’s Anatomy. I was there, and then I was out. When I woke up, the anesthesiologist was standing over me.
“Welcome back! Wait here,” he said, as if I was going anywhere.
Here was not the surgical suite of my medical TV drama dreams. Here was the middle of a large, empty floor next to the nurse’s station where they kept talking loudly about the virus. Be quiet, I remember thinking. I don’t want to hear about that. And then, magically, I was in a room. Evidence of a photo I posted on Instagram – hey guys! I got an appendectomy! – and my eyes in the photo confirm that I was incredibly high. Oh HEY! This water is delicious. Oh, hi nurse! You’re not wearing a mask, is no one wearing masks? OMG THIS BROTH IS THE BEST THING EVER. Have you tasted it? Oh yeah, I don’t have contacts or glasses so I can’t see anything. I mean NOTHING. Can you hand me some juice? Then the surgeon came in. OH HI SURGEON! Did everything go okay?
“There was a complication,” he said. “Your appendix was intact, but it was so inflamed that when I went to grab it, it burst. We stapled it immediately, but that’s why you’re on antibiotics and have a drain.”
I looked down at my side and saw a plastic bulb shaped like a big jellybean hanging off of me – the drain. It was filled with red stuff. “OH, THAT,” I said. “So, I’m staying here?”
“Normally yes, but we’re sending you home early tomorrow morning,” the surgeon said. “It’s safer there.”
Something happens when you’re almost legally blind and don’t have your glasses: you lose your other senses, too. Since I couldn’t see, everything was fuzzy, including reason, information, and instructions. I knew I didn’t want to go home, I could barely get out of bed by myself. But he was insistent.
“You have to get out of here as soon as possible,” he said, as if the virus was right outside the door, waiting to come in.
“But I live alone. And no one can help me because of Covid.”
“Just find someone to drive you home and set you up,” he said.
“But I’m in pain.”
“That’s to be expected,” he said. “Take Norco. ”
“It’s making me nauseated,” I said. Later, I’d learn that Norco was a powerful drug, a combination of hydrocodone and acetaminophen often given after surgery.
“Take Tylenol instead,” he said. “But you’re really going to need something stronger.”
And then he left.
I tried to eat Jello. I sobbed any time I reached for water. I screamed trying to get out of bed and pee. It was torture, but the bed was adjustable and the nurses were there to help. When I finally made it to the bathroom, they cheered. The green plastic bag appeared as they showed me how to care for my drain and then stuffed all my pills and discharge instructions inside of it. I didn’t retain any of the information. The pain was too much. So off I went – me, my near blindness, and a plastic tube attached to a drain hanging out of my body less than 24 hours after my first-ever surgery, headed home to recover alone.
I’ve always been good at being alone.
My sister was six years older, which meant I played with my active imagination and imaginary friends more than I played with her. The need for solitude was also in my bones, passed down from women on both sides of my family who required the same. Over the years I’d had several long-term relationships, but had also been just as happy during solo times or dating long-distance, the kind where you’re on your own except for one glorious, long weekend per month. After twenty years of freelancing, toggling between copywriting and creative writing, I was used to working alone in my home office, cat or dog at my side. Solitude wasn’t just for yoga or meditation, it was for creating! Making your own fun! As a result, I’ve never been bored. When the quarantine was announced, I immediately made a list called “How To Self Isolate A-Go-Go.” It included things like online yoga and singing with the dog, but also ventured into more philosophical territory, like “be the pool you wish you were swimming in: drink water.” I stuck it on a yellow bulletin board in the middle of an aqua wall and smiled. You’ve got this, I remember thinking. Look at all you’ll learn during this time! Little did I know it wouldn’t be macramé.
In normal times, my mom would have flown from Texas to Portland to stay with me, but these weren’t normal times. My sister offered her guest room, but she had a history of pneumonia. I didn’t survive emergency surgery just to give my family the virus, so I declined. Besides, I’d taken care of my dog and an ex post-surgery. I was resourceful! How hard could it be?
The walk from her car to my front door should have been a clue.
I leaned against the doorway, panting. While my brother-in-law ran to the store for
crackers and Sprite, my sister set up the house for a post-surgical patient. She made sure I had a lamp I could reach, a phone that was charging, water with a straw, and a clear path to my pills and the bathroom. When she helped me into bed, I screamed. The mattress, a really nice one I’d bought the year before, was too soft. “Please don’t leave,” I sobbed, hanging onto her. “Please, please, stay.”
“I’ll be back in the morning,” she said, tears rolling down her face. “You’ll be okay.” She lowered me down into bed, holding me like a half hug.
I didn’t know it then, but that was the last time anyone other than a doctor or a nurse would touch me. To this day, more than a year later, that remains true.
That night, I cried myself to sleep. When I woke up in searing pain, I realized I was on the wrong side of the bed. I had to roll onto incisions to get up but I made it, cursing and carrying a bag of my own fluids down the hall because that’s what we do. When I got back to bed I collapsed onto my back and surrounded myself with pillows so I wouldn’t roll onto the drain. I was cold, but I stayed that way. Reaching for the blankets felt like trying to climb Mt. Everest.
In the morning, my neighbor Rachel called to see how I was. I cried so hard she came over, masked and ready to help. She was no stranger to surgeries, so she set me up on the other side of the bed, gave me a table to push against, and propped me up with more pillows. She also made me another set-up on the couch. “It’s easier to be here in the early days,” she said. “And you have a view.” I remember looking at the blue skies and sunshine out my front windows, wondering if I’d ever enjoy them again. She left me with applesauce, toast, and a carved, wooden cane she used for her previous surgeries.
Once she left, I set alarms.
I knew the importance of scheduling and managing meds, but I also had an irrational fear of taking the wrong pills together and dying. Maybe because it said so on the bottle, or maybe it was the fact that I actually felt like I was dying. Either way, the schedule looked like this:
8 AM: Flagyl and pain
9 AM: Cipro and drain
2 PM: Flagyl and pain
9 PM: Cipro
10 PM: Flagyl and drain
I took impeccable notes every time I did anything because that journal was all I had. My sister brought me Jello and rice, Gatorade and bananas, but nothing worked. I took more pills and ate less. There were notes saying “you have to eat something” and “put sugar in your tea for calories.” I called the on-call surgeon at 10 a.m., then noon, then 3 p.m. “Something’s wrong,” I said. “I’m so sick.” “Try a Popsicle,” she said. She had a very soothing voice. “Drink some Recharge.” I drew myself a medal with a phrase inside, something she said at the end of every call: You’re Doing So Good. The kindness of this stranger was not lost on me. But my journal still looked like this:
AM: Recharge, two sips, two crackers, meds
Applesauce, bite of quinoa, meds
PM: Water, two crackers, meds
The only one there to see me taking pills and not eating was me.
For months, I tried to fix the pain myself.
I thought it was a hernia and a floating back rib that had been popping in and out of place ever since a car door hit me in the back years earlier. As a swimmer and a yogi, my body was always shifting, muscles constantly behaving and misbehaving. In November, when I finally told my naturopath, she ordered an abdominal ultrasound, but I was always too busy to go. Instead, when the pain showed up, I’d spend fifteen minutes after morning yoga and meditation breathing white light into it. Surely the pain would release if I gave it space. Most of the time it did, but it always came back. Sometimes I even made deals with my body while soaking in Epsom salts: will you go away if I work less? I’d say. As it turns out, you can’t rationalize your way out of an organ that wants to leave you.
On Saturday, four days after the surgery, I began shaking all over. “It’s probably low blood sugar,” the surgeon said when I called her again. “Try to eat and let me know how it goes.” An hour later, I developed a fever. “It’s ninety-nine degrees,” I reported when I called again. “That’s a temperature,” she said, gently. “So, we’re not worried. It’s not a fever until it’s 101 degrees and above. I think this might be a pain response. Can you try the Norco again?” I could almost feel her hug through the phone. “Call anytime. You’re Doing So Good.”
My period came back (it never really left) and the helper I’d lined up for the weekend fell through, so I ate a few crackers, took the pills, laid on the couch, and prayed for sleep. Instead, every time I closed my eyes for the next four hours I saw plants and animals with huge teeth, chomping and gnashing, coming at me from both sides of my head. I was hallucinating. My body was crying out – something is wrong – and no one but me would listen.
When I skipped a step managing the drain and the tube filled with bubbles and a different color, I called the surgeon again, convinced I’d have to head back to the hospital. She walked me through a fix instead – stopper off, squeeze bulb, stopper on – and it started draining, again. Things were back to normal, except for the cup of rice milk (all I’d eaten) and the hallucinations, which I told her about. “You need more calories,” she said. “You have to try.” I knew I was dehydrated. I also knew I had to put words to what it felt like to be in my body. “I can’t take it, anymore,” I finally said, my voice cracking. “These antibiotics are killing me.” “Okay,” she said, quietly. “Let’s skip them for tonight. Get some sleep, and the doctor will see you in the morning.”
Monday, March 23, 2020: Covid-19 Cases: Oregon: 30, New York: 5,711, Italy: 4,780 The Governor of Oregon issued a Stay-At-Home Order
For my post-surgical follow-up, I rode in the backseat of my sister’s Subaru wearing blue rubber kitchen gloves and a mask, windows cracked, as I tried not to throw up. Until I could drive again, she would take me to all of my appointments. Later, I’d think of those rides as some of the best times of the pandemic. She’d tell me what was going on with her to distract me from the pain and I’d listen, wind blowing in my hair, relishing the outside world.
The streets were strangely empty, but so was the medical building. I was too sick to feel nervous about the virus, but I was careful, pushing the elevator button with my blue-gloved hand. There was no one else in the waiting room, and the nurse who took me back was masked and efficient. When she asked me questions I replied with short answers, aware that speaking spread the virus, maybe even through a mask. When the surgeon came in, I felt relieved. Surely, he’d help. After checking my incisions and looking at my drain output, though, he said something I wasn’t expecting. “Let’s get this drain out, today.”
I laid back on the table, lifted my sweater, and before I knew it, he was pulling a long, thick tube out of my body without warning. “It’s over,” he said as I kept shrieking. “It’s done.” But it wasn’t. “You have to finish your antibiotics,” he said when I asked. “We don’t want you to get an infection.”
I almost cried.
The world smelled like ammonia.
Everything I ate made me sick.
But on Wednesday, without the drain, I took my first shower. I started spacing out the Tylenol and practiced walking around my house. I ate broth with rice in it. I decided to start a band called “Couch Banana,” all signs I was feeling better. But when I woke up on Saturday drenched in sweat with a merciless backache, I wasn’t so sure. I made a strawberry banana smoothie, walked around the house, and then, when the pain was too bad, I called the surgeon again. While I waited for him to call me back, I watched an episode of Gilmore Girls. It was the one where Luke’s daughter, April, goes to the hospital with a stomachache and – surprise! – gets her appendix out.
“Go to the E.R.,” he said after I took my temperature and it was a fever – 101 degrees. “You need a scan to rule out infection. Can you get a ride? Right now?”
When my friend Christine showed up five minutes later to drop off soup, I felt lucky. She was there, and she was willing. We masked up and drove to the emergency room.
2: Bruce Willis in a Hazmat Suit
Appendectomies are supposed to be routine. It’s one of the first surgeries medical students perform – simple, clear, uncomplicated. Get in, get out, send the patient home with a cute little scar. But nothing, not even this surgery, was routine, anymore.
Saturday, March 18, 2020: Covid-19 Cases: Oregon: 65, New York: 8,771, Italy: 5,217
This time, the hospital was a different place.
I walked through the sliding glass door entrance, dirty gardening mask on, clutching my side. Nurses in face masks and shields took my temperature, put me in a wheelchair, and rushed me through an empty waiting room and into a section in the back that smelled like bleach. Outside, white tents littered the sidewalk. Inside, there were tarps and plastic everywhere, people running around in gowns and masks, shields and goggles.
Things were going to get worse before they got better.
From behind glass, I watched one nurse help another put on her PPE, a major process that involved a gown, gloves, and a small helmet-type thing that had a tube coming out of it. Once she had it on, the other nurse secured it from the back, like a kid with a Halloween costume.
“Hi,” she said as the doors whooshed closed behind her. “Since you have a fever, we’re taking all Covid-19 precautions. I’ll do your vitals, then the doctor will come in, then we’ll get your CT. After that, we’ll communicate by phone. It’s safer.” She pointed to another beige landline. “Then you’ll go into isolation until we get your test results.”
Memories come back to me in fragments: the E.R. looked like a war zone, different makeshift stations for different traumas; some people wore helmets, others wore masks, and still others were behind glass and laminated yellow signs; there was a feeling of fear in the air, but also bravery. Anyone could have the virus and give it to everyone. We didn’t fully understand how it worked, yet. All we knew was that it was dangerous and potentially deadly. Anyone willing to go into a room with someone with a fever was superhero. That fact remains true.
The nurse stuck a large swab up my nose — the Covid test – but it wasn’t bad compared to the pain I felt. On the way to the CT scanner, one nurse wheeled me while two others held up sheets on either side to block out germs. I could have been a ticking Covid timebomb, spreading aerosols through a worn-out gardening mask. Everything was tinged with danger, like the pandemic movies I never watched because the world was hard enough. Why watch a film about it ending? But I thought of it now, 12 Monkeys, Bruce Willis in a hazmat suit.
On the Covid-19 floor, the nurse looked like an astronaut.
Her gear was even more intense, something between a hazmat suit and a space suit, white and contained, a huge helmet saving her from sharing air with her patients. The machines behind me looked like robots, flashing and beeping, as if I were sick on Mars. For the next 24 hours I was in isolation, just like the main character in the young adult novel I’d finished writing. The book dealt with concussions and space, friendship and first love, loneliness and re-entry. Suddenly I was the main character, isolated, floating out in space all alone. It was surreal. I had no idea that this little taste of isolation was just the beginning.
A few days later I’d think about this room, the quiet one with a view of trees. I’d remember the chicken and dumplings I ate, the first meal I’d eaten in weeks. And then, the next day, I’d vow never to eat it again. When the nurse came in to tell me that my Covid test was negative, we did an air high-five. “They’ll take you up to surgery early in the morning,” she mumbled through her helmet. “Try and get some sleep.” The last time I saw her was the next morning at 7 A.M. as they wheeled me away, her gloved hand waving. I hope I waved back.
I was taken to a room with a huge CT machine and surrounded by a team of people, a blur of masked faces who told me I was getting anesthesia again as the pain meds started to snake their way through my veins. “Go easy,” I remember saying. “I’m sensitive.” In the end, they did what they needed to do, performing a CT while I was asleep, finding the infection pocket, and doing a guided drain insertion. I left with another scar and a very large drain, almost three times the size of the first one. It would take days before I even realized it was attached to my body.
As soon as the meds wore off, the vomiting started.
I threw up for three days.
A sip of water or a cracker would send me. I was taking so many meds (four antibiotics and pain meds) that I couldn’t eat, but I couldn’t not eat, either. There was talk of an IV and a tube while I dry-heaved and passed out on repeat, attended to by a kind nurse in a Harry Potter scrub cap. One day, when they were trying to get me to sit up, my blood pressure plummeted and alarms went off. People rushed in, got me back to bed, and hooked me up to more IVs and wires. At some point I heard the word “stable” as I passed out. When I woke up, I felt like I’d been asleep for a week.
I sipped water and cried, watching Gilmore Girls on my phone as a distraction, the one where Lorelai, Rory, and Emily go on a road trip. I tried to look out the window, only I couldn’t because it was a half window, the kind you find on the worst row of an airplane. I felt like I was dying and couldn’t see the sky. A nurse recommended the Calm channel on TV, which showed an endless loop of nature scenes set to soothing music. There I saw forests and palm trees, bright skies and sunny beaches, all of which were better than looking at beige walls or a red brick building, my current view.
With dinner, which they brought and I couldn’t eat, I watched Friends, something soothing and familiar. Maybe Monica will get me out of here, I thought. Maybe Chandler will say something witty and make my nausea go away, but they didn’t. Their quips just blared out at me from the small speaker by my bed. If I was still awake, I’d watch a Hallmark movie. My favorite was called You’re Bacon Me Crazy, a story of love, loss, lard, and two food truck chefs set in Portland. Eventually the meds starting working, the nausea lessened, and five days after my second surgery, I was better. But then the screaming started.
HELP ME HELP ME SOMEONE HELP ME.
It came from across the hall, probably a mentally ill woman off her meds because of surgery. No one would tell me, but she screamed this phrase over and over in a raspy, crackly voice that sounded like a witch. I knew she was ill, but that didn’t make her screams any easier to bear as they bounced off the linoleum and into my room. HELP ME HELP ME HELP ME PLEEEEEEASE. As I tried to deal with my own pain, I heard something else in her screams. They were hers, but they were also the wails of the world, crying for what it had lost. The nurses added goggles and shields to their face masks, only touching me with gloved hands. The virus was getting worse and taking more people with it. When I opened the New York Times app on my phone, I sobbed.
April 2, 2020: Covid-19 Cases: Oregon, 90, New York, 10,329, Italy: 4,668
After I caught my breath, I asked for colored pencils and got to work, drawing mandalas and little Buddhas in my journal, practicing metta meditation, and writing songs to help kids feel less scared during the pandemic, all while watching Gilmore Girls with headphones on my tiny phone.
It got me through.
In between naps, they made me sit in a chair for as long as I could, take a walk, and try to eat. A nurse would shake her head when she came to get trays full of yogurt and bananas or toast and avocado, mostly uneaten. “Is that it?” she’d say. “I’m trying,” I’d reply, which was true. Another doc came in, a woman this time, and smiled at my drawings. “Your liver numbers are high,” she said. “Your enzymes are off. Are you eating? How’s the wound? Maybe you’ll leave on Friday.”
By Friday, my numbers were still too high – and so was my hair. I discovered a rat’s nest the size of my fist, so that night they brought me a Magic Shower Cap. That wasn’t the name but that’s what I called it because it washed your hair without water. You just put it on, worked it around while it heated up and magic! Clean hair! I made a video for Instagram and laughed for the first time in weeks. Maybe I felt better! Or maybe it was the morphine.
That night, the yelling continued.
I wore earplugs and sobbed to my mom on the phone. I listened to Deepak Chopra so loudly, I will never listen to him again. I bought the Calm app because I was desperate to drown out the suffering, except there’s nothing relaxing about listening to a Sleep Story at top volume. I hadn’t slept through the night in ten days, and I wasn’t eating enough. I wasn’t healing. When I asked the nurse if anyone could help the screaming woman, she said, “we can’t drug her, that’s life. Just deal with it.”
I’d been dealing with it all week. And I still couldn’t see the sky.
I asked to be moved, but there were no other rooms, so I asked for markers, instead. I drew a smiling octopus on the sliding glass door of the bathroom. I wrote love notes to the nurses. I made a daily schedule and more drawings. I got better at French, wrote a few more songs, and distracted myself from pain and suffering the way I always had: by creating things.
And then I ate a veggie burger.
When the sweet guy from Dining came to collect my tray, he clapped. And then, after dinner, my favorite nurse, the one from the previous Monday night, came back. She was wearing her Harry Potter scrub cap, only this time, she was also wearing goggles and a face shield. “Why are you still here?” she said. “I adore you, but was hoping you’d be home by now!” “I want to go home,” I said. “All I need is a good set of labs.” “Then we cross our fingers,” she said, showing me her blue-gloved hand.
When the screaming started again – and included a second screamer – I put on my headphones and started drawing a silly yellow-and-plaid person saying “Eat more snacks!” It was dusk, which meant this would go on for another few hours. The only quiet time was a short period in the morning, which is when I tried to take a nap.
“Wow,” the Harry Potter nurse said when she came back in. “You’re right in the middle of it. Have you slept at all?”
“No,” I said. And then I started crying, the dam breaking. “I’m sorry, I know I shouldn’t complain.”
She looked at me like she knew me, which she did. She had gotten me through those first hellish four days and distracted me by talking to me about writing and Harry Potter.
“You’re sensitive,” she said, looking at me through the face shield. “You’re an artist. You take it all in.”
I nodded, gulping through tears.
“I’ll be right back,” she said.
Ten minutes later I moved to a room at the end of the hall – a room with a window. For the first time in eleven days I saw trees, sky, and possibility. When a nurse came in for the 4 A.M. blood draw, I held out my arm and hoped. The next morning, when the Harry Potter nurse introduced me to the next shift nurse, she winked. “I think you’re getting out of here today,” she said. “If I do, I’m drawing you a picture,” I said. It was almost strange to hear my voice without screaming in the background. “Thank you for everything.” She smiled with her eyes. “You’re so welcome. Keep getting better, okay?”
A few hours later, my favorite doctor came in with her clipboard. “Your liver numbers are still high, but we can test them again when the drain comes out,” she said. “You’ll have to manage the drain at home on your own, a nurse will show you. And you have to promise to eat a lot of protein, okay? It’s the best way to heal. Eat beans, nuts, fish, tofu, eggs, or lean meats at every meal. Do you have someone to cook for you? You won’t feel like cooking. You won’t feel like doing anything for a few weeks.” “I can arrange some help,” I said. “Great,” she said. “Then you can go home.”
I drew and colored a special thank you note for the nurses and watched one of them put in on the bulletin board in the hallway. “Make sure the Harry Potter nurse sees it,” I said. Like a lot of things during that time, I can’t remember anyone’s name. But after twelve days, I was leaving. And I knew exactly who helped get me there.
3: Dancing with a Potato
Wednesday, April 8, 2020: Covid-19 Cases: Oregon: 52, New York: 9,568, Italy: 3,039
I came out of the hospital and into a city on lockdown.
Everyone else had been at it for weeks, freaking out and knitting, making sourdough bread and having Zoom dance parties while I was clinging to my hospital bed like a life raft. Now I was home and recovering again – not the kind of quarantine I was expecting. I also didn’t expect to feel what I felt. On a cosmic level, something was leaving me like thousands of someones were leaving the world.
At home, I picked up where I left off – couch, cane, and crackers. I opened the green plastic bag, sifting through my things, and took out two plastic breathing machines – one with a bobbing, blue ball and another that whirred – that I was supposed to use twice a day to exercise my lungs and prevent pneumonia. I grabbed half a dozen orange pill bottles, set them on the coffee table, and then unfolded the discharge instructions. There, staring at me, was my diagnosis: Sepsis.
The word sepsis comes from the Greek word sepo, which means to rot. It sounded ancient, like having sepsis transported you back to Roman times, which made sense. The white sheets that twisted around my body as I writhed in pain looked exactly like a toga.
In reality, though, I had blood poisoning. One-third of the people who get sepsis don’t make it. I felt like I was dying, but I had no idea how serious it was while it was happening. I guess the body locks away trauma in the moment so we can survive. My chest tightened at reading the word – sepsis – and then released as the tears came, little griefs and reliefs plopping onto the paper. Through blurry eyes, I read about other conditions I didn’t know I had: Abscess after Procedure, Abnormal Liver Function Tests, Severe Protein-Calorie Malnutrition. Since no one else was there, not even my dog, I crossed my arms in front of me and held onto my shoulders, giving myself a hug. I was in pain, but I was still there.
I got out my laptop and asked for help.
I rarely asked for help.
I was taught to be strong, a Texas woman, tougher than tough. Both of my grandmothers were that way, polite and genteel, sweet and funny, but also hard as nails. From an early age, I learned if you wanted to get anywhere in the world, you had to make things happen for yourself. Dial up the grit! Go with determination! All the busyness and pushing was at odds with my sensitive, artist’s constitution, but fit perfectly with my Type A personality. After college, my writing path led me to advertising, an industry that fully embraced 60-70 hours weeks. It was there that I learned to write on deadline and the value of pushing. You roll the boulder up the hill! Push, push, push! And then, when you get to the top, you enjoy the view. I was young and starting out, so I embraced it. But sometimes I wondered: what if I let the boulder go? What if I looked at the view along the way? Would it still look good? Would I enjoy it if I hadn’t worked hard to earn it?
During those first few weeks, my sister did laundry and delivered muffins; Mom played caregiver by phone, holding my pain but also encouraging me; Dad told jokes and cheered me up; Sara listened to my symptoms and reassured me while Nina researched and sent me links for the best ways to recover. Friends far and wide e-mailed and texted, always making room for a call if I needed it, even during a pandemic. Co-workers and clients, who were also my friends, were patient and kind. I video-chatted with my dog every night so I could tell him I loved him and sing him to sleep. And when I e-mailed friends who cooked and told them about my diagnoses – sepsis! severe protein malnutrition! – meals showed up on my doorstep for weeks: savory soups and loaves of banana bread, Greek takeout and lentil quinoa salads, brisket and broccoli cheese casserole, fresh turkey sandwiches made with love and left in the mailbox. You can’t heal on boxed tomato soup, but you can with food cooked with love. I was alone, but very much not alone.
In between sleeping and tiny meals, I walked from the couch to the bathroom a few times a day, carrying a bag of my own infection that I’d routinely dump into the toilet. It was the second hole I’d had in my body to let the poison out.
My. Appendix. Burst.
In a way, my life burst open, too.
As I began to recover, things I’d ignored for years came back: drawing Byzantine-style faces and animals; making comics and practicing bubble letters, all with colored pencils because it was meditative and soothing; playing the piano, a few bars at a time, because I watched all of Mozart in the Jungle and loved it; napping as the afternoon sun hit my knees, the very best version of doing nothing.
The last one was the most important.
Before surgery, I was clocking sixty-hour weeks. It was unintentional, but I wasn’t light about my work deadlines and writing deadlines, and refused to give on either one. I was excited and enthusiastic, I told myself. I’m making up for lost time! But something had to go.
Maybe it was an appendix. It was obviously an appendix.
Maybe it was a schedule.
Maybe it was the work, the unrelenting relentlessness.
Maybe it was all of it.
You can’t strive when you’re laying on the couch watching Netflix and off caffeine for months. You can’t push when the smallest amount of effort leads to twenty-four hours of pain. You can’t just go back into life, the old life, when there’s a virus everywhere.
While I was in the hospital the second time, Rachel moved and left me her full-length mirror – large, framed in wood, and sitting in the living room. It was too heavy to move, so it stayed. Sometimes I waved when I walked by, sometimes the image tricked me, making think I wasn’t alone, but most of the time I avoided looking at myself unless I was changing gauze or managing the drain. I often avoided the parts that hurt.
But one day, I lifted up my shirt.
My belly was puffy and distended, incisions tender and raw. I looked like I’d been on the losing end of a knife fight, five little jabs, including one with a tube coming out of it. The whole area was bruised, purples and blues that would eventually yellow. I knew I’d been through a trauma, but seeing it was something else.
I stumbled from the mirror to the only chair with back support, leaned back, and put my hands on my belly. I breathed in and felt the pain of the thousands of times I’d hurt her, all the times I’d ignored her needs. I breathed in again and apologized for all the skipped meals, the exercising even when it hurt, all those months I was too busy to get an ultrasound. I cried for the lack of comfort and kindness I’d showed myself.
I let the boulder go. And the kindness rushed in.
In between taking pills and caring for the drain, I slept. I walked a lap around the house, then two. I ate overnight oats with berries while reading Karen Karbo’s In Praise Of Difficult Women, which encouraged me to keep going; slept in my bed instead of the couch; walked into the backyard for the first time, squinting at the sunshine, leaving fresh prints in the wet grass as I circled the perimeter. I missed my dog.
The words didn’t come but drawing did, helping me process being back in a world-turned-upside down. I drew Nicole Georges’ Gratitude worksheets, one of many gifts of the pandemic, and sketched myself, dancing with a potato. I also wrote what I was grateful for (life, body, family, dog), what was out of my control (pain, the world, Petey coming home), and drew a picture of Petey and me, back together again. I sketched a girl named Supergirl, wrote and colored the phrase “My Cells Are Bright and Shiny,” and read Harry Potter. I walked down the block with the cane, then without the cane, and then around the block, grinning like a gold medalist. A week later they removed the drain, the last thing that had to happen so that my dog could come home. I was still on antibiotics and weaning myself off of Tylenol, but I was better. In the coming months I’d do too much and suffer the consequences, but that was nothing new. I’d been doing that my entire life.
May 1, 2020: Covid-19 Cases: Oregon: 69, New York: 3,879, Italy: 2,062
Six weeks after he left, my dog came home.
I watched his little ears twitch when he slept; I wept when I woke up and he was beside me; I laid outside with him on a blanket and let the breeze kiss our cheeks while looking at the sky. I hadn’t done that in years. He was happy to be home, but even happier than he’d gotten back an older version of me, the one who knew life was just as important as writing about it. The girl who knew that dog walks weren’t just something to do in between other things, they were their own things. A pause apart from the rest of the world. I was getting stronger, and he was helping me get there.
Eventually the words came and I was able to write, again. I couldn’t roll the recycling bins out to the street yet, but I was able to work part-time. By the end of May, I was strong enough to drive a short distance. The first time I took us to the park, I wept all the way home. After three months of pain and recovery, I’d emerged with an incredibly tender heart. We passed closed shop after closed shop, windows boarded up, some with graffiti, some with instructions for take-out and delivery, all with positive messages: Hang in There. We Love You. We’ll Get Through This. I’d changed, but the world had changed, too.
Some say the appendix is useless, that it doesn’t have a function. It’s an extra, they say. But research shows that it’s actually a repository for good bacteria. When something goes wrong in the body and you use it all up, the appendix jumps in and floods the gut with goodness, again.
I lost an organ whose only function was to be good.
When it left, it took my desire to be good right along with it. Lose an appendix, gain something else, like yourself: full and complete, present and unapologetic. That was my gift of the surgery. Maybe it was the gift of the pandemic, too.
It’s June 2021, almost a year later.
Vaccinations are ramping up and people are starting to come back into the world, but I pause. I didn’t get to experience Spring with my dog last year. This year he’s here, but he’s also in the middle of chemo treatments. Petey was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic lymphoma back in December. Next year, he might not be here at all, so we’re not in a hurry.
It’s the season of the second walk.
We go at dusk as the light changes and walk with the setting sun. Sometimes we see other dogs and the occasional bunny. Other times, geese fly overhead and honk. There are more smells for him to investigate than on the morning walk, if that’s possible, but we’re relaxed. We amble along, taking it all in like we have all the time in the world, because we do. There are no lists to check off, no places to be, no desire to be good. Like going into a pandemic or recovering from surgery, helping a dog through chemo or coming out of a pandemic, there’s no prescribed way through it except to just be.
As it turns out, life can be like that too, if you let it.
Kari Luna is a novelist and whimsicologist. Her debut YA novel, The Theory of Everything, won an Oregon Book Award and was an Indies Next New Voices pick. Kari is a creative director/copywriter at her studio, For the Curious Ones, works with authors at Launch with Love, and her bands are all famous in Europe, of course. She’s currently finishing a middle grade series about animals and the climate emergency and a collection of essays about canine chemo, Bowie, and the beauty of iron-on transfers. You can find her and her sidekick, Petey Sellers, in Portland, Oregon or online @wordette.