Friday, April 8, 2016

What a Marvel Antihero and I Have in Common

I recently finished watching the second season of Daredevil on Netflix. It’s a great show, and I highly recommend it. One of the major storylines this season (spoiler alert!) is that of “the Punisher,” or Frank Castle, a war hero on trial for a brutal killing spree to avenge the death of his family.

To lessen his sentence, Castle’s lawyers want to take a PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) angle. However, Castle insists that he is completely of his right mind. Moreover, he doesn’t want to diminish the suffering of individuals who do, in fact, have PTSD. Although I haven’t gone on any killing sprees lately myself (except maybe of PR’s in the weight room), I can actually relate to Castle on a certain level.

Watch this man shoot a lot of bad guys in the new season of Daredevil on Netflix.

About a year ago, in order to end a five-year battle with uncontrolled ulcerative colitis, I underwent a proctocolectomy, or the removal of my entire colon and rectum. After a long road to recovery, I can finally say today that I’m back to my old self. The aftermath of surgery, however, was nothing short of a nightmare. Memories of my 17-day, three-part stay in the hospital continue to haunt me like a bad dream almost a year after the fact.

Like Castle in Daredevil, at the risk of trivializing others’ suffering, I don't want to attempt to attach a label to what I’m experiencing. Nevertheless, each day I wrestle with trying to reconcile the memories that are burned into my psyche in a shroud of ugly fluorescent hospital lightMaybe writing them down will help. After all, they say that can be very therapeutic. Please know that I'm not looking for pity, just catharsis.

It’s strange. Looking back on the surgery, I’m almost more scared now than I was then. I don’t even know if that makes sense or not. Maybe it’s because a few days before, I’d revealed to a close friend that I was sick and in need of surgery. He asked if I was scared. I responded in the affirmative, to which he countered, “Fear is a liar.” I did my best to take that message to heart.

This was my mantra in the days leading up to surgery.

I remember the day before the surgery vividly. I had rotisserie chicken for dinner (my favorite). I re-read my pre-surgery instructions to make sure I hadn’t just screwed myself over by eating past when I was supposed to. Strangely, you don’t have to fast the day before getting your insides cut out. I still worried I’d messed up. I took the enema. It made me feel hot and feverish. I couldn’t hold it in as long as the instructions asked for. My parents said not to worry.

I remember the morning of the surgery vividly, too. We had to get to the hospital at the butt crack of dawn (pun intended), so we had to wake up even earlier than that. I’d actually slept okay, but due to the enema, I was up and in the bathroom every few hours. I wasn't sure I’d make it through the entire car ride without having to go. Fortunately, my parents kept quiet, I fell asleep, and there were no accidents.

I was supposed to go in for the first surgery, but there was a delay due to an emergency procedure. I didn’t mind; it meant more time with my family. I equated the situation to “icing the kicker” in football and kept my cool. Finally, after hours of waiting, they wheeled me down. Kate came along, partially to take my glasses before I went in and partially to hold my hand. I asked the surgeon if he'd gotten a chance to take lunch between patients.

Former Philadelphia Eagles coach calling timeout to ice the opposing kicker.

After that the memories are more disjointed. Recollections of people, pain, hope, despondence, and the passage of time fade in and out. (Sedatives and narcotics will do that to you.) I remember waking up after surgery to a somber room. Drunk off the drugs, I acted very silly. Thankfully, no one filmed my antics. In the following days, I remember being lucid in the moment but hazy upon recollection.

For the first few days post-op, I was Foley catheterized. It was great; I could just chill in the bed. Then the catheter was removed and I was supposed to go on my own. Only I couldn’t. There are few feelings worse than that — one of which turned out to be the direct result of not being able to go on your own: straight catheterization. To avoid a second round with the straight catheter, I remember walking the halls over and over in the middle of the night to try to get my bladder moving. Fortunately, it worked in my favor.

Another feeling worse than those I just described is getting a nasogastric (NG) tube shoved down your nose and throat — and having to leave it there for a couple of days. The medical term for my condition was an "ileus." Basically, what was left of my intestines decided to go on vacation, and until they started working again, I needed to hang out with the tube.

I managed to put on a smile here, but I was none too thrilled about the NG tube.

I remember when the resident hurried in to insert the tube in the middle of the night after a few too many rounds of bile had come up the wrong way on me. Before he did the deed, I asked if we could, you know, talk about it for a second. “Nope, down it goes,” he said. I guess that was better than him telling me, “Sorry, pal, but every time you swallow for the next two days it’s going to feel like you’re choking. Cheers!”

That was no doubt the worst of it, but the next episode came pretty close. I’d finally been sent home after 10 brutal days in the hospital, ready to put the whole ordeal behind me and get better. (The real recovery doesn't begin until you get home. It's impossible to really recuperate in the hospital, with people coming in and out of the room round the clock to poke and prod you.) I distinctly remember helping my mom prepare my first home-cooked meal and saying, "I'm happy to be home."

After ten long days in the hospital, it feels good to be home! #robertdamoose
Posted by Travis Pollen on Monday, April 27, 2015

Two days later, my digestive system decided to take another vacation, this time as an “f— you” for eating solid food too soon. Even I have to acknowledge the irony that after five years of unending diarrhea, I now had the opposite problem. Back to the hospital for a few days to clear up the blockage through a little procedure called “irrigation.” I’ll spare those graphic details. 

Oh, and I mustn't forget the intense back pain, chest pain, and shortness of breath that ultimately led to my final readmission. Fortunately, it wasn't a heart attack, but rather a combination of dehydration and a "pneumomediastinum," or an air bubble in my chest. Luckily, the symptoms actually subsided on their own by the day's end. Of course, that didn’t stop the trauma team from noticing I’d been readmitted at 10 p.m. and coming to get me for imaging of the esophagus with contrast. There are few things more vile than the taste of that dye.

Last, but certainly not least, was the weight loss. For some, that might be a blessing, but for me, it was twenty pounds I could not afford to lose. I barely recognized myself in the mirror. At 98 pounds, I was a mere shadow of the broad-shouldered, record-breaking swimmer I had once been.

I may have weighed in under 100 lbs here, but the biceps were still poppin'.

After three weeks of constant back-and-forth between NPO (nothing by mouth), clear liquids, and full liquids, I finally resumed eating actual food. For the first week, it was pureed food only. Baby food is surprisingly tasty when you haven’t eaten in weeks.

Hopefully it makes a bit more sense now when I say I might be more scared in retrospect than I was going in. After all, the docs don’t tell you everything that can go wrong, especially when, statistically speaking, all those complications are highly unlikely. (Lucky me!)

I hasten to add that the hospital stays weren't all bad. The nurses were incredibly sweet (well, most of them). The NBA playoffs had just started; I remember watching lots of games but having a hard time concentrating. Despite my inability to focus, I remember dutifully keeping up with my Facebook, even though in my fog it often took several minutes to craft a well-formed sentence. There were lots of good naps, too.

Sure, the fact that I’m doing peachy keen now, almost a year later, does make it better. And for anyone with UC who wonders if a similar surgery is right for them, the upshot truly is improved quality of life. For me, though, it came at the cost of a very rough couple of months.

I wish I could say that I’ve come to terms with it all by now, but I would definitely fail the Maury lie detector test on that one. As yet, I have no real resolution — just ugly fluorescent hospital memories that I continue to wrestle with each day. Writing it down does help, though. Maybe Frank Castle — the Punisher — would have been more well-adjusted if he'd kept a blog.

"The lie detector determined the Fitness Pollenator is NOT a Marvel superhero."

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