Tuesday, July 5, 2011

On being ill

The opening sentence of Virginia Woolf's classic essay on this subject says it all, really:

Consider how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down in the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist's arm-chair and confuse his "Rinse the mouth - rinse the mouth" with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us - when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.

If you think she is being a tad melodramatic, consider that she had lost her mother at thirteen, had then lost a brother in youth to typhoid fever, would lose her friend and rival Katherine Mansfield to tuberculosis when Mansfield was only 34, and was herself embroiled in a lifelong struggle with physical as well as mental illness.

She was also writing in 1925, three years before Alexander Fleming looked at the mouldy culture and didn't realise what he was seeing, and therefore well before antibiotics -- an assortment of which, over the last month or so, I have either ingested or taken intravenously in amounts sufficient to save several horses. This might be contributing to my current lightheaded state but has saved me from the sort of imagery Woolf uses, which is a tad apocalyptic even allowing for her beautiful ironic hyperbole and her well-founded awareness of the mortal dangers, in her own time, of being ill.

Ideally, the removal of the gall bladder involves a routine laparoscopic surgical procedure, followed by a night or two in hospital and a few days' convalescence. By this reckoning, I should have been completely recovered from my June 24 surgery by the last day of the financial year.

But several different post-op complications, including further surgery that then developed its own complication, have meant I'm still not good for much and keep having to lie down, and how those two extra 8mm gallstones got (a) into, much less (b) halfway along, a bile duct that doesn't look anywhere near big enough to contain them is anybody's guess.

I have now been surgically relieved of everything that could possibly have been causing the attacks I'd been having intermittently since February (and 'attack' is the word; it was like being ambushed by a wild animal, and gave me a new insight into whichever classical Greek came up with the story of Prometheus being chained to a rock and having his liver eaten every day by an eagle, only to grow back at night and have the eagle come back at sunrise for seconds: he had gallstones), so if I keep having them then clearly it was something else all along. But I digress.

For me the interest of this not intrinsically very interesting exercise ('The main purpose of the gall bladder,' as some wag remarked, 'is to keep general surgeons on a steady income') (my own surgeon is a saint, BTW) lies mainly in the experience of helplessness. The abjection of being in hospital is a complex thing, and applies both in the Kristevan sense and in the ordinary sense. The hospital experience is full of the drama of the untidy body: of blood, sweat, vomit, bile, all the other stuff normally contained and hidden. But in hospital, the normally compliant body does not, will not and cannot maintain its normal boundaries or habits, so any chart or graph of its constantly-monitored functions looks like a web spun by a spider on acid.

You emerge to full consciousness from your second anaesthetic in five days to the sound of some poor sod barfing his heart up two beds down in the day surgery area, and you wonder how long it'll be before you're next. (Nearly four hours, as it turned out.) You are still dotted with deep, strangely placed little bruises sustained during the first surgery, and wonder exactly what caused them, while you were out of the world. Your cotton theatre gown, under which you are instructed to wear nothing, ties up, most precariously, at the back. Your temperature is up, your oxygen saturation levels are down, and the nurses frown and tut as though you had somehow done these things on purpose, just to be naughty.

You are desperate for water but Nurse Ratched won't let you have more than tiny sips. She takes your water jug away and puts it out of reach, upon which you are consumed with the desire to maim and kill, if only you were strong enough to sit up. One thing I've learned over the last week or two is that the institutional infantilisation of a woman in her late 50s and in full possession of her faculties can create sufficient force to split the atom. It may be the answer to a clean energy supply.

The staff, not just from member to member but from moment to moment, go in for a kind of psychotic toggling between 'You vill do as ve say or you vill be shot' and earnest, frowning requests that you grade your pain level on a scale of one to ten, or that you decide for yourself, in your addled post-operative state, what medication you'd like to take.

They take blood tests and plug you into potassium drips and keep waking you up or otherwise disturbing you every five minutes to take your temperature, blood pressure and oxygen levels, and yet basic standards of hygiene and care seem remarkably hit-or-miss. In the shared bathroom in a four-bed ward, you step carefully over a pan of someone else's urine on the floor of the loo and wonder whether this is world's best practice.

Your sister, who is an old-school RN and a Leo, wangles you a private room through sheer persistence. They lose your pain medication and keep insisting that you know where it is. The fourth nurse to whom you suggest that it might be in the locked cupboard next to your old bed in the four-bed ward actually goes and has a look there, unlike the first three, and comes back with it in its plastic bag.

The infection subsides, you stop being sick, the pain begins to recede, and finally, after much paperwork, you are allowed to leave.

For the next few days you sleep under a clean white doona in your sister's pristine spare room, where a little table holds a framed photo of your mother as a small child. You are wearing your own soft dark-blue nightie. Your sister sees to your dressings and your diet with a mixture of supreme competence and sibling clowning. You eat dry toast and play cards and watch Masterchef and play with the cat. You come back to yourself, and gradually remember your name.

41 comments:

Stephanie Trigg said...

And then you throw yourself onto a plane and head to an academic conference. HELLO????

GAs take a long time to recover from, in my experience, up to a week, or longer...

But I'm pleased you are well enough to contemplate it and hope it will be at least a distracting from illness and a restoration of you as your brilliant writerly self, not the sick child.

Classic post, though, Pav. Thanks.

Helen said...

Thanks for the brilliant post Pav. Many of us were beginning to worry! Hope it's all up from here.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Stephanie, thank you, love. Spoke yesterday to my dear friend R, who said 'Far be it from me to be silly enough to try to talk you out of something, but do you really think this trip is wise?' The only possible answer to which was 'No, in fact it may be a little unwise. But I am going to do it.'

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Helen -- not to worry. I would have found my way to the intertubes in time.

Elisabeth said...

What a glorious account of ill health. And to think it's all true. I should know. I was in hospital last year - not so bad as you - a mere broken leg, but the awful process of depersonalization still applied.

How marvelous that you've come out of it at last and can now remember your name.

Maybe we should all get sick more often. The experience can make for such powerful writing. You join the ranks of Virginia Woolf here.

Samela said...

Ah, Kerryn, what an astute and interesting meditation on that strange journey.

They tell you it is just laparoscopic and you will be right back at work, Rubbish. It's invasive.

They tell you no strenuous exercise but they don't tell you what that means. Keep away from garden shears and garlic presses!

Fred said...

Your account of the pain that gall stones cause reminds me of Samuel Pepys who had an operation without antibotics or anaesthetics to remove a bladder stone. The stone, when removed, was found to be the size of a Royal Tennis ball.

Best wishes for a speedy recovery.

Anonymous said...

Your sister: it's so wonderful when siblings offer asylum.

TFA

The Elephant's Child said...

So pleased you are back on the mend. Our recent experience of hospitals has taught us that they are necessary but deeply unpleasant places.

Meredith Jones said...

You do parentheses so well! Thank you and welcome back to your wonderful self.

lucy tartan said...

I've been through similar stuff in the past couple of months but only you could write about it so truthfully and well.

Fine said...

Hope you're feeling much better very, very soon.

Suse said...

That was one of the most powerful and moving pieces of writing I've had the pleasure of reading recently. Although 'pleasure' seems entirely wrong in the circumstances. I do hope you are feeling better now.

Also, that Virginia Woolf opening - all one sentence! Wow and wow.

Ampersand Duck said...

Don't you hate it when you want to comment but everyone else has said everything?

Fabulous. But ditch the conference.

Oops, did I say that out loud?

WV: medibbl (heh)

Ann O'Dyne said...

ditto Ms Trigg comment 1,
plus I do hope there is/was a contingent at MEL to chauffeur and coddle you?

tracy said...

I am glad you are well enough to string together not just words, but rather amazing ones. Take care. xx

Anonymous said...

Good to hear you're on the mend and getting back to your normal self. Sorry it was a bumpy ride, though. Wishing you good health, some species of rollicking fun to make up for the trouble, and no more adventures like that. Also, great post.

signed, the artist formerly known as zaperj

Anonymous said...

Did I ever tell you about the conference organizing committee, most of whom contracted food poisoning on day two? That I was among them: sweating profusely; wanting desperately to throw up in the doorway of my carriage on the train 'home'; veering between feverish hallucination and acute awareness of my fellow travellers' fearful apprehension of me, and who apparantly assumed I was some middle-aged dope-raddled addict? The long struggle of the short walk from the train station?

Look, if you really want to attend that conference I think you should do it, assuming your doctors have no major objections. But please ensure that you make plans to allow yourself some grace should your body not comply with your intentions. Although may not have the familial obligations of flesh and blood, I hope you consider your virtual connections.

TFA

Mindy said...

Glad to hear you are on the mend and that your sister is looking after you so well.

As everyone else has said - you write beautifully, and are you sure you really should go to that conference?

Di said...

Welcome back and stay on the road to recovery.

Sylvia Plath described the process rather well in 'Tulips' too. (Refraining Dickinson),
'I watched my teaset, my bureau of linen, my books/ Sink out of sight, and the water went over my head.'

Then starting to recover:
'...I am aware of my heart:it opens and closes/ Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me./ The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,/ And comes from a country far away as health.'

Deborah said...

Bless your sister. I have been thinking of you, and wondering how the whole thing was going. And I am INSPIRED by your fabulous stream-of-consciousness.

I once had two surgeries within about four days of each other. It knocked me about, and I was only 30 at the time (i.e. comparatively young, fit and healthy, except for the wretched infection / abscess on my knee that was causing the trouble). However our cat enjoyed my long recovery, which she spent in bed and on the sofa with me.

This is not a small experience. One would be entitled to lie about like Lady Muck for quite some time yet. With cats.

M-H said...

Horrors! I am so sorry to read this. Please take care of yourself. (There will be other conferences...) And thank heavens for experienced nurses who love us.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Thanks all for comments and good wishes. I decided earlier this week that I would go to the conference only for the gig that I was in and had promised to do, at the Wheeler Centre. So I flew over yesterday morning and back this afternoon, and was kept a kind eye on by organisers and old mates, who knew I was a bit undercooked. I would have loved to have gone to at least some of the conference, but didn't have the resources. Mentally fine, physically still a bit pathetic. Am now safe home with cats ... scrambling to catch up with my extended deadline. Dear me, the work of a one-woman small business is never done.

Ampersand Duck said...

No, it never is.
Terribly glad to hear that you were well looked after, and are home, safe and sound. And I'm sure your cats feel the same way.

Another Outspoken Female said...

What &duck said (on everyone else having said it already). Excellent post.

Convalescence is a lost art.

Zoe said...

What AOF said about what Caren said :)

I've had a tiny taste myself recently, and the other thing that has come up for me is letting go of goddam looking after everyone else and the cat and the dog and the fish and letting myself be vulnerable and looked after. How lucky you were to have a Leo nurse instead of a Virgo :)

Zoe said...

(Which sound horribly ungrateful, which I didn't at all mean. Although I did have to tell the Virgo that this exhaustion he was feeling was because he'd been doing mothering :)

Anonymous said...

Glad you made it to the Wheeler Centre - I was in the audience and really enjoyed hearing you talk about the Adelaide that Adelaideans know, and more besides.

Happy mending. Lea

via collins said...

Dear PC,

Thanks for the lovely piece, and I'll join the queue wishing you well, and chewing the irony that the piece came out of a horrible situation.

You've written for so long here with such (seemingly) carefree wisdom and strength, it's hard to imagine you being laid low.

But great news that you are mobile, hope you were well-shielding from the gritty Melbourne conditions, and that all is well, very well, at home.

WR: preig

paul walter said...

I thought back to the very first comment and some of my own adventures and thought, "no, this will not necessarily heal immediately on request and may take a little longer than its bearer expects".
Not big things, but flat spots and the like, unexpected, for a little while.

Stephanie said...

Welcome back!

Emily said...

There is no other loneliness than the one we meet in illness. Treasure that experience - it makes life so much richer.

elsewhere said...

What everyone else said. Glad you got to Melbourne to do your thing (and sorry I missed you, but I was probably sleeping with dingoes). Hope it wasn't all too onerous,

all the best, Eleanor

the wordy gecko said...

So sorry to hear you've been through all of that, but thank you for such a wonderful piece of writing! Best wishes for your recovery.

paul walter said...

btw, thanks for including the Kristeva schema link, continental philosophers can be difficult and intimidating on their own for the laity and an interlocutor rendering them that comprehensible, is a beaut thing.

Penelope said...

I can totally understand you wanting to go to something where you use your brain after being treated like a naughty drug-hiding toddler. Though I would have stayed home with pet and toast myself, a 'still life with cat' was not what your inner doctor ordered...(Or hideous jokes, like that, I assume.)

M-H said...

I love that, Another Outspoken Female: "Convalescence is a lost art". So true. I tried to regain it after pneumonia last year, but only partially succeeded. We are so keen to be 'up and about', and for what?

Casey said...

WV: Stones.

I refeshed a few times to get that. I think that just about proves my theory, don't you?

As for this piece, it's like a glut of jewels spilling from the computer screen.

I am very sorry you were so sick.

naomi said...

Your sister's place sounds like paradise! So sorry to hear of this ordeal. I noticed the nursing at an aged person's home with a shudder the other day - a mentally agile 84 year old was addressed as "a good girl" by a woman half her age, who sadly proved herself capable of adopting a rational voice when speaking to me. Hospitals are just as bad, only snarkier. Glad you are mending.

naomi said...

Glad you are mending, and bless your sister indeed. Can we staple your post to the heads of nursing staff so they read it and don't subject patients to their condescension?

PB said...

This is very moving Kerryn. Reading it, I might even have teared up a little (not something I do very often).