After the very first surgery when my leg was sliced and diced, I came-to prematurely from my drug induced state, and I knew, this was not going to be my first and only time in this hospital. I wasn’t sure how soon or how many more times, but I knew within three seconds — in the most pain I have ever endured in my life — I knew this wasn’t over. I would not get out of having cancer this easy.
This same sentiment had occurred with my father, almost 30 years prior. In a morphine state after one of his brutal surgeries acting as a guinea pig at NIH, he saw the hallucination of neon words fall from the ceiling onto him YOU ARE GOING TO DIE. On his flight home from the Caribbean to Detroit, his plane lost two engines. The passengers panicked, and the woman seated next to him began to scream that they would all crash and die. My father sat calm and unmoved, he told her he had terminal cancer, and he wasn’t getting out of it this easy. She was stunned, but the plane made an emergency landing safely.
For seven years, I’ve been in bed enough against my will, that I have had a lifetime’s worth of vegging out to Netflix and scrolling social media feeds. But if you need advice on what to expect if you’ve never had to stay in a hospital, I can give you the lowdown on that. Welcome to Hell, I’ll be your tour guide!
In one surgery I tried to get off the table; in another I tried to pull the breathing tube out — which I vividly remember choking while the team of doctors kept slapping my hand away. In the recovery room after another surgery, I needed water desperately and tried to scream for help. I realized the room had emptied out because Oprah was on the floor and everyone wanted to see her; maybe they thought she’d give them a free car. Due to the fact I kept waking during surgery, I was then at times given too much anesthesia, which would result in my expelling black bile for up to ten hours. Around the sixth surgery, the portions were finally just right, and I was Goldilocks.
If you think you will sleep in a hospital, I can guarantee that you will not. You will wake up every half hour if not more so. If you think you will even get two chapters into a book without being interrupted, you are also wrong. Vitals, tests, prescriptions, lung exercises, drainage tubes, and blood clot boots that I like to pretend are leg massagers, are just some of the things that await you. You’ll be woken by the gossip of nurses, the cleaning staff, and even hear screams in the distance from other patients having a rough go of it. You will be woken for meals you don’t want, and by counselors who ask an array of questions that you still can’t understand in a drug induced haze that never quite controls the pain.
One thing you will get very comfortable with after you’ve been a habitual patient is nudity. It’s hard to be bashful when dozens of people have had their fingers in every hole and crack in your body. The hospital gown that DvF designed for Cleveland Clinic patients is the least intuitive design that would confuse an origami artist let alone a medical professional. I had mooned my caretakers on multiple occasions and at one point limped along a hallway with my entire backside showing. This must have been a sad sight wearing my bright yellow hospital issue socks with slip grips that were two sizes too big. By the way, if you’ve ever considered yourself a fashionably dressed person, prepare yourself for those socks.
Nothing makes you feel worse than not being able to use the restroom on your own. It is a special act of humiliation no matter how many times you’ve been through it. The alternative of course, is a bed pan, but if you’ve been stitched up, this is hardly a painless act and you will opt for moving at a sloth pace to use a real toilet. After a few misfires – one of which ended with me peeing all over the floor – I learned to ease myself into hovering, which was a huge victory. The day you can use the toilet at will is the best day ever for one’s self-esteem.
When staying in a hospital overnight, be sure to have a plan of attack for when the food — and most importantly — the coffee, arrives at your bedside. If you think any of this is edible or that this coffee won’t destroy your insides, you are sorely mistaken. I learned to have a network of family and friends bring me Starbucks, milkshakes from a reputable source, and takeout from somewhere with a real chef. How are you to begin recovery if you are given a package of Dole fruit cocktail shipped in from China? I had learned to pack a small assortment of cosmetics, lip creams, and hand moisturizers. My nurses often wondered how it was I looked like a decent human after 3 days in a hospital bed on drugs. Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s dry shampoo!
It took 3 hospital stays lasting 5 days each to finally get my cocktail right; a constant flow of Oxycodone, Valium and morphine. One nurse dubbed me the Morphine Rhino as my tolerance was ridiculous. In a morphine state I’d watch Bravo TV shows where everything was a fashion crisis. On one episode of The Rachel Zoe Project, the world was literally going to end because it would be raining during the Golden Globes red carpet event, and Cameron Diaz might need a man in a tux to hold an umbrella. You would have thought this was worse than genocide, and I started laughing uncontrollably, “Your problems are HUGE!”
When your cocktail is figured out, you can finally be comfortable enough to concentrate on your other problems. For me, it almost always came down to one: The Roommate!
I had a succession of roommates who irked me enough that I wanted to smother them with a pillow but killing a patient in a hospital probably wouldn’t go over very well, and besides, I am usually marked as a fall risk.
Sometimes you luck out and have a solo room. I was once installed in what I called “The Donatella Versace Suite” a room so large that I could have thrown a party ala Breakfast at Tiffany’s. However, this is an exception not the rule. When I hear the that Saudi royalty will reserve entire floors at Cleveland Clinic I think, man — they are really onto something. I wonder if that’s what the Kardashians do?
There was the roomie who had a parade of family members in our tiny space at all hours. A snaking line of teenagers slouched over texting, cousins and in-laws, most who clearly didn’t want to be there but felt a deep Protestant duty while wondering where the nearest McDonald’s was. There was the roomie who ignored every warning and instruction, then fell in the night rendering her new knee replacement useless — and earning herself another replacement. There was the roomie who wouldn’t stop talking about her ailments to me through a curtain; how many times her hips, knees, and ankles had been done and she had no intention of going on that diabetic diet. A salad?! What were they crazy?! My roommates wouldn’t stop asking for food, even straight from surgery screaming for chocolate cake, tapioca pudding, and salted crackers. It was sun up to sun down –- I mean, Jesus did these people ever stop eating?
My favorite roomie of my tour of hospital stays was the nurse. As you can probably imagine, nurses make the worst patients. She had decided she hated the entire hospital staff, and me. She blamed my regular vitals as the reason she couldn’t sleep. Everyone was wrong, and everyone was out to ruin her life. To say she was combative with medical professionals would be an understatement. When I dropped a pencil and her sweet mother picked it up off the floor for me, you would think her mother had committed treason! Though I was sleep deprived, I delighted in her misery as I showed off my good coffee, French hand cream, and agile ability to scoot to the toilet all by myself.
Your hell might be better or worse during your hospital stay, but at least now you can be prepared. I wish I could tell you that doing it often makes it easier.