12/16/2011

The Appendix

It was a quiet day at the office. A cup of coffee, a little coding, a little snack, some more coding, more coffee, then into a meeting. At which point my appendix decided that 46 years cooped up inside my body was more than enough.

I don't know if it was a coffee overdose or the tedium of another meeting, but the organ had had it; it wanted out. And it was going to get out, one way or the other. I believe its strategy was based on the plan used in Alien - find the quickest way out of the body. I decided to give it another route and had it forcibly removed instead.

The process of getting to the removal stage was, of course, not quite so easy. First we had to figure out what the problem was. All I knew was that I had severe nausea and pain in that whole gut area. I've seen enough movies to know what the problem was: I was about to go into labor. As I told my wife on the way to the hospital, "The contractions are about 10 seconds apart."

My second thought was that it might be appendicitis. This came from my general approach to medical problems, where I just assume the worst possible scenario. A reasonable diagnosis would instead be that I simply had some kind of flu, and that I should go to bed and sleep it off. And in fact that's what the first doctor came up with. He gave me some really nice drugs, including a shot that took me about five minutes to go from pain-wracked to happy, drunken stupor and then knocked me out for 16 hours.

This was great, of course. I haven't had that much sleep in one session since, well, since ever. I should have life-threatening organ failures more often. Unfortunately, the drugs and flu diagnosis didn't change what was going on inside. When they finally saw the results of the blood tests, they sent me in for a CT scan to make sure nothing was wrong. I waited patiently (the painkillers were still swimming in a happy narcotic haze around my system) to hear that everything was normal. Instead, they came and told me that I needed to go to the Emergency Room. Stat. Apparently, they saw the little bugger trying to execute its cunning plan for exit. If only they'd had a CT scanner on the Alien ship. But then we wouldn't have gotten to see Sigourney Weaver blasting alien carcass in the sequel. Life is a tradeoff.

So off to the ER we go. First, I get to sit through triage, going through the same questions that I've answered many times before so that the nurse can decide whether to admit me. Apparently the hospital doesn't trust the word of the clinics. Perhaps I should have groaned louder. Or threw up on her desk.

I finally get admitted, get put in a bed in ER and … wait. Here's this organic time bomb in my gut, just waiting to explode, and I'm sitting there for four hours while a long parade of nurses, technicians, administrators, and surgeons come trooping through my room, most of them asking the same questions, like "When was the last time you ate?" I must have said, "One Saltine cracker at 8:30 this morning" about 15 times. I think they didn't believe me. I mean, who eats Saltines anymore?

Most of the visitors also drew blood. I think this is what medical professionals do when they don't know what else to do. I wasn't on the operating table, so they couldn't actually cut me open. So they drew blood. Over and over and over. Now I'm not a medical professional, so I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure that they only need a little tiny bit of blood for each of those many tests they ran on my blood. So why did they need so many different vials of it? Were they trying to starve the appendix into submission? Or is it easier to cut me open if I'm not going to be spraying the docs and the room with gallons of blood? Maybe if they can just whittle it down to a trickle, it makes everything that much more pleasant.

Whatever the reason, by the time they were done I'd been stuck at least 10 different times, between the blood draws, the IV drip, and the several "Oh, that vein doesn't seem to want to cooperate" mishaps. In the end, I felt like my arms had lost several games of mumblety-peg. Though it still wasn't as bad as five minutes outside with the mosquitos on an early Minnesota evening in July. I miss Minnesota.

Finally, everyone seemed satisfied; I had informed the entire hospital staff about the single Saltine I'd had that day, and there was nothing more they needed to know. So they moved me into the Operating Room wing. Not into an actual Operating Room, because those rooms were still occupied. Maybe they didn't bleed those patients enough and were still scrubbing down the results.

No, they moved me into a corridor in the OR wing. There I was, sitting next to shelves piled high with plastic medical devices (the one closest to me held "intubation tubes", which I recall from early seasons on House is the main device used by every doctor for every patient). And there I lay, on my gurney. Just me in the corridor, next to the shelves. I was afraid they'd find me there years hence, when someone went looking for another stash of intubation tubes. "Hey, there's a guy here!," he'd call out. They'd answer quickly, "Ask him whether he ate anything this morning. And draw some blood!

But after a half hour of me observing the complete lack of anything interesting, someone new came by, hooked up the good drugs, wheeled me into the operating room and … I woke up two hours later.

So here I am "recovering" this week. It's a weird thing, recovering from this kind of surgery. If I'd had an amputation, I could see the evidence. If I were on serious mind-altering drugs, then I wouldn't feel like doing anything. But after this kind of operation, you feel nearly normal. The main thing you're supposed to do to recover is not actually act normal. Don't exercise, don't lift anything bigger than a fruitcake, and definitely don't go skydiving, or you'll find yourself back in the OR corridor. I think they just want to bore you to health.

I'm not sure why I wrote about this, except that it was something different I did recently, so it seemed worth recording. Like winning the Nobel prize, or traveling to Portugal; it's not something you do every day. Well, unless your Portuguese. And maybe I wanted to pass along this advice to anyone that has a similar experience: always assume the worst outcome from anything you feel. Then you won't be surprised when it comes true, plus you'll have the added benefit of feeling good about yourself because you were right. And if it's not true (which it generally isn't), you'll feel better about whatever the real problem actually is.

Oh, and don't eat that Saltine in the morning before your surgery. They just won't shut up about it.
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