Over the weekend, I stumbled over the British TV series "Monroe" in which James Nesbitt plays a brilliant but snarky neurosurgeon with a thirst for scotch and a love for music. The camera-work in the show is lovely and similar to the style used in "Scandal" where surfaces and angled glass give you a feeling of listening in to private conversations and eavesdropping on confidential information. That aside, it was the music and the surgery that made me think of a couple of weird days back in Tidewater Virginia.
Almost one month to the day from moving in to my new apartment in the swanky district of Norfolk called The Hague (tudor mansions subdivided to death into a dozen apartments or more per building), I came down with a fever and a serious case of abdominal pain and vomiting. During my overnight sleeplessness I helped catch a fugitive criminal (another story altogether) and I realized that I had no friends to drive me to the hospital which was actually only a few blocks away. The next morning I ended up in urgent care with a surgeon who said I had an ovarian cyst that had to be removed, pronto, and how soon could I check in to the hospital in the next city over. Immediate freak-out. I called the one guy I had just met who worked for me in the camera store I managed and asked him to drop me off on the way in to work. And there I sat, alone in triage.
Hospitals have two effects on me. The first is a resignation to the antiseptic smell and the herding of the patient-cattle from station to station. The second is a budding anxiety of wondering exactly what the staff is going to do to me next. I spent a great deal of time in hospitals with my mother who suffered from heart failure. From the age of four or five, I learned how to talk to doctors, how to do CPR in case my mom was in cardiac distress, how to call for an ambulance, and when to be really concerned that her ankles were swollen to the size of basketballs. My hospital stay was sandwiched in between her bout of Bell's Palsy with stroke-like facial paralysis and her final heart surgery which led to hospice. And there I sat in the orange and tan triage of an overly air-conditioned and strange hospital, alone, in a very flappy and flimsy surgical gown.
I was staying calm and asking my questions but, holy crap, I was sitting there by myself in pre-op, in the decade before iPods were all the norm. I was resigned to listen to the staff pages and machine noises and gurgles and groans of other triaged patients. And I was starting to freak completely out. In the television show, everyone had their iPod and their family sitting on the bed laughing and joking while attractive young nurses and doctors reviewed their charts and asked what they could do to help. I had a cranky elderly nurse with a bad perm and a teenage orderly with neck tattoos slapping a dirty mop against the wheels of my bed. It was as un-sexy as any free clinic on a 100-degree day in a big city. And some music really would have helped make it more bearable or at least more ironic.
Then came time to be wheeled, triage bed and all, down to the pre-op ward where I was given my IV and a first round of anesthesia. This is where they stole my eyeglasses. I mean, I am as blind as Velma without my glasses and they took them off my face without any explanation and popped them in to a plastic bag on the back of my bed. Super-freakout-level 2. There is a male nurse fiddling about with my IV and now I can't even see what he is doing. A total blur with a taste in my mouth like fresh copper pennies. I sit there for a half and hour or so, freezing my cookies off (what is it with those thin hospital sheets?!) and, huzzah, my operating room is ready. Off we go. Without music. Blurry. And copper-tasting. Oh, the goodness a song or two would have done me at this point. All I remember before the anesthetist made me count backwards from ten (I made it to 9 and zonked cold) was a huge bank of pinkish white light, my surgeon's face upside-down and the fact that I was in an actual refrigerator. Brrrrrrr.
On the show, this is where the awesome Mr. Monroe, Neurosurgeon, would have started my Desert Island Disks on the operating theatre speakers. I could have had some sonorous Pixies, some classic Who, some gentle Bach, some soothing Bowie, and even some '90s alt-rock du jour. I am sure I would have remembered none of it but it would have been interesting to have some music in my subconscious to stop the level 3 freakout of laying unconscious and sheet-clad in a very cold and bright room with a gaggle of strangers poking at my reproductive bits. This would have been a perfect venue for two of my favorite albums of 1993, Morphine's "Good" (and "Cure for Pain") and Thomas Dolby's "Astronauts & Heretics," so perfect, in fact, that in my mind, I have inserted them in to my get-well memories from that month. But there, in the hospital, in post-op, I was coming around from the anesthesia without a soundtrack.
If you have never been intubated, wow, I envy you. I woke up to a crazy, choking, gagging pain and I must have flailed around like a tuna for a minute or two before I got a nurse's attention to rip the contraption from my esophagus. You know that scratchy pain you get from a very sore throat? Yep, it goes all the way down as far as the tube goes and no amount of coughing will make it better. And cough?! Forget coughing. I had fresh abdominal incisions. There would be no coughing because I had aliens trying to escape from my belly. After a tiny cup of water with a hospital straw (don't you love hospital straws? I do!), my doctor came over with a big grin on his face and asked how I was feeling. And he told me what he thought was the funniest story...the fact that I had not, in fact, had an ovarian cyst. My ovaries were actually quite spiffy and healthy. Instead, I had an appendix that had come so close to rupturing so many times that it was nothing but a big inflamed bundle of scar tissue. He even kept it in a jar and was going to write a paper on it (fat chance, buddy...give me my vestigial intestine back!) as my white blood cells were never indicative of the problem. The funny thing, he said, was that they were already in my abdomen in north-south laparoscopic incisions and to get at the appendix, they had to sew me up and do east-west incisions. "You," he grinned, "got four incisions for the price of two!" And he shook my hand and walked away laughing.
The next half-day of my overnight stay was gory, painful, sadistic ("If you don't get out of that bed and urinate in the next hour, I WILL catheterize you! C'mon! It was a simple band-aid surgery!"), and embarrassing. It took me 45 minutes to swing a leg over the side of the bed, attain crab-walk and carry my IV (on a coathanger?!) to the bathroom, during which time my IV line was too low and started sucking blood out of my arm (I got yelled at for that one too). And instead of getting back into bed, I was told to get dressed as my check-out was in an hour and I needed to do four laps around the floor to get the inflation gas out of my belly. Oh, how I could have used an iPod then. Or even a little transistor radio with a single earphone. A little melody would have gone a long way as I surveyed my swollen stomach and my couple-dozen stitches, especially that pouchy incision on my left side that looked like a shirt buttoned up wrong. And then I got a ride home from the same guy (thanks, Alan! Friends for life!) and listened to the following music from 1992, where surgery (and life) was certainly not like it is on TV:
Ministry - N.W.O.
The Cure - A Letter To Elise
Suzanne Vega - Blood Makes Noise
Screaming Trees - Nearly Lost You
Peter Gabriel - Digging In The Dirt
Toad the Wet Sprocket - Walk On The Ocean
Sugarcubes - Hit
Soup Dragons - Divine Thing
Sonic Youth - 100%
Tori Amos - Crucify
James - Born of Frustration
daDA - Dizz Knee Land
Catherine Wheel - Black Metallic
Red Hot Chili Peppers - Suck My Kiss
L7 - Pretend We're Dead
E - Hello Cruel World
Beastie Boys - So What'cha Want
Ian McCulloch - Honeydrip
Cracker - Teen Angst (What The World Needs Now)
Thomas Dolby - Eastern Bloc
Concrete Blonde - Someday
The Church - Ripple
Talking Heads - Lifetime Piling Up