I call 2021 the lost year. Though I realize that the world continued suffering physically and financially from SARS-CoV-2, the year was extra tough on me. I had thought to relaunch my blog for the umpteenth time. And I posted as much in January of 2021. Little did I realize that I would lose four months of my life lying in a hospital bed and several months in rehab. Was it the dreaded COVID-19 virus? No, it was not. Instead, it was gastrointestinal; my small intestine became blocked and perforated in May 2021.
Living in a smallish town, our hospital is good, but only for what it has the capability. Unfortunately, that capability does not include surgeons capable of doing intestinal surgeries. Thus, the hospital transfers such patients to either Gainesville, Georgia, or Chattanooga, Tennessee. I chose Erlanger in Chattanooga. I was in considerable pain when I arrived. Upon arrival, A team of nurses and doctors greeted me. They quickly prepped me and took me into the OR. Naturally, the details have remained hazy since they anesthetized me.
My loved ones tell me that the surgeon opened me up, removed a foot of the small intestine, and cleansed my abdominal cavity. However, a detail I have not yet disclosed is that I am an ileostomate due to a colon cancer diagnosis in 2010, which necessitated the removal of my entire colon. Thus, it wasn’t fecal matter that the surgeon removed but a substance better described as “chyme.” (The curious may learn more about chyme here.) Unfortunately, as a blockage preceded the perforation, there was much chyme that infiltrated my abdominal cavity. Nevertheless, the surgeon did his best to wash me out.
Removing a foot of the small intestine also necessitated creating a new stoma site for my ileostomy. (It is higher than my previous stoma, so it has been an adjustment. My appliance now hangs higher on my abdomen. The top of my pouch touches a few inches beneath my “man underboob.”) My new stoma is smaller than my previous one. I christened “him,” his preferred pronoun, as “Billy, II.” Yes, ileostomates have a peculiar habit of naming their stomas. I am not alone in this.
Everything seemed well…
Around June 10, 2021, my sister and brother-in-love visited me. I vaguely recall their visit now. My sister tells me that I seemed fine but became sleepy toward the end of her visit. I went to sleep and did not truly awaken for at least a month. Then, I developed sepsis, and my organs began shutting down. The prevailing opinion of the doctors tending to me was to allow me to die. They said I would have no quality of life. Death is not something my family or I wanted. As I could not advocate for myself at the time, my father stepped up and threatened to sue unless they put me on dialysis.
I slowly returned from the brink with dialysis and began improving, surprising the doctors and nurses. Unfortunately, I retain no knowledge of this time other than the weird hallucinations I believed to be my reality. (Now, those would be a fascinating story to share on another occasion.) Suddenly, it was late July, and the nurses had me restrained in bed, and I could not speak. In their defense, I had pulled out my ventilator early on while in my stupor. So, they feared I would pull other things loose. A trach now allowed my use of the ventilator.
I no longer had a voice…
It is exceptionally frustrating to be unable to communicate with others. I admit now that it was something I took for granted. But, eventually, as I came to myself, the doctors and nurses loosened my restraints, and I could write messages on a whiteboard. By August, they had granted my freedom, and I could get their attention by banging on things, much to their irritation. At one point, I even threw a ball someone had given me. Typically my insistence resulted from having a trach that needed suctioning. I felt like I was drowning in phlegm and would die without assistance.
On August 12, 2021, Erlanger, now swamped with COVID-19 cases, transferred me to Landmark Hospital in Athens, Georgia. Landmark is a long-term acute care facility, the type of care center to which doctors typically send patients receiving prolonged mechanical ventilation. Landmark Hospital was different from any hospital I had ever been in before. It didn’t feel like a hospital. I met my new doctor, and the first thing he asked upon seeing me was, “Why do they still have you on this ventilator?” He managed to wean me off the ventilator in about two weeks. Around September 1, 2021, I was speaking and eating.
The final hurdle…
One challenge remained before I could go home. I had to be able to walk again. Physical therapists began visiting me to get me up and seat me in a chair. Unfortunately, the first time I stood up, my atrophied muscles made it feel like I was standing on someone else’s legs. I had essentially lost my sense of modesty by his time. Strangers had bathed me for months, and I felt numb to my self-consciousness. Typically I would have found that disturbing, but I was thankful since it helped me get past my final hurdle before I could return home, showering.
Per my luck, an attractive young woman would be the one in whose presence I would bathe. (I know they are used to it and pay no mind, but I would have preferred the fellow with whom I talked about Georgia Bulldog football and anime .) I got up out of bed and moved slowly and painfully toward the shower with a walker. I showered. The pretty young lass gasped at clumps of hair falling out as I shampooed my hair. But I passed the test. And the hospital arranged for my home health care.
It was September 10, 2021, when I returned home. I somehow climbed the steps and collapsed into the first comfortable chair I found. With the help of physical and occupational therapists who came to the house, I walked without a walker or cane by November. But the fallout from my perforated intestine was not over. I had imaging done in November that revealed internal abscesses near my liver and left kidney. I spent two weeks in the hospital in Gainesville, Georgia, missing the Thanksgiving holiday. Doctors had to drain the abscesses and treat me with IV antibiotics.
That more or less brings us to the present day. Unfortunately, the details I have offered are not a comprehensive explanation of all I endured during my lost year. I will be going in a week from the time of this writing to have more “fluid-filled sacs” drained. Yet, I feel much better than I did. Of course, I still have a long way to go, but I will make it with God’s help.