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Blogs from 2016

Wonkier than a Chocolate Factory

on 19 January 2016. Posted in 2016

exploding clock

First, happy 2016, everybody! I hope this is a fantastic year for you all!

Second, I am recovering well from my surgery, although there have been some complications, and I now feel much more like writing. Look for regular new posts and book reviews here, on Facebook, and on Goodreads, please. Thank you!

Finally, I’ve been thinking, and there are some stories I’d like to share with my readers about the time I was in the hospital, and most especially about the early days when I first got off the ventilator.

What’s funny is that when I first woke up I was wonkier than a clock with thirteen hours. In fact, one of the things I was wonky about was telling time. There was a big clock in my ICU room and I thought that it was peculiar. What exactly I thought was strange I can’t pin down even now. It was an ordinary analog clock, but I somehow felt that the hour hand was too short or too long and the second hand was discombobulating. Anyway, I certainly couldn’t tell time from it. I kept saying, “Isn’t that clock strange?” Eventually, I resorted to a sort of kindergarten analysis: the shortest hand (if I could tell which that was) was pointing approximately to four and that meant it was somewhere around four o’clock. Possibly. I didn’t trust my own powers of ratiocination—and I was only too right.

I also had huge memory problems at that stage. I didn’t know the year; in fact, I couldn’t recall from day to day that we’d reached the twenty-first century. When asked what the year was, I would invariably say, “Um, it’s nineteen . . . nineteen . . . um . . .” as the nurses shook their heads.   Every day I learned that it was 2015, and by the next day I would be back to “Nineteen um.”

I did remember my dog’s name, though, and the fact that he responds not only to the word “dog,” but also to its palindrome—so if you say, “Oh, my God,” he comes running up expectantly. So for some reason I began saying, “The year of our Lord, Victor,” instead of giving a more precise answer. Then I would burst into hysterical laughter while the nurses sighed and smiled.

I didn’t know the day of the week or the month, either. I think it didn’t help that every day in the hospital was basically the same: same doctors making rounds, same blood draws, same tests. This was one case where TV actually helped me (mostly having the TV on just confused the hell out of me—I couldn’t pay proper attention and I thought every show was distinctly peculiar). News anchors on TV were counting the days to Memorial Day, and I could remember that, so I started saying “It’s almost Memorial Day.” Good answer! Eventually I realized that the date was written on a whiteboard on the wall and I began to read it off that. But the day of the week remained challenging. It could have been Floozleday as far as I was concerned.

Other weird stuff at that stage? I didn’t know where I was, and couldn’t retain it. Each day everyone would explain that I was in the hospital at UCSF Medical Center in San Francisco. I got that I was in the hospital (well, that was painfully obvious) but as for where the hospital was . . . it might as well have been on Venus. A lot of the time I said I was in San Mateo, which is a city I’ve never even visited. Once I came up with “Mount Tamalpias.”   No idea why, it just had a nice rhythm to it. I don’t know why the words “San Francisco” were so hard to remember. Once again, eventually I resorted to analysis and would read the “UCSF” off the questioning nurse’s badge. Ha ha! I foiled them on that one!

Everyone was worried that I’d lost my marbles and would never get them back again. My sister tried me out with an alphabet board when I woke up while on the ventilator and couldn’t speak. I don’t remember this, but apparently I would blink for a letter or two of a word . . . and then I would let my sister run through the entire alphabet, getting all the way to Z, without a response from me. I don’t know whether I was tired by that time—any little effort, mental or physical, exhausted me at first—or whether I didn’t grasp the basic concept, but I never did spell out anything sensible. These garbled attempts at communication seem pretty funny in retrospect, but back then everyone wondered just how badly damaged my poor brain was.

Then there were the things I personally found comic at the time. One was “no gravity.” In the hospital gravity was my enemy, pulling down the hand I was trying to raise, keeping me pinned firmly in bed. One of the doctors or nurses mentioned this, that I would be fighting gravity for a while, and I immediately said, “No gravity! Only comedy!” This became something of a mantra for me, and I couldn’t help blurting it out at odd moments, to the great surprise of many of my doctors, who thought I’d gone mental.

Another catchphrase I repeated ad nauseam was “Blackfish!” This is because I’d seen a documentary about killer whales by that name on the confusing TV, and I had a very vivid dream that there was a monster called a blackfish which could be defeated only if you were wearing the skin of another of its kind. I delighted in saying “Blackfish!” in a number of different tones (mostly with a sort of evil relish). No one knew exactly what I meant by it and that was hilarious . . . to me, anyway.

You know, one of the best things about UCSF was that they allowed Victor, my beautiful yellow Labrador, my honey-dog, to come and stay in my room all day with me. The thing is that all the nurses fell in love with him because he is the handsomest and sweetest dog in the whole world. So Julie would bring him down the hallway toward my room and I would hear cries of “Oh, hello, Victor!” and “Who’s a good boy, then?” getting closer and closer. Julie used to complain that they stopped saying hello to her entirely, because they were so focused on the dog, and I greeted this with howls of wonky laughter.

In my room, Victor would lick my hand for minutes on end, something he had never done before, with his tail revolving like a helicopter’s blades. I may be cracked but I honestly believe he knew I was sick and was trying to make me better. Certainly my hands didn’t taste of anything good: I was being fed through a nasal tube. If I’m wonky in this belief, then so be it, I’ll stay wonky.

As I’ve said, TV just bewildered me for the most part, but there was one thing I hungered for (literally) and that was commercials. Commercials about food. I couldn’t eat or drink, but I wanted everything I saw on the screen. Multivitamins were a major obsession. I just loved the advertisement for a particular multivitamin, and I used to beg for just one, just one of them (it was a chewy kind and I really wanted to chew something). Of course I knew I couldn’t have it, but I couldn’t help saying “Muuultivitamins!” over and over.

And then (this is hard to admit) there was the dog food commercial. The thing is, they never actually showed the dog food, just cartoons of what went into it, like chicken and grain. I really liked the idea of chicken and grain and I would get hungry every time the commercial came on. You know you’re in trouble when any kind of dog food ad makes you salivate.

I actually had to have a special doctor teach me how to drink sips of water and chew bites of food again. They were afraid that I wouldn’t “defend my airway” properly and that something I drank or ate would go the wrong way and get into my lungs, which would be disastrous. My lungs were just recovering from complete failure, which had me on the ventilator and on one hundred percent supplementary oxygen. I loved the food doctor. She would bring me tiny cups of Jell-O and pureed pears (dyed green so she could track my swallowing skills). In the end I did learn to defend my airway and graduated from ice chips to baby food to turkey sandwiches. I was wonkily ecstatic.

In fact, though, I was pretty wonky trying to get the ice chips to my mouth. I loved ice chips, because my mouth was often dry, but at first other people had to feed them to me because I simply couldn’t do it myself. But soon I was trying my luck at fishing them out of a cup with a spoon. Now, an ice chip is a slippery thing to balance on a spoon under normal circumstances, and not only was I very weak in the beginning, but my hands shook badly from some of the medications I took every day. Added to that, I was flat on my back in the hospital bed—too weak to sit up—so I couldn’t see what I was doing. So the process of blindly plunging the spoon into a cup, scooping out just one ice chip (I was only allowed one at a time) and managing to lift the wildly-shuddering spoon to the vicinity of my face without the ice chip flying away to land on the bed or the floor was pretty hilarious. When I finally managed to succeed, I crunched my ice chip with triumphant abandon. Ice chips are good.

Weirdly enough, when I first started eating real food again, everything had too much taste. My favorite edamame and quinoa salad, which Julie brought specially from home, was far too strong and salty.   My favorite chocolate gelato was too rich and fudgy and gave me a terrible stomach ache. Fortunately, UCSF has one of the most progressive food delivery services in the world, with real restaurants sending up hot vittles in a remarkably short time, so I had a lot of choices. But it took a while to adjust, and it changed my attitude toward certain foods permanently (I’ve never regained my passion for chocolate, which I suppose is good, while now I crave red meat—something I seldom ate before—which is definitely bad).

Oh, and I lost my hankering for multivitamins—currently I have plenty of chewables I’m supposed to get through every day. Thankfully, I also lost any desire for the kind of chicken they put in dog food. But I can still hear Arby’s ringing assertion “We got the meats!” in my head and I vividly remember sighing over it. Weird.

Probably weirdest and wonkiest of all were my dreams. As I’ve mentioned, I’m saving some of them because I really want to use them in a book. Others, though, are too disconnected and bizarre to be incorporated even into a fantasy novel. Like the idea I had that my doctors had constructed a piece of . . . well, technology of some kind . . . that sat in the middle of the ICU room and somehow hooked me up to two other patients. This machine was necessary because the three of us patients each had only a third of our DNA and we needed each other to be complete. Deeper meaning behind this? Damned if I can figure any out.

And then there was the recurring dream that I had won, of all things, the ultimate Harry Potter contest, and that I was parachuted into Great Britain (I think I had a snippet of memory of the Summer Olympics here) to meet both J. K. Rowling and the characters (not the actors from the movies, the actual real characters). The one problem was that Death Eaters and dementors were sniping at me as I floated toward Hogsmeade, and that as I landed I found that I was in a world of miniatures: tiny toy British soldiers and tiny cottages and tiny pubs serving bite-sized pork pies to indignant members of the Weasley family. I very much wanted one of those little pies, but as is the way in dreams, I never managed to set tooth in one. The dreams would always end with me feeling mightily pleased at having won first prize, but frustrated that it was rainy and that all the miniature people ran by clockwork and there were no actual humans to talk to. J. K. Rowling never did show up, either. Wonky as a factory full of Oompa-Loompas, huh?

Yet another crazy hallucination I had was about the dust gypsies. I dreamed that a certain faction of my universally terrific nurses hailed from a subterranean realm under . . . well, dunes of dust. It wasn’t sand exactly, and their vehicles bore a certain resemblance to vacuum cleaners. They could surface in these vehicles and do work in the hospital and then dive, dive, dive when they went on their breaks. The prince of these dust gypsies actually did me a huge favor in my dream, by hooking up a PICC line in my arm, something the real medical crew was having a very hard time accomplishing without causing me inordinate pain. I was crushed when I woke up and learned that, no, the PICC line really wasn’t hooked up yet. It took a long time to convince me that the prince wasn’t real and neither was the 10-carat ruby ring he’d given me.

Wonky and not quite so amusing were my first attempts to stand in a Steady-something: a contraption that supports you almost completely once you get upright. I hated the thing, didn’t trust it to keep me from falling, and felt incredibly unsafe and vulnerable once I managed—with help—to get in it. Heidi, one of the terrific therapists I had at UCSF, persuaded me into it on a rare sunny summer day, and took me for a treat to look out of a floor-to-ceiling window at a gorgeous view of San Francisco. The problem was that I have acute acrophobia, the fear of heights. She wheeled me in the Steady up to this window, right up to the edge, and I almost fainted. I felt as if I were going to fall right through the glass into that gorgeous view, and the sun was so bright that it blinded me. I was used to the more diffused light in my hospital room and no one had thought to bring me sunglasses. I was scared to death. I’m sure it was good for me in the long run, but I was wonky in the extreme at the time. I made them wheel me away pronto before I started screaming.

Probably the most exciting wonky time was way back when the doctors took me off the ventilator, allowing me to talk once more, not to mention breathe on my own. This is the earliest procedure I actually remember, and it wasn’t supposed to happen at all. I was at UCSF and “awake” (remember the alphabet board stuff) and since I’d been on the ventilator for over three weeks the doctors decided that they needed to do a tracheostomy on me. This is where they cut a hole in your throat for the ventilator tube to go in. Now apparently I was pretty scared of this procedure (and I don’t blame me one bit, cos the thought of it terrifies me even now) but I had agreed to it anyway.

But, you see, these doctors at UCSF are smart. And part of the preparation for doing the tracheostomy was to wean me off the ventilator a bit so they could operate. So they began to do that and they noticed that even as they turned the ventilator down, I was able to breathe on my own and maintain a decent oxygen saturation level. Now, here comes the wonkiness: from my point of view I was about to undergo a procedure I really didn’t like the sound of. And I thought that through my IV they had already given me the sleepy drugs to put me out. Well, I decided that I would not go gentle into that good night and that I was going to stay awake for as long as I possibly could before inevitably succumbing.

So there I was, looking at the little knot of doctors who were huddling just a few yards away and trying to impress them with how awake I was. And there were the doctors, in a cluster, talking about me and every so often looking over at me. By now I’m taking this like a Fear Factor challenge: You shall not get me to fall asleep! I don’t care what you do! And they’re looking more and more excited and impressed, not for the reason I imagined but because I was holding my own even as they removed the ventilator’s support. This went on for I don’t know how long: maybe a half hour, maybe an hour. But at the end of it, to my absolute astonishment, they came to me and said, “Hey, we think you can make it without being on the ventilator at all. What do you think?” And of course I mouthed, “Heck, yes!” or something on that theme, anyway. Wonky or not, I knew that I had just taken a huge step toward getting better.

To end this on a light note, I may have been able to talk when I got off the ventilator, but I sure didn’t know how to use a cell phone. I forgot all about the Contacts menu, and I was literally too weak and clumsy to push numerical buttons, even on the off chance that I could remember a phone number. In fact, the whole idea that I could actually call out of the hospital was strangely strange to me. It made sense in my brain that other people could call in, and I appreciated talking to them, but the idea that I could take the initiative and call them didn’t sink in for a while. Technology and I were wary of each other.

Oh, yeah, and one more crazy hallucination. At one point I was convinced that each night the ICU took off on a plane and everybody partied. One of the doctors had a double identity, and wore a cloak and mask to pilot the plane through thunderstorms. It was wonky and thrilling and I absolutely believed it was true. Just goes to show you how logic had not only taken a vacation from my mind, but gone on a round-the-world trip for two, and for a while seemed to have no intention at all of ever coming back home. I’m glad that it has finally decided to pay me a visit; I hope it will stay throughout the next year of our Lord Victor. No gravity, only comedy! Blackfish! Muuuuultivitamins! Wonk, wonk.

As always, thank you for reading this post. Wonky or not, I love ya!