It was 1977 when I first lost my pride completely, medically speaking. January 23, if I’m remembering correctly.
And as happens in so many of my stories, I was in the hospital. This time in one outside of Boston. Nineteen seventy-six/seven was a big year for me, my first living on my own away from my parents, my first real boyfriend, my first taste of independence.
My first time dealing with my shitty illness on my own.
This particular hospitalization (my second) was actually a pivotal experience in my life. I came out of those doors a different person, a better person. I think back on it fondly This one afforded me the opportunity not just to be treated for my colitis-that-was-actually-Crohn’s, but time to reflect on life.
The hospitalization did not start out well. It was the day after my birthday when the doctor informed me that I needed to go in. I was terrified, because my first and only previous hospitalization was the stuff of nightmares – nearly 40 years’ worth.
Besides, I was already pretty low. Things were already rocky with my boyfriend Mark. When I went into the hospital he refused to come and visit me. It was exam time, and he needed to study. The hospital was directly in between his dorm room and the library. Hardly a major effort was involved in stopping by, giving me a kiss, and going on his way.
So I dumped him. (Last I heard via Google he is a senior executive for a huge tech corporation. He is, I’m sure, now a multimillionaire asshole.)
Anyway, there I was, sick, sad, lonely. I had just moved to Boston and knew almost no one. Nobody came to visit me in the hospital. I was pathetic and very lonely.
But the resident in charge of my case made up for it. He was wonderful. He was cute. He was compassionate and caring and he had a mad crush on me according to the nurses who know everything. And I, fresh from dumping an asshole was flattered by the attention. OK, I was madly in love with him. Dr. J. Sigh.
My treating physician was really terrific, and he had a name that began my list of weird doctor names: “Dr. Lesser.” If I’d have had my wits about me, I would have requested “Dr. Moore.” But I was sick, so I didn’t.
Anyway, Dr. Lesser was examining me, and he decided to do a sigmoidoscopy right then and there in my hospital bed. A sigmoidoscopy is a test to check out the lower colon. I affectionately dubbed “the umbrella test” because when your lower colon is raw, as mine was, having a sigmoidoscopy is like having someone shove an umbrella up your ass, open it, and pull it out.
So anyway, Dr. Lesser had me get into position. The knee-chest position, which is a misnomer. It should really be called the “Swallow your pride” position. Head on the pillow, butt, bare-assed above you in the air.
Dr. Lesser was putting on his gloves to start the exam when I heard a voice that made my heart pitter-patter say:
“Oh, can I do it?” said the man I had been madly in love with 30 seconds earlier.
The new love of my life wanted to stick instruments of torture up my ass. All I can say is he nipped that crush in the bud. Or the butt.
That was the first time I totally lost my pride, medically speaking.
In retrospect, I don’t really mind. Or I’ve gotten used to it. It makes for good stories that I can tell again and again so that I can relive the most humiliating moments of my life.
Since then there have been countless times when I lost my pride in a medical setting. Illness does that to you – and when it is poop related, well, the opportunities for humiliation are bottomless. You become a pin cushion, a warm body filled with vile fluids and other unfortunate materials. A specimin. A black hole of embarrassment.
As I said, I’m OK with that. Because in order for doctors and other medical professionals to make me better, and for others to learn how to do that, well, they need to poke around in places where I don’t normally encourage exploration. So I always say “yes” to the gangs of medical students that want to crowd around my bed while some doctor does something weird to me. Pokes, prods, whatever. (I have never had another in-bed umbrella test, though, thank God.) “The rounds” is where doctors learn how to treat patients, what medicines to prescribe, whether they really want to spend their careers looking at the dark end of the human body. It is helpful, and really everybody benefits.
One plus I’ve found is that these young doctors often come back around to chat with me individually. It alleviates some of the loneliness inherent in being hospitalized. Sometimes I have felt more comfortable telling them things I should have told my doctor – it gets filtered back through, and my treatment is adjusted appropriately.
Teaching is good in medicine, whether it is doctor to resident or patient to doctor. An exchange of information benefits everybody.
I recently read an article about a woman named Martha Keochareon who has done the most amazing thing, knowing from a nursing point of view just how humiliating sickness can be. And you know, I honestly want to be just like her, although not any time soon.
The article, entitled Fatally ill and making herself the lesson is the finest example of just caring medical professionals can be. Because it’s about a nurse who decided to invite student nurses from her alma mater to use her as a case study. To let student nurses learn about end of life care from someone who can give them a first-hand lesson in how to deal with death and dying from someone who is facing both.
You see, Ms. Keochareon is dying of pancreatic cancer. The students were invited to feel her tumor, but most importantly, they were encouraged to ask her anything. Anything at all. How does it feel to get the diagnosis? How does it feel to know you’re dying? Does it hurt? Where does it hurt? Can I make you any more comfortable? What can I do to help make you feel better?
Imagine the questions we all might be too uncomfortable to ask just anyone. Ms. Keochareon is inviting a few lucky students who will benefit most from understanding those answers – they will then be better prepared to help ease others’ pain and suffering.
Throughout my many ordeals with health problems, there is one thing that always stands out. The nurses. Their caring, their help, their comforting touches and words, their cheerful attitudes.
But this is the most heartwarming story I’ve ever heard.
Ms. Keochareon has given these student nurses, and really the rest of us, a huge service. With all of my heart, I am in awe of this gift, and I hope that what time she has left allows her to pass on the lessons she knows are so very important to teach. She has opened a door to help us understand and accept dying as a real part of life. That is something I believe our society prefers to forget. But it doesn’t let us.
And with this gift, I’m also pretty sure Ms. Keochareon gets to keep her pride intact.