Recently my wife and I had the opportunity to revisit our youth via conversations with friends and relatives. From those chats, my wife suggested this week’s blog contain a bit of nostalgia. Here’s the result of that effort.
Enjoy. Thanks for stopping by.
In the spring of 1971, I was twenty-two years old and pursuing my first trip to a hospital for anything other than visiting. My affliction was an inguinal hernia, which, according to my surgeon, would be a simple repair. Easy for him to say, he was the one wielding the knife. Because outpatient procedures had not reached the forefront, I was scheduled for a five-day stay at St. Anthony’s Hospital, a St. Louis medical institution since the early 1900s, and the place where I was born.
After recovering from the dizzying reaction to blood siphoning in order to type and match––hey, like I said, this was my first dance––my mother and a nurse wheeled me to the appointed floor and I settled in to my temporary digs. The double-occupant, corner room was large and airy, with ten-foot ceilings and windows on two walls. I exchanged my shirt and jeans for the PJs Mom bought for the occasion, hopped onto the bed, and turned on the TV. So far, hospitalization wasn’t so bad. A nurse stopped by to make sure I had familiarized myself with the accommodations and to drop off a supper menu. The dietary selection wasn’t extensive, but I’d survived college-cafeteria Mystery Meat, what could be worse? I circled steak, mashed potatoes, green beans, milk, coffee, a fruit cup, and cherry pie for dessert, and then returned the menu to the lady in white.
A short while later an orderly entered my dormitory space with shaving gear. I supposed the soap and straight razor was to revive a more visitor-friendly appearance on my roommate, an elderly man with a here-and-gone-again expression and frazzled gray hair.
“Time for your shave, son,” the orderly said.
From what I understood, there would be a mask over my face during the operation so the need to remove stubble seemed unnecessary. On the other hand, maybe the trim was to insure the mask would seal properly. “You’re a barber?” I said.
“No, no. Need to shave you a bit lower…where the surgery will take place.”
“Oh.” Knowing the exact location she sought, I hesitated. Hell even my mother hadn’t seen those body parts for over twelve years. Highly skeptical about hospitalization once more, I reluctantly lowered my pajama pants, closed my eyes, and lied very, very still.
At five o’clock I heard the dietician’s aid intermittently squeaking down the hall, as she delivered the evening meals. When it was our turn, the woman brought in trays for me and my spaced-out roommate. She placed the food on individual carts and maneuvered them over our laps. Eating in bed, in front of the TV, this patient thing showed signs of improvement. Then I lifted the metal dome covering my plate. The flat slab of beef curled back at the edges wasn’t exactly restaurant quality. Approaching it with a knife didn’t alter my opinion. One thing for sure, it certainly wouldn’t moo when I stabbed it. On the flipside, however, it wasn’t Mystery Meat, I was hungry, and the flavor wasn’t nearly as appalling as the effort required to cut it. Like a good patient, I cleaned my plates and emptied all the liquid containers. A muted belch, and I was ready for the evening networks’ best offerings.
Mom and Dad came by after supper, dabbled with encouraging conversation, and shared my viewing pleasure until visiting hours ended at 8:00 p.m. Following their departure, the entire ward became pin-drop quiet. After playing with the bed controls for a bit, I found my comfort zone and settled in. Around ten o’clock, my relaxed mood nosedived.
Now I’m not a man of prejudice, but when a sturdy black nurse who could have played fullback for the Green Bay Packers sauntered to my bedside I questioned her presence. The potty-chair and the large rubber bag with a long hose she carried made me downright nervous. I hoped she was there merely to remind me it was time for lights out, and that the equipment she toted was for my flighty roommate. After all, in this older facility, the restrooms were down the hall. Perhaps he couldn’t travel that distance without incident.
The bubbly nurse made her happy announcement, “Time for your enema.”
As a child, my mother had introduced me to that unpleasant experience––once; twice at the most––and I remembered it well. “My what?” I said.
“Your enema. You want me to do it or can you do it yourself?”
“But I’m not having any problems going to the bathroom. I don’t need an enema.”
“Doesn’t matter, it’s required before surgery.”
“But if the plan was to drain me, why did they feed me supper?”
“Standard procedure. Now, you want me to do it or…”
“No, I’ll take care of it. Thanks.”
“All right. Buzz me when you’re done.”
Like the1929 stock market, my growing appreciation for life as a patient crashed. I didn’t know which part of surgery preparations was worse, having an orderly endanger my manhood with a straight razor, or being threatened by one of Vince Lombardi’s first stringers in white with a Vaseline coated anal probe. Following a proper flush, I buzzed the nurse and sought refuge under the covers. Sleep came slowly as I contemplated what other forms of medical deception––torture––awaited me. My off-a-bubble roommate wandering around in the dark didn’t help either. Leather straps and a sedative corrected that issue, which inspired the notion, Don’t piss off the night nurses.
The next morning a scrub nurse escorted me to a gurney before breakfast. Thank God. Although the depleting experience the night before had left me hungry, I sure as hell didn’t want to face another stocky R.N. baring an enema bag.
The anesthetist administered his wares. “Start counting from one hundred backwards.”
I made it to ninety-one–– I think.
Apparently I’d been a good patient in the OR, but Recovery offered another new experience. After awakening in a fog, I tried to sit up. But with what felt like a herd of elephants sitting on my chest, all I could do was groan
“Oh, you’re awake, Mr. Miller,” the attending nurse said. “Welcome back. I’ll let your doctor know, and we’ll have you back to your room shortly.”
“Okay. Just don’t give me another enema.”
When we returned to my temporary digs, a pair of nurses helped me off the gurney toward my bed. I could barely stand. My posture resembled the big bend of a pretzel. Regardless, the first thing the nurses wanted me to do was pee. Somehow I complied, convinced that my mother and father had committed me to this torture chamber in retribution for all the incurable mischief I’d dealt them as a child. Then the white garbed duo requested I walk around a bit. “Huh?” What’s with you people? Shouldn’t you be wearing black outfits and carrying whips?
Outnumbered and in no condition to fight back, I dragged myself and a mobile I.V. to the footboard and back. The sadistic R.N.s smiled, then helped me into my cotton-sheathed sanctuary.
“You’ll need to get up and walk around as often as possible,” one nurse said. “To ensure you do, we recommend you use the restroom down the hall rather than a bedpan. And by the way, if you don’t have a bowel movement in a couple days, we’ll have to give you an enema.”
I pictured my first night’s surprise. Only I could hear the pitiful screams emanating from my soul. Still in abdominal agony from being sliced and sewn together again, I couldn’t fathom constricting any of those muscles––for anything. I suddenly realized they had given me a new goal.
On the fourth day of medical incarceration––E-day––I still hadn’t pooped. I knew it was in me––both the poop and the ability––and was determined to complete my mission before Jim Brown’s twin stood in my doorway again with hose, probe, and enema bag in hand. Yeah, I know, Jim Brown played for Cleveland.
Days of roaming the hallways had made standing more erect far easier now. So, after breakfast, I strolled toward the restroom with authority, plus a bit of concern. What if I grunt too hard and bust my internal stitches? Despite the adverse-outcome possibility, I sighed and shuffled toward my appointment with destiny.
The stalls were vacant. The restroom was silent as a tomb. I chose my battleground, closed the door, and eased onto a seat. With both hands guarding the incision, I began the arduous process. Numerous painful––doubtful–– contractions later, I achieved victory. After eliminating what felt like St. Anthony’s cornerstone, I’d also developed a new appreciation for women and childbirth. One thing for certain, though, no nurse would have reason to threaten me with a counterattack from the rear.
The day after E-day, my surgeon’s assistant arrived to check his boss’s handiwork and remove the sutures. I’m not sure who was more surprised when the incision popped open at the middle stitch.
My reaction was: Oh no, not more time added to my sentence.
The doctor’s assistant replied, “Oh my,” then remedied the malfunction with quick hands and a Band-Aid. I was packaged and ready for release. He smiled. “Keep a bandage in place for a day or two. You’ll be fine.”
Thank you, Lord.
Mom picked me up at 10:30 a.m. As a nurse wheeled me to the car, I inhaled fresh air once more, grateful to leave the storied halls of St. Anthony’s Hospital behind me. I slid onto the front seat and silently promised that, from that day forward, I would forever do my best toward avoiding the need for surgery again, and always consume a well-balanced, free-flowing diet.
Thankfully, over the many years since then, I’ve managed to fulfill half of that promise.