Wednesday, June 1, 2011

What I Learned in May

The omentum is an apron-shaped layer of fat lying over the belly. Tumors from ovarian cancer sometimes spread to the omentum. As an outdated evolutionary safety feature from pre-surgery days, the omentum sometimes curled around an unhappy appendix, controlling the spread of poison if it burst, allowing for survival.

Portland Head Light
An extra hour driving through Pennsylvania beats New Jersey Turnpike tolls and traffic.

When I'm nervous, I repeat myself, restating information gleaned from other people to verify it.

Lawyers sometimes hug clients.

On some superstitious level, I think my mother having an admission nurse named Grace who just came back from doing mission work means we have a good word in with God. The Grace of God.

Fresh asparagus tastes better.

Of the many smells permanently fixed in my brain, one of them is that of my brother's spit, which still clings to his toys stored in the basement of my mother's house.

Maine drivers are polite, but gratingly slow. Lights are badly timed in Portland.

Sitting by Back Cove
A dog that is sitting has a much harder time barking.

Low tide in a small cove looks like the plug has been pulled on a dirty sink; rather than the swaying grasses and blue water of high tide, all that's left is ring of muddy pebbles and gray, murky water.

Hospital beds have amazing hydraulics that lift them in all manner of ways, safety rails to keep patients in, and emergency CPR releases to flatten the bed down if needed.

Swelling after surgery is common. Combining swelling with the mellow tones of morphine makes for different facial expressions.

Dilaudid, a relative of morphine, can be administered via IV or in pill form.

Staples from abdominal surgery are informally referred to as a zipper. They come out two weeks after surgery.

Crescent Beach in fog
Two weeks of gray weather is a recipe for depression. The whole city slows down in drowned dismay.

Gardening is just not my thing. I like flowers, but I'm not inclined to put them in any order and I'm not crazy about dirt under my fingernails.

Postoperative ileus is common after abdominal surgery. The intestines, angry at having been moved around during surgery, are slow to wake up their nerves and do their usual work of coordinated contraction. To a point, the solution is to withhold food, hurry up and wait, hoping the nausea and vomiting settle.

Tommy's Tree
 Limerick, Maine
The memorial tree planted at the school where my brother spent over twenty years of his life still looks a little new and spindly.

In some ways, I am more grown-up and capable than I thought. In other ways, I am much, much less than I thought.

Dreams about coffins and rats nipping at your legs are not a sign of optimal mental health.

Fake trees decorating the produce department of the grocery store feel wrong.

An NG (nasogastric) tube can be inserted up the nose and down the throat into the stomach in order vacuum out food thereby ending nausea from ileus or bowel obstruction. While inserting the tube the patient is instructed to drink water through a straw as the swallowing motion moves the tube down the throat. Airplane glue is used to provide extra security when taping the tube on the nose.

Seagull, Eastern Prom
Seagulls seem bigger up north. Maybe they are bigger.

I am spacier than I realized on visual details. I did not notice that my mother's kitchen was gray until she told me. In my head, it was white.

The irony of getting a cold from a germ picked up at the hospital, and therefore not being able to go back to the hospital until I recover from said germ, does not make my fever drop any faster.

"Optimal debulking" is good news.

Petco makes a canine supplement to discourage dogs from eating their own excrement. This is good and bad if said dog is a sneaky pooper that likes to leave deposits on the dining room rug.

Maine Medical nurses are almost universally nice. Some are chattier than others.

For six months or so at Maine Med, medication charting is now handled with a hand-held device that scans the patient ID and then the medication, charting the time.

I have in me the makings of a compulsive hand washer. But not a gourmet cook or neat-nick.

Ruins of Goddard Mansion
Cape Elizabeth, Maine
Changing roles does not change history.

Squirrels really like tulip bulbs. But they leave the flowers for bouquets that liven up a hospital room.

It is impossible for me to look at tulips in a hospital room and not think about the Sylvia Plath poem “Tulips,” which begins with “The tulips are too excitable” and ends with the line “from a country as far away as health.” It is possible for me to not mention that at the hospital though.

Psychological discomfort also manifests as physical discomfort. One solution is substituting in a different discomfort – run faster, walk further, get tired.

If you cry while running in the rain, no one pays you much heed. Who really looks happy running anyway?

Conversely, physical pain inspires psychological discomfort. How do I fix this? What is wrong? Am I all alone here?

Spaghetti squash spaghetti tastes like pasta spaghetti.

Physical contact is comforting. Hold hands. Hug.

Lobster trap washed ashore
Crescent Beach
A parking ticket because you got lost walking for an hour because you forgot to note where you parked your car somehow seems unfair.

If your mother has cancer, you may be able break the rules of a Boys Only Weekend and spend some time drinking with festive, fraternal men who will buy you a mustard colored t-shirt that says “Get Lucky at Ri-Ra!”

Heparin, used to prevent clots, is injected in the upper thigh. Shots sometimes burn.

I will watch five hours of detective shows given access to cable tv and a desire for escape. I should never have cable TV on a permanent basis.

Fog rolling in scares me on some unspoken, primal level, the cold approach of oblivion, even while I consciously marvel at the beauty and power of nature.

Toes at Fort Williams
Anger unexpressed curls the body into odd shapes, closes in on itself, shoulders covering necks, arms across chest, muscles tensed.

Potassium levels must be in the normal range before being released from the hospital. Potassium administered via IV can burn. Liquid medication tastes foul. Pills are large. 

Throughout many years, my cats have seen me through a myriad of events across the country and still come over and purr next to me. And yak up hairballs under the bed at 4am.

To discourage clots in the leg after surgery, patients are encouraged to sit up and stand the same day as surgery. The more movement, the better after surgery, as it inspires the body to wake up and get busy healing. Medical personnel tend to leave out details on just how painful this will be. 

Also to discourage clots, patients often have motorized compression pumps velcroed around their legs, expanding and deflating in rhythmic rounds. Some nurses call them Electric Socks.

Dock, Eastern Promenade,
Portland, Maine
Anger, fear, sadness and love mix up, move around, run away, hit you in the face when you're not looking.

Being the youngest person in the room by ten or twenty years still makes you the baby even if you're 42. This is good and bad.

Taxol is a favored chemical for ovarian cancer chemotherapy.

You can know people all your life and still not really know them.


  1. There are the makings of several cool stories here; this has the making of a single awesome story. Also, this may simply be a single awesome post. However it goes, I'm going to feel free to steal bits of it for my daily exercise. :)

  2. There are the makings of several cool stories here; this has the making of a single awesome story. Also, this may simply be a single awesome post. However it goes, I'm going to feel free to steal bits of it for my daily exercise. :)

  3. Thank you for sharing what seem to be very intimate moments and thoughts. I missed reading your posts. Here's hoping Mom responds well to treatment. I bet it was such a comfort for her to have you there.