Guest writer Linda K. Anderson, BSN, RN, is a retired nurse who lives in Seattle, Wa.
I'm too relaxed to breathe.
Until now, I was unaware how much effort, unconscious certainly, but effort nevertheless, was required to perform that rhythmic in-out, in-out, in-out of respiration. I feel calm, peaceful, and quiet in a way I've never felt before.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
"Breathe," says the nurse.
I don't want to breathe. I don't need to breathe. I'm just fine. This is the best I've ever felt. But okay, I'll breathe just to stop that beeping.
Deep inhale, deep exhale. That should do it.
The beeping stops. Silence again. Blessed peace.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
"Deep breaths." The woman's voice is jarring, too loud for my serene mood. If I had the energy, I'd tell her to please be quiet, I'm trying to sleep. But first, I have to stop the beeping.
Deep inhale, deep exhale. It's going to be a long night.
Right before I finally doze off, I think, something about this is familiar.
The pain stabs me in the gut before I open my eyes.
The world is bright and blurry. I see a white ceiling, but I sense movement next to me. I can't focus on the movement, can't blink away the haze from my eyes. My stomach hurts! What happened? My tongue is dry, and when I swallow, it feels like the back of my throat sticks together. My right hand flails, clanking against the metal side rail.
"Good morning! How are you feeling? Do you need something for pain?"
Yes, please yes, something for pain. I try to tell her something terrible has happened to me, some unidentified catastrophe has eviscerated me.
"Water," is all I can get out.
"You can't have anything to drink yet."
A minty sponge, barely damp, scrapes against my lips and tongue. In vain, I try to suck water from the tiny sponge. No use, not enough water on the swab. Then, soon after, peace again; not enough to take away the agony, but peace on top of hurt. It's like my nerve endings register every bit of pain, but my mind doesn't take it personally.
"Let's get you up, OK?" A new nurse floats into view.
I'm afraid to move. My belly feels flayed. I press my hand to my stomach, and feel the distinct crinkle of plastic.
I got the bag after all. Tears well up and trickle into my ears. One should never cry while laying on one's back. I'm not sure what I'm crying about, the excruciating pain or the bag. Both, or either one, it doesn't matter now. It's over – my active life, my love life, my life.
"Can I have something for pain before you get me up?"
"I just gave you some, you can't have any more for 4 hours. Now, let's swing your legs over."
One of the characters from a children's cartoon is watching the scene from the foot of my bed. What are you looking at? Haven't you seen a woman with a colostomy before? A woman split stem to stern, and pieced together again like a meaty puzzle?
I stand, swaying on my feet, bent nearly double, hands on my belly, as the nurse guides me to a chair. My head is detached and floating, and doesn't feel the same pain the rest of my body does. That cartoon creature is still staring at me, annoying me, taunting me. I feel like a sideshow.
"Please make him leave."
"Make who leave?"
I point a shaky finger. "Him."
It's quiet for a moment.
"There's nobody there, hon."
I've been through surgeries before, I know how the drugs affect me. I think she might be right. I decide to ignore him, while he keeps staring at me, not saying a word.
I hate being called "hon."
I recognize the doctor as he walks into the room. Clearly, compassionately, and in as few words as possible, he tells me what I already know. And leaves.
I check out the character at the foot of my bed. He turns out to be a BP cuff on wheels. Suddenly, I'm feeling lonely. Mute or not, he was pretty good company.
I look up at the television, and see a show about alpine skiing. I've never seen such beautiful photography. The white snow, the blue shadows, the shushing sound as the skis pierce the snow. I'm transfixed. I can feel the cold on my face, the damp of the snowflakes on my eyelashes. It feels like I'm the one skiing down the mountain. The show goes on and on. It's a relaxing and pleasant diversion from the pain and despair.
The nurse walks into the room with a new bag of I.V. fluids. I point to the television.
"Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?"
"On the TV, that show."
"The TV's not on."
Oops. Did it again.
I wake up, still in pain, and press my call button. When the nurse comes, I explain I need something for pain, but can I please get something, anything, besides morphine? The nurse smiles and says "I'll see what you have ordered." I envy her straight, white teeth. I also envy her health, the smooth, easy way she moves.
Gone is the BP device at the foot of my bed. The television is off. No alarms scream in the background. The piercing pain in my belly is still there, but mostly just when I move. If I lay perfectly still, I can almost feel normal.
And I'm still alive.
And then I remember. I remember that I am a nurse. I've listened to the pulse oximeter alarms beeping, absently calling out "Breathe. Deep breaths." I've watched the monitor numbers, periodically looking at the patient, not always seeing the person. I remember getting patients out of bed the morning after surgery, and it seemed like I was always in a hurry, forever impatient. I knew they were in pain, but I had no idea. I remember chuckling to myself at the things my patients would say in a post-operative, opioid-induced delirium. I remember my patients' tears when they discovered the results, how they were disfigured in efforts to prolong their lives.
I want to turn back the clock, slow down, go back to these patients, and to myself. I want to say, you're alive, you're going to be okay. I'm going to make sure you keep breathing. You're not losing your mind. I will hold your hand and tell you that the pain will end, your family will love your imperfect body, you will see your baby graduate, and you will have a love life again. I want that to be true for my patients, just as it's true for me.
I promise to remember this.