Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Because a mainer to my vein/ Leads to a center in my head/ And then I'm better off than dead

Most of that day, I spent in a gray private reality, fragments of thought and disconnected visions drifting by. This was the gift of oblivion from the morphine pouring continuously through my IV line. In my lucid moments, I assessed my situation. I could not move in any way that involved my abdominal muscles, which meant that I could not move my torso, or my legs above the ankles. I could not sit up, I could not roll onto my side. They told me I couldn't eat or drink anything at all for several days.

There was the IV line of course. There was a tube going up one nostril and down my throat, connected to a machine that constantly sucked yellow brown fluid out of my stomach. Another piece of plastic tubing with two little nozzles blew oxygen into my nostrils. Another tube emerged from my penis, and it ran off to something on the floor. Wrapped around each of my calfs, all the way from the ankle to the knee, was a long plastic cuff attached to a machine that inflated it every thirty seconds or so, squeezing and releasing unrelentingly.

Thanks to morphine, I didn't care. My pain was still everywhere, now settling more and more into my throat and belly, but my body was not mine. Let it be in pain, it was none of my concern. I would think for a moment that I cared about my drifting thoughts and dreams, but they would float away and leave no trace. Understand: this was not the peace of detachment, not liberation from the illusion of self. It was exile in a solitude of polluted fog.

Nurses came. They were all beautiful women. They gave what comfort they could. A cup of ice and a swab for my mouth that was always dry. A cloth to wipe the sweat that always streamed off my forehead. They talked to lure me back from the fog.

The IV line ran to a plastic bag of fluid hanging from a pole next to my bed. Branches of the line ran to machines for injecting drugs into the fluid. One of the machines contained the morphine. A small amount of morphine trickled in continuously, but I could give myself a much bigger shot whenever I wanted, as often as every ten minutes, by pushing a button pinned to my smock. I pushed it a lot. If I waited too long, the pain I always felt would start to matter. That was more than enough reason to wrap the fog around me.

You have heard people talk about dreamless sleep? That night, I had sleepless dreams. The nurse suggested I try lying on my side, but it was painful and anyway the calf-squeezers made it impossibly awkward. It turned out that the only position I could lie in was flat on my back for the next two weeks.

I now had a roommate, a man in his fifties who spoke Russian, not a word of English. He talked in his sleep. I had no idea why, but at irregular intervals there would be a storm of bells, three or four going off at once, sometimes for several minutes. There was an unpleasant odor of burned popcorn. My calfs sweated and itched unbearably from the pneumatic torture devices.

At four o'clock in the morning, a man came to take blood from my arm. He was efficient and skillful with the needle, but he had a very peculiar manner and he was not someone I would have invited to my bedside before dawn. He put his hand on my cheek and shoulder, pretending to comfort me, but the touch lingered for his pleasure, not my solace. I could not defend myself. I could not speak.

At five o'clock, two nurses came in to weigh me. They had a device which would jack me up in the air if they could get a sling under me. This involved rolling me back and forth on the bed. They counseled me to give myself a shot of morphine before they started. Since the sling only extended from just below my shoulders to just above my knees, I was bent back agonizingly at my lacerated waist, and I yelled despite the morphine.

The nurses agreed that what they were doing was insane. The doctors had ordered it so that they would have the results in time for their morning rounds at 6:00. That also accounted for the pre-dawn bloodletting. Why the hell did they need to know my weight? They were concerned about my fluid balance. "Do you want to know if I'm dehydrated?" I asked. "Okay, I'm dehydrated." My thirst was continuous, tormenting, terrifying.

That following night was beyond suffering. Now itching everywhere continually. It was much too hot and I lay in a deep puddle of sweat. That damnable smell of burned popcorn. The vampire came again at 4:00, but this time they skipped the weighing. I did fall asleep finally, late that morning. My first words that afternoon were "Hell Debbie, why did you have to wake me up to this sore throat?" She couldn't cure the throat, but she did tell me that the itching was a side effect of morphine.

The next time I saw a doctor I asked him to shut off the morphine. He did. My slashed belly hurt like hell, but that just told me that I was alive. I welcomed it.

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