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Trip to the ER: Making sure 'no big deal' stays exactly that

It seems as though every time I get one of those exciting moments of doing something normal, I end up back in the hospital.  First, there was the tonsillectomy after a weekend of hanging out listening to island music.  Then, shingles followed lobster-diving with Fred in July.  Now, a few days after pulling off the Weekend Warrior show, I headed back to the ER with some serious cramping in my stomach and an afternoon spent regurgitating leftover turkey soup.

Initial x-rays showed that I had a swollen bowel, which means there is probably some sort of obstruction.  With my CT scans done four weeks ago showing nothing, the likelihood is that this isn't cancer-related. The ER doctor stated this can happen, with the scar tissue from the two abdominal surgeries.  According to her, there was nothing I could have done to prevent it, which got me off the hook for last weekend's lapse in diet and increase in activity.  The colorectal surgeon agreed with her, and has already started me back on liquids.  We just need whatever is still sitting in the swollen bowel to, er, "pass through" and make sure I can keep food down, and I'll be out of here.

Besides screwing up weekend plans (we had a quick trip to Orlando for a law seminar for Jen), just being in here kind of sucks. The glacial speed at which things move in a hospital can be frustrating, especially when the plan is "just wait and see if it clears by taking x-rays every day." Not exactly the definitive course of action I was looking for. I was "NPO" until this morning, which somehow stand for "nothing by mouth" (it's a Latin translation) – no food, no water, nothing. I understood this in certain circumstances, especially when surgery is an imminent possibility, but that doesn't seem to be where I am headed (thank God).

That is one of the little things that make "recovery" in the hospital feel oxymoronic – denial of food (and the nutrients it brings with it) will NOT help my body fight cancer, and a bag of saline water isn't cutting it as a replacement.  There are other things, like having cranky octogenarian Mr. Flynn for a roommate — complaining about everything to the nurses, snoring, and leaving the TV on until midnight blasting Law and Order.  Getting stuck for blood three times between sundown and sunrise.  Or the tendency for the night-time nurses to, shall we say, be "less on the ball" than their daytime counterparts — in this case, trying to remember all of the admitting questionnaire from memory instead of getting the form from the nurses' station, forty feet away.  Or asking me when she came up to the room and what time medications were given because she "forgot to write it down."

Even just the sounds of the hospital are disruptive, which last night included an IV machine beeping forever, a loud crash of equipment dropping outside the door, and the ensuing "debate" between the staff why the other person was to blame.  Luckily the dilaudid shot I got just before leaving the ER kicked in almost instantaneously – for a moment, I thought I was Vincent Vega from Pulp Fiction, swimming in a numbing haze. I do know one thing – I am never telling a woman to suck it up during PMS again.

There was also the mental part. Besides having to deal with hospitalization, this scared both Jen and I a bit.  Maybe it was hearing the bad news of other melanoma deaths – there were at least 5 or 6 in the last week of people I knew via a Facebook support group, and most of them were "younger" patients in the 35-55 age bracket.  Part of it had to be feeling like déjà vu, as abdominal pain and vomiting were part of my symptoms when all this started last August.  And maybe it was me being a little melodramatic – I remember my grandfather changing out storm windows for screens on my Aunt's house the week he passed away, and irrationally thought very briefly our football game might be my last stand.  (If Mom brings me peaches soaked in wine – Pop's favorite, and one of his last "meals" – I know I'm in trouble.)

Once I got a little reassurance – ironically, from talking with our friend Dr. Matt, my admitting ER doctor last August and guest blogger – that my symptoms didn't seem to indicate a grave problem, the positive and balanced mindset returned.   The attitude became "better safe than sorry", especially since being in a clinical trial means I cede a bit of freedom of treatment, and err on the cautious side.  So, yea, we will likely have to deal with this, intermittently, for quite a while.  I'm not all that good at being a hypochondriac, so it's an adjustment in thinking symptoms "could be something" instead of brushing them off as "no big deal." This is our new normal, and that means that plans with Mickey Mouse take a back seat to proactively making sure a "no big deal" doesn't become exactly that.

T.J. Sharpe shares his fight against Stage 4 Melanoma in the Patient #1 blog. Read more »