Trading Places . . . not nearly as cool as the movie.

In life, there are good days and bad days. There are even streaks of exceptionally good and exceptionally bad luck. And then, there are those times when you start to feel a bit victimized by life. That’s basically the story of the last few weeks at my house. I’ve reached a point of calm after the storm, and I’m finally able to look back at all that’s happened and laugh. But . . . yeah, at the time, I was definitely NOT laughing.

All summer long I have known I would be having a permanent bladder pacemaker placed in my lower back in August. We vacationed in May, went to weddings in June, and prepared for Joe’s coming semester in July- all so we were prepared for August to be my great month of convalescence.

The procedure required 2 surgeries. The first surgery placed a wire near my sacral nerve (at the base of my spine) and all the other wires were left on the outside- taped to my body. It was a long, disgusting, painful week of not being allowed to shower and trying to keep from accidentally ripping wires out of my body. (Lovely, right?) The second phase was 7 days later and placed all the wires on the inside (and made showering possible again!). It was a LOT on a body that isn’t exactly high functioning to begin with. Even though I had spent the summer preparing to be out of commission during August, I was still a little shocked at how hard it all was. The first surgery I was completely sedated, so I had the accompanying chest pain/ sore throat from being intubated. The second surgery was simpler- just twilight sedation. During the second surgery I kept thinking I was climbing beautiful purple mountains with a pink glittery snow falling . . . Every time I would try to catch a snow flake my anesthesiologist thought I was in pain and would hold my hand and pet my head. She was seriously messing up my snow/glitter catching game!

It was a lot. One of my shoulders dislocated during the prep for the first surgery. (Doctors aren’t used to patients that come unglued just from scooting from one bed to the other.) There was a small allergic reaction to the IV antibiotics. There was the whole frustration of not being able to shower. Blech. Just blech.

And then . . . it all ended except for the healing process. For six weeks following the second surgery, I am not supposed to lift more than 5 pounds (My dog weighs 10!); I am not supposed to stretch or bend at the waist. I can’t exercise or be in any type of standing water (ie. bath tub, pool). I’m still a bit restricted. Then I developed a fever. Not just my normal “I’m a little tired today, so my body is going to overheat a bit” but a true 101+ degree temperature complete with a lovely rash. I called my doctor, started antibiotics, and stayed in bed even more than I already was.

During all this Joe was doing his best to take care of me. My mom cooked and brought food from 2 hours away so we wouldn’t starve. (Joe tries to cook, but his specialties are limited to break and bake cookies and Hot Pockets.) Joe did laundry, heated up leftovers, shopped for groceries, and bought a lot of grape slushes from Sonic.

Then one night during the first week of healing after my second surgery Joe wakes up and says, “My stomach feels weird. I’m going to sit in the living room a little while.” He gets out of bed and starts heading that direction, and then I heard a huge crash- a train load of elephants type crash. It was nighttime; the house was dark. I just assumed he had knocked down the full length mirror or hit the towel rack. I chuckled until I realized the house was eerily quiet. So I yell out a half-hearted, “Are you okay?” I really assumed he had bumped into something. It didn’t occur to me that anything could be wrong until he didn’t answer. I flipped on the lamp and saw that Joe was sprawled across the floor- clearly unconscious. I jumped up and ran to him. Joe came back into consciousness with an earth shattering sneeze (weirdest sound I’ve heard in my life) and tried to stand up. Before I could get to him, he passed out again- banging his head on a door frame in the process.

In a scene that would be totally fitting for a sitcom, Joe came to with another crazy sneeze (What’s with the sneezing anyway?) and sat up as I was trying to get to him. Remember that I’ve just had surgery; even at top speed, I moved slowly. Joe sat up just as I got to him and then fainted again. This time I was close enough to catch him and lower his head to the floor. At some point during all this, I realized I was in WAY over my head. I felt for a pulse, and I couldn’t even tell if his heart was still beating. I couldn’t lift Joe; I couldn’t even hold up his upper body to keep him from falling over. I had to have help. I called 911. You don’t realize how terrified you are until you reflect back on your emergency calls. I was saying pathetic things like, “Please hurry. Tell them to come quickly. I’m scaaaarrrrrreeeedddd!” Now, in my rational mind, I know that the dispatcher was not going to tell the ambulance driver, “Drive faster. This sick person has a scared wife.” But, when you’re scared and desperate, you just want to do all you can to try to get help.

The paramedics showed up in under 15 minutes, and they loaded up Joe. During this time he started vomiting. Given that he couldn’t move without fainting, that meant there was a huge mess but it was hardly the time to worry about that. I had to follow the ambulance to the ER which was a little terrifying because I was battling my own need to faint. We arrived at the ER; Joe was taken back for a head CT because he had bumped his head. It was all absolutely terrifying.

Here’s the thing. I’ve been in Joe’s place. I’ve been the one that is sick and hurting. I’ve been the person waiting to hear results from scary tests, but I’ve never been the spouse of that person. It’s HORRIBLE. I would have selfishly traded places at any point. When you’re sick, all you have to do is be sick. You’re in survival mode. You just keep breathing and hoping the pain goes away soon. When you’re the spouse, the weight of the world is on your shoulders. In my case, the weight of the world was on my broken down, faint, and nauseous body. I had to be Joe’s advocate. I had to make sure he was getting the best care possible. I was in charge of telling the nurses when he needed more nausea meds or needed another blanket. I had to ask for help getting him in and out of bed if he went to the restroom. I had to contact family members and update them on Joe’s condition. I had to remember to ask someone to take care of our dog. Those were my jobs.

Ultimately, Joe was fine(ish). He had a terrible stomach virus. We knew he had been exposed to a virus, but we didn’t expect it to present so dramatically if he caught it. He was released after a very long and frightening night in the ER. He came home, and I had to be in charge. I had 2 surgeries within 7 days, and I was still the healthiest person in the house. I had to be the one to clean the massive mess from Joe’s middle of the night sickness. I had to set alarms and take Joe medicine. I had to ignore any issues I had going on for a few days to deal with the more pressing issue at hand.

Joe was so terribly and frighteningly sick. I would never wish the terror of checking for your spouse’s pulse on anyone. It was awful. I’m nauseous just thinking about it. But in the most terrible times of life, there are moments of clarity. Joe is my husband. I made a vow to him and to God that I would always do whatever I could to love him completely. In that one horrible night (and a few days that followed), I was Joe’s lifeline. I had to put my own “woe is me” health concerns on the back burner, because it was most important that I care for him. I also realized that Joe is required to drop all his concerns to care for me pretty often. I didn’t realize how that feels. I didn’t know the stress of having to be an advocate, and a caregiver, and communicator for someone who is too ill to do those things for himself.

Coming out of this experience, I have a new respect for what my husband and family have had to do for me many times. Caregivers have a tough and unenviable job. I also have a new respect for what my body can do. I often feel like I’m not very useful to anyone. Even though it was a terrible way to have to prove this to myself, I was so very glad that when Joe needed me I was able to step up to the plate. The last few days I keep saying that I don’t understand WHY I am so exhausted, but as I write this I realize I probably have plenty of reason to feel extra tired.

Yes, I get it. This isn’t as light hearted as most of my posts, but it’s been such a huge part of my life lately that I wanted to share it with you. I promise, we’ll get back to making fun of all things sick-ish soon.

Peace, love, and health, friends.

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