Call it a bag or even a pouch. There’s very little disparity. There are plenty of words to describe it and perhaps only one correct medical term that accurately depicts what I’m referencing.
Solitude may be the most severe and harsh form of punishment, but life with Todd was about as alone as I had ever felt. Though, “ill will” was never my forte, and whatever malice I put on display in the end was reserved for myself.
Looking down at my newly-engineered personal accessory, a fetal-shaped spud no larger than a newly born fetus itself, I cupped the pulpy Hollister-made bag carefully – aware that if I shook it too wildly, I might rip it from my lower abdomen causing it to splatter its contents across my lap and spill out onto the hardwood floor.
The ostomy bag also referred to as an ostomy pouch was a temporary compartment for my excrement. For as much sh*t as he contained, Todd (named later by a sympathetic friend) was delicate…
Todd was certainly fragile, and ‘he’ required an almost excruciatingly managed “handle with care” policy. One misstep and this pestilent sidekick would shamelessly detach from my hip and go awry, much like a leaf dangling from a branch tree on a windy autumn afternoon.
By August of 2010, I had been home for nearly four months. I had participated with the in-patient unit of the Weill Cornell Medical Center for well over a month, for six or seven days a week. What started as physical and occupational therapy at my bedside in the surgical-ICU gradually progressed into two sessions per day of PT & OT in the gym on the 17th floor of the Baker building.
Just because I was under the care and supervision of trained hospital workers, didn’t mean that my life with Todd would suddenly become easier.
While at Baker, I experienced the beginnings of what a life with an ostomy bag (Todd) was actually like. The bag, or pouch, is indeed fragile and delicate, but if it becomes detached at a given moment, you’re likely to be surrounded by a puddle of your own waste. Todd also had a way of discreetly leaking behind my back, drip by drip – one subtle secretion and he had enormous hubris, Todd. And before you know it, your knickers are moist and resonating a sharp, pungent stench, wafting a foul odor up to your nostrils and through the air, surrounding your immediate atmosphere.
Todd was never one to consider my feelings or the feelings of those who surrounded me, Todd was free-wheeling and insouciant. At this point in my life, my emotions leaned more towards self-loathing and feeling repulsive. Not quite a leper, because I could still count the number of real friends on the fingers of one of my hands, but close enough.
What followed a leaky, punctured, or torn pouch was a methodical approach that had to be repeated to a tee. Because of Todd’s inclinations ‘to shed’ (cut loose, break-off, or just start leaking…) – to not systematically follow the instructions given by the all-important ostomy nurse, whose presence was provided by health insurance, making scheduled appearances at the house – would lead to repeat problems with his functionality and purpose.
At Baker, the therapy unit of Cornell hospital in New York City: Todd would detach and occasionally hang loose, and I believe that there were times when his upheaval was unavoidable & wasn’t anyone’s fault. The mechanical hardware from which Todd was constructed wasn’t the sturdiest and so his necessity to comply with a general set of ‘norms’ was nonexistent. It certainly interrupted my rehabilitation by cutting into my allotted therapy time. And when I later returned home, it was more of the same. Waking up to a torn bag (and all the physical disgust it had contained), or noticing a tiny, shade of a yellow spot or two on my mesh shorts during out-patient therapy. If I had any chance to rehabilitate my entire life, Todd would need to get going and in a hurry. I began to resolve that he was merely a temporary solution to mending my already strained body. I was made aware that the G.I. consult scheduled for September of 2010 was solely to discuss options, and potentially reverse Todd.
* * *
My father, a medical doctor. had spoken these words to me before the surgery, “They tell you to count backwards and you almost always fall asleep before reaching one or zero and then the surgeons all laugh and continue to do their job.”
“What do you mean they laugh? This is serious,” I stated affirming that I had legitimate concern.
“No, nothing like that,” he grinned. “Every surgeon takes his job seriously and this is a great hospital with a solid reputation.”
His vote of confidence was all I really needed.
To be free of Todd, I had to be in the best possible health, and that meant my monthly blood-work, which included my hemoglobin, hematocrit, liver enzymes, bilirubin & albumin, magnesium, phosphorous, and at least ten others things had to be within normal range and stable condition leading up to an operation. On top of knowing this I added extra effort to my diet, sneaking in an extra Peptamen (the mother of all protein shakes) per day, drinking twice as much water, and avoiding pleasures that had otherwise been taken for granted, like sugary sweets and salty snacks.
I renewed my childhood love for Gatorade in an attempt to flush out my system even further. Going in for the surgery was nerve-wrecking in and of itself. It would be the first time I would have to be unconscious since being in a medically induced coma at Vanderbilt, in Nashville just a year before.
I remember the operating room, because I was terrified, afraid that I wouldn’t wake up or that I may slip back into a coma. It was irrational to think these things, but I had my reasons. Shivering under the hospital gown, I asked who I assumed was a surgical intern, over my right shoulder if she would hold my hand. She smiled, and slipped her hand under the blanket, which was cloaking my body, touching my fingers at first and then finally our hands clasped together. I must have been the one squeezing. In all likelihood, I was longing for just the smallest amount of security, hoping that this was all going to go over well.
The doors swung open, and I was rolled into a bright, extremely well lit room, out of the darker shadows of the waiting hallway. I was entirely stricken with terror as I thought about the alien surgery scene from the 1996 film Independence Day, where the alien kills everyone in the operating room and then is shot dead by federal law enforcement.
Why are you thinking about that right now, I implored to myself. I was told to slowly count backwards from 10. “Ten… Nine…” I let the anesthetics do their job, and shut my eyes and my voice. Though I was frightened – I soon drifted off to a vaguely familiar sleep, with hopes of returning much sooner than I had the last time.
* * *
Although it wasn’t my first thought when I awoke later that night, this operation was a quality of life surgical procedure: This must be my second chance that I had made a silent plea for months ago at the Vanderbilt Intensive Care Unit. I spent a good amount of time feeling my chest, checking to make sure there were no tubes, no loose appendages dangling or left behind. Nothing seemed to be protruding from my body. Nothing was attached to my skin. Only, what felt like, to me, as bandages and gauze layered across my chest, which was finally sewn shut. What about Todd? Todd was nowhere in sight. I kept my hands moving – inching closer to Todd’s region of the lower abdomen, but he wasn’t there. I had left that life, and had never left an invitation for Todd to join me in this new one. I rang for the nurse. My mouth was dry.
“I can’t speak. My mouth is dry,” I fumbled my words, “And, I need water.”
“Right now you’re not permitted any fluid in-take, but I can offer you this sponge on a stick, and you may dowse the sponge in ice water and take in liquid that way if you wish.”
It sounded strange, but it sort of made sense. I agreed, so she brought me what she could and I began sucking-away.
“Is the bag gone?” This was the million dollar question on my mind. I didn’t give a flying f*** about this artificial-sponge lollipop. But, it sure was quenching my thirst, so I continued to slurp.
“I believe the surgery was a success and everything went according to plan.”
“Say that one more time.” Sluuuuuurp.
And she said it once again, and in the dimly lit recovery room of the surgical-ICU of the Weill Cornell Medical Center at the roundabout at 68th street & York Avenue, I figured excitedly shouting was out of the question. So, I let out a deep breath and I smiled, but I could only think one thing: I won.
Sayonara Todd. You’re gone, and I’m still here. I was almost completely broken, and you tried to shatter what was left of a broken 23-year old, but I won. And then, I drifted off into a comfortable sleep, ready for tomorrow.