I remember riding in the car with my grandmother. She worked at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine, where I attended my undergrad studies. I lived with her at the time (she adopted me from the foster home I was in, which is another story) in Casco. It was a Saturday or a Sunday, and we were on our usual weekend ritual of going to the grocery store in nearby downtown Windham, here in Maine. The year, I believe, was 2000 (but it could have been 2001) and the Playstation 2 had just been released. I know this, because we stopped in at KB Toys (which has since been absorbed by Toys R Us) and I experienced a demo of Dynasty Warriors for the very first time.
I was super-excited and tried the game out while my grandmother poked around the store for deals. When we got back to the car and began our drive home, I noticed a pain I’d had since the morning in my left shoulder was getting worse. It felt like I’d slept on it wrong. I kept trying to pop my shoulder back in place all day. While at the grocery store, I had rented a game called Alien Resurrection for the Playstation, in the hopes of playing it on my day off with my uncle Brian, who lived with us and had always been more of an older brother to me than an uncle since we were only four years apart.
When I got home, the pain in my shoulder intensified enough so that I told Brian, who came into my room to play the game, that he could try it first. He sat on the floor in front of my bed while I lay in agony, rolling over, face a mask of pain. He either completed a level or died in the game, because he went to hand me the controller. I shook my head and said I was in too much pain to play.
“C’mon, don’t be a pussy,” he said, throwing the controller onto my chest.
I tried to lift my head up and when I did, my chest made the same sound as a soda bottle makes when you’re pouring its contents into a glass. Glug – glug – glug.
My eyes went wide. “Oh, no” I said. I went into the living room and stood in front of my grandmother. “I think I need to go to the hospital.”
My grandmother blanched. She knew I hated hospitals and would never want to go to one unless I were serious. “Uh-oh,” she said, and then I explained the pain and explained the sound my chest was making.
My grandparents brought me to Stephens Memorial Hospital, where the nurses gave me a chest x-ray. “There’s something black on the x-ray,” my grandfather said in his thick Maine accent. “I seen it when the nurse was just walking by.” I was worried, but still not sure what that meant. We sat in what felt like a cubicle, behind a curtain. An elderly woman sat behind the curtain on the other side. The nurses or doctors were trying to enable her to release her bowels. She finally succeeded, and the sounds and smell came wafting through the curtain. I was anxious to be done with the place already and we had just gotten there not too long before.
Finally, the nurse came back and told me they’d have to admit me. “It’s a pneumothorax,” she said.
“A pneumo-what?” My grandfather asked.
“A collapsed lung,” the nurse replied, smirking at my grandfather’s confusion.
I was admitted to a larger room, where each hospital bed had its own personal, swiveling mini-television. That first night was awful. They had to stick an IV into my arm. Though I was on my back, I came close to passing out (I hate needles). And that wasn’t the worst of it, because later on they had to shove what looked like thick guitar wire, the E string, into various spots on my chest. All without anesthesia. This wire kept hitting nerves, or something, within my body – causing me to cry out and causing my legs and arms to spasm. It reminded me of the scene in Saving Private Ryan where Mellish is slowly stabbed by the too-friendly and matter-of-fact German soldier. (Best illustrated in gif form) I was the doomed American and my doctor was the businesslike German soldier. And I did shake and gurgle, just like Mellish.
Each time the wire was put into my torso, this was repeated. Each time, it left a tiny scar. I think they did it four or five times. Once it was over, they let me be and my grandparents left eventually, leaving me to watch reruns of The Munsters on my little television set as I drifted in and out of sleep.
When I woke in the morning, I was being wheeled down a brightly-lit hallway by some nurses. I panicked. “What’s happening?” I asked. “New room,” one of the nurses said in response. The new room was much smaller, with one bigger television set in the corner and a curtain separating the two sections of the hospital room. I had a roomate.
I kept to myself for a while, not daring to even turn on the television set out of boredom because I was worried that my roomate wouldn’t like what I picked to watch. I hadn’t even seen the guy, either. So, I kept quiet and ate my meals, and didn’t attract attention. That first night in the room with him, though, I woke to see that the curtain had been stretched across the room and I heard my roomate talking to his brother.
“…And so I was in the woods and I was making the call,” I heard my roomate say. “When out of the brush, my damned dog comes crashing through, right between my legs.”
“Wow,” said his brother. “Some dog.” He laughed slightly.
“Right? Damned dog runs between my legs and I’m about to cuss her out and the damned moose comes charging through right after the dog and into me!”
“Yup. This big ol’ moose just starts tossing me around like a ragdoll, and then I get slammed right into a tree. Next thing I know, I’m being rushed to the hospital. Collapsed lung, broken ribs. Other stuff. Did you know they made me stick a goddamned pill up my ass? The nurse had to do it for me.”
At this, I couldn’t keep it in any longer. I burst out laughing. The curtain was drawn back, and I held up a hand and waved it back and forth as if to apologize, trying to stifle my laugh with the other hand. My roomate and his brother, who was also laughing, peered over at me.
I introduced myself and over the course of a few hours, we’d become fast friends. We both had collapsed lungs, both in the same room. He was old enough to be my father. Eventually, that man was able to leave – even before me – and go back home with his wife and their beautiful daughter (who was around my age). Even after he left, his wife and daughter still visited me in the hospital the rest of the time I was there, bringing me cookies and talking to me and telling me they wished me a speedy recovery. Very nice family, I wish I had stayed in touch.
At one point after a few days of being there, the hospital staff must have decided I wasn’t healing. My doctor was a very blunt individual – which I actually liked. Earlier, when I had seen him come in with a tray of tools, he had been the one to slip wires into my chest. At the time, I asked him “Is this going to hurt?” Normally, I expect a doctor to softly lie to my face and say that it wouldn’t hurt and that I would just feel “pressure”. Not this doctor.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “It’s going to hurt. We can’t use anesthesia. Sorry.”
So, this time, he wheeled in a lot of sharp-looking instruments like scalpels and the like. “Doc.” I said. “What’s going to happen? What’s this for?”
“Well, you’re not healing. We’re going to hook you up to this little contraption.” He held up a clear plastic box attached to a hose and a one-foot-long tube. “This tube is going to have to go into your chest.”
“Yikes,” was all I could manage.
They hooked me up to some drugs and had me count backwards on my hospital bed, but I had to keep my left arm raised over my head as I lay on my right side. As I drifted off, I knew this was the position I needed to be in because they were going to cut me open and insert the tube. Then, I faded out. What happened next was a drug-induced dreamscape that was reality, but one that I was in and out of on account of the drugs. Before drifting off, I told the nurses that I really, really needed to be awake to watch the premiere of the new show Dark Angel – starring the incredibly attractive Jessica Alba. The nurses laughed and one of them said “Yeah, right.”
The first time I came to, I was talking to my mother on the phone, still high on the drugs they gave me. The doctor and the nurses were all laughing. “You will apologize to the doctor,” I said to my mother. “This doctor kicks ass.” She had apparently gotten angry with the doctor and I had heard about it. She called him a “quack” and I was mad on his behalf. The staff were certainly amused. I faded out again.
When I came to again, I was still on the phone. This time, with my uncle Brian.
“Hey,” he said. “What’s up?”
“Nothing,” I slurred. “I’ve just got a one-foot long tube in my chest.”
He was quiet on the other end. I looked down at the tube for the first time, and in my drugged stupor – I started laughing hysterically and pointing at the tube. Tears came rolling out of my eyes because I was laughing so hard, still on the phone and still pointing at the tube like Brian could see it.
“That’s not good,” he said, finally. I just kept laughing. He sounded concerned.
And, true to my request – later on, the nurses put on the premiere of Dark Angel for me. I struggled to keep my head up and my eyes open, failing every once in a while as I nodded off. The nurses applauded my resolve and got a huge kick out of my crush on Jessica Alba. They teased me about it later on, when I was more aware.
Time passed there, and not all of it is worth talking about. I mostly just took percocet like candy and watched television. Once, while on percocet and having just watched an episode of The Adventures of Lois & Clark, I became responsive to the meds and was just about to fall asleep. That’s when I noticed the door to my room slowly swing open. I wondered who it was, but I couldn’t move. The percocet had a hold of me and I was already melting into the bed. But then I saw a butcher knife. My eyes widened as much as they could. Was I hallucinating? And then I saw the mask from the movie Scream. My grandmother was wearing it. It was Halloween. She stalked toward my bed, knife in hand. I couldn’t respond. Finally, she said “Happy Halloween!” I could only manage a grumble before I drifted off.
I was there almost two weeks. At one point, I had tried to shave my face but had almost blacked out and barely made it back to my bed from the bathroom inside my room. I hadn’t realized that the simple act of raising my arms to shave my face could deprive me of oxygen due to the tube in my chest. I began to wonder if I was ever going to heal, if I was going to die. They told me they’d have to operate soon if I didn’t heal. Out of pure fear, even though I’m not religious in the traditional sense (I’m agnostic, I guess you could say), I secretly watched religious programming. And I prayed to God and anyone else who would listen.
Miraculously, my lung healed the very final night before the doctor was going to have to operate. When he informed me, he came into my room smiling and told me the good news. “But I have some bad news,” he said. “I’m going to have to take this tube out of your chest. It’s going to feel a hell of a lot better once it’s out, but since it’s in there – it’s going to feel weird coming out.”
I helplessly sighed. “Okay.” I pulled my “johnny” or hospital gown up over my head, because I didn’t want to see what was going to happen. “Oh, come on,” the doctor said. “Don’t be a little bitch.” He was like my uncle all over again. Shamed into being a man, I lifted the gown from over my eyes and watched as he placed one of his knees on my bed after he adjusted some of the surgical tape.
“What’re you going to do?” I asked.
“Well,” he said. “I’m going to yank it out. On the count of three. One. Two.”
I braced myself. He was just going to YANK out the tube?! Without counting the rest of the way to three, he yanked the one-foot long tube out of my chest and then quickly moved to cover the gaping wound. I felt immediately better and was out of the hospital the same night.
It was certainly a strange experience for me, and laying in a hospital for two weeks gave me some perspective. I became addicted to percocet while there (and became angry when they started giving me aspirin instead) and I had about a month before my body was at full strength again. Still, I’ll never forget the blunt doctor I had and how I somehow felt more safe with him even though he acknowledged all the pain I was about to endure at his hands and even how he insulted my manliness. It was far better than a doctor I didn’t trust, who lied to me about “only feeling a little pinch”. A pinch, my ass!
What can I say? I like honest people. Especially when they’re in charge of saving my life. As for the pneumothorax, I wouldn’t recommend getting one. The hospital food is terrible.