Even More Happy To Be Here

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Me and my niece at her baby shower, May 2018.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve written here – a long period of illness, which included a 36-day hospital stay, kept me from the page, and after that, a period of recovery and a host of fears extended that absence. The last time I wrote in these pages was in January, when I titled my post “So Happy To Be Here,” and explained that I had been diagnosed with gastroparesis (a condition in which one’s stomach is slow to empty), but just when I thought I was getting better, my condition worsened and I found out that my gastroparesis was actually a symptom of something much larger: Cancer. I went into the hospital at the end of January, vomiting to the point that I had to have an NG (nasogastric) tube placed in my stomach – a torture that I would have to endure for most of my month-long stay – and didn’t arrive home until the early part of March, at which point I was still on intravenous feeding. In between those two dates, I endured more things than I care to remember: a nine-day stretch without food of any kind (not even IV nutrition), a feeling of continuously being parched, three separate endoscopies, and a 4-hour surgery that, miraculously, culminated in the successful removal of a cancerous tumor from my small bowel.

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Though my surgery couldn’t have gone better, my recovery time didn’t proceed quite as my doctors had anticipated. They had hoped to discharge me a week after surgery, and because I wanted with every fiber of my being to return home, too, I did everything they required of me, and more. I walked laps around the hospital like a champ; I took upwards of 90 deep breaths a day using my spirometer; and I tried to be as independent as possible in navigating myself up and out of bed. The latter required me to detach myself from certain pieces of equipment (a suction pump that evacuated the contents of my stomach into a canister) and to drag along others (an IV pole that rattled from the sheer number of things on it – a feeding pack, various IV bottles containing things like potassium, Tylenol and nausea meds – as well as an epidural pump with a delicate cable that went into my spine and allowed me to administer my own pain medicine for a week after surgery). In regard to being independent, I should note that I’m using that word in the most relative of terms. I did try to do as much as I could on my own, so as not to bother the nurses at every turn, but I was largely able to do so on account of the tremendous support of my family. My husband, mother, and sisters took turns bathing and dressing me each morning, and one of them – usually my husband – always stayed with me overnight, on a small cot in my cramped room. No small sacrifice, considering not only the discomfort of the cot but the number of times they were awakened by either myself or the nurses, who came in to check vitals and IV fluids throughout the course of each night.

In spite of all this – my determination to get well and the amazing support of my family and medical team – my stomach wasn’t ready to “wake up.” It had stopped working before I even went into the hospital, due to the blockage in my small bowel, and after my surgery, despite there no longer being an impediment to its emptying, it didn’t spring into action the way the doctors anticipated. Three days after surgery, my nasogastric tube was removed and I began taking in copious fluids by mouth, which were moving through my system fine. But here is where a small mistake was made: my doctors wanted to quickly advance my diet, and within two days, I went from clear liquids to a  regular diet, with my first meal consisting of a “sloppy joe” sandwich, orange slices, and a variety of other foodstuffs I have since forgotten. I stared at the sloppy joe in disbelief, and if I had followed my gut instincts (no pun intended), I would have refused it and asked them to bring me something easier to digest, like eggs. But I was totally unfamiliar with the hospital’s dietary protocol, and knowing that my doctors wanted me to advance, I did my best to eat it. Naturally, it didn’t digest and a couple days later, on the day they expected to discharge me, I began throwing up to the degree that I had to have the dreaded NG tube forced down my nose and into my stomach again.

Eventually, of course, I came home. There was a point in the hospital where my spirits started to really flag on account of the misery of being on the NG tube, so my medical team devised a new solution. They asked if I wanted to undergo another endoscopy, this time to get a “G-J” tube inserted that would allow me to manually vent my stomach and feed myself directly into my jejunum. I jumped at the chance, and while the procedure was only partially successful (the “J” portion of the tube could not be inserted due to swelling), I arrived home five days later with a G-tube that allowed me to drain my stomach whenever it felt full, and my IV feeding line still in place, now administered by my husband with the help of a home nursing agency. Within two weeks of being home, I made great progress. I went from having to vent my stomach every two to three hours to not having to vent it at all. My stomach started waking up and I was able to drink both clear and full liquids (full liquids are milks and milky kinds of things) and have them pass all the way through my system.

And now, five months later, I am doing well and at an entirely new stage of life. It’s a stage where I take one day at a time, where I have completely revamped my diet (the farthest thing from a soft-food diet for gastroparesis, I am now eating a whole-plant-based vegan diet, essentially the kind of “anti-cancer” diet that is recommended by most nutritionists), and where I have honed my faith. I’m not a church-going person, but I pray a lot these days, especially prayers of gratitude. Along the same lines, I remember how many people prayed for me, how many people cared for me (literally), and how many kept me in their thoughts – so I now do the same in return. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring (due to the nature of cancer, my hospital has me in “surveillance” mode, having me return for a CT scan every three months), but in this moment I am healthy, which means I can help someone else. A friend of mine just had a baby and is feeling a bit wrung out, so on Friday I will go to her house and lend a hand. My niece just had her baby, too, so I will also stop in this week to check on her. It feels good to have these particular things on my to-do list: to know that I will be holding new life in my arms. To be around to see it, when five months ago I wasn’t sure I would.

Me holding Megan's baby

Me with my niece’s baby, July 2018.

[This post is dedicated to my husband, my mother, my sisters and nieces. I owe you everything! Thank you.

And to my doctors and medical team, I owe you my life, and will always be grateful.

As well as to the many friends, relatives, neighbors, and people I didn’t even know who prayed for me. You can’t know how much it means. My love to you, all!]