By Grace Davies
Food and wellness are two aspects of life that share a deep connection. Eating fulfills more of a purpose than just sustaining us physically- the sense of calm and satisfaction that comes after eating a good meal is comparable to few. Furthermore, sharing a meal with family or friends produces deeper connections among us. When we eat well, we just feel good. But when you’re in isolation without access to preferable types of food, you are deprived of all these positive aspects…save maintaining an adequate caloric intake. Eventually eating becomes a chore and your will to continue with such a laborious method of food consumption gradually deteriorates day by day, but you stay alive. And keeping a person alive is the primary goal of hospital care. Whether or not that person is particularly enjoying the experience of being alive at that exact point in time is for the most part irrelevant as long as they are staying that way- or at least that’s what I personally observed to be the general attitude during my time in the hospital.
I was awoken around 6 A.M. after a restless first night of treatment for an x-ray and hadn’t been able to get back to sleep. With a tube nestled snugly in the lining of my pleural cavity and a suction device (formally known as a “pleur-evac”, but affectionately named “Data” after my favorite Star Trek character) humming to the right of my bed, I stared quietly at the wall and thought about how I would probably never experience pain like this again until childbirth. Few people (about six in a thousand) will ever experience the shock of a collapsed lung, but I was one of those unlucky few. I would compare the feeling to the sudden formation of a black hole in your chest, and for all intents and purposes the process is the same: explosion as the pleural lining ruptures, implosion as the organ collapses in on itself, and heaviness as the muscles struggle against the pressure caused by the escaped air. And yet, the event itself is far less painful than the treatment. The size of the tube required to evacuate the air from the cavity surrounding the lung is roughly twice the size of the space it occupies. As such, the feeling is similar to having a pin shoved under your fingernail and constantly wiggling it around. To add insult to injury, the unit of the hospital to which I was admitted was occupied primarily by the elderly. Spontaneous Pneumothrax primarily occurs in older people with pneumonia or other various underlying causes.
As I reflected vaguely on the absurdity of the whole situation, my room phone rang. Someone from the kitchen was on the other end, asking for my breakfast order. I looked down at the pleur-evac and the good 2 inches of pink-tinged liquid that had collected in the bottom. The pleur-evac shuddered slightly as some more liquid slid down the tube that connected me to the machine. I didn’t feel hungry for obvious reasons, and I didn’t know what was available for breakfast, so I went safe and asked for toast with grape jelly and a glass of cranberry juice (my mother had told me it was important to be conscious of my bladder health while in the hospital).
Despite the fact that I was eating breakfast, the food had the feel of a school lunch. It came on a tray and smelled less like toast and more like every other kind of food that was being prepared in the kitchen. I never did well with school lunches. As a grade schooler I had frequent nausea and stomach aches from a combination of social anxiety and the mass-prepared foodstuff, and the forced reminiscence did me no good at all. Fortunately my pain medication came after breakfast, which alleviated the pain in my side for long enough that I was able to go back to sleep. I spent the rest of the morning drifting in and out of consciousness. My parents came to see me around noon, about the same time I received another phone call from the kitchen to get my lunch order. Thinking “safe” again, I asked for tomato soup and grilled cheese. I needed comfort food, but what I got wasn’t very comforting. Apparently no one told the kitchen staff that hot tomato sauce isn’t the same thing as soup. My mother saw my revulsion and surprised me with california rolls for dinner that night. I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect meal. Sushi is one of those foods that I associate with freshness, and in turn, I associate freshness with health. It calmed the sick feeling I had after eating that regrettable soup and everything felt just a little more bearable. From then on she tried to bring me food relatively often, and these were the meals I lived for.
Fast forward four days, and I was still essentially chained to the wall. After the first lung tube had failed to fix the problem I had a second one placed, which also failed. The whole experience was having me feel a bit like a sad balloon. We became aware that the tubes weren’t enough, and I was wait-listed for surgery. The problem we had here was that no one seemed to know exactly when I was scheduled, and because you’re not supposed to eat for 24 hours before an operation, my feeding schedule had become extremely erratic. For three days I wasn’t allowed to eat or drink until around 10 o’clock at night. It didn’t bother me too much physically because, due to the medication, I wasn’t hungry and I was usually asleep, but eating and hydrating are important parts of healing that I was deprived of while…well…waiting to be healed. I was despondent to the point where it felt like all my insides had turned to mush, not just my lung.
The desperation to be revived is what led to an unfortunate mistake. A few hours after I’d finally had the surgery, my best friend came to visit.
“I brought you something,” she told me. I waved with my left hand and took a deep breath to respond.
“What is it?”
“Remember how when we were in high school you said you’d never had a doughnut from the Emmaus Bakery?”
“Well I brought you one.”
I felt like I was going to cry as she handed me the bag containing what felt like all my hopes and dreams baked into a single pastry. I‘d heard about how amazing these doughnuts were, but honestly she could have brought me a doughnut from the dumpster of Dunkin’ Donuts and I would have been equally grateful. I took it out of the bag and wolfed down about half of it in thirty seconds- and this was a big doughnut. But it was so. Good. It was fresh, warm, and soft. I revelled in its richness…until about 10 minutes later. The weak diet I’d been subsisting on for the past week left my stomach unprepared for such an influx of fat, sugar, and carbs. That, combined with the lingering effects of anesthesia and the dose of vicodin I’d recently had, started a storm brewing. I threw up. A lot. I hadn’t thrown up in at least two years, and this was about the worst reintroduction to the experience that I could possibly imagine. I had just mastered the ability to cough without tensing any muscles but the ones in my throat to avoid jostling the lung tube, and now here I was, jostling about as much as I could possibly be jostled.
I try to avoid doughnuts now.
My second to last day in the hospital was Thanksgiving. Typically after a semester of school food, it’s one of the holidays I look forward to the most. I’m told that the first thing I said after partially regaining consciousness was “Am I going to be home for Thanksgiving?” But of course, I wasn’t. I spent most of the day watching Disney Channel alone in my hospital room. I was left out. Even after the rest of my family had finished their meal and brought me over some leftovers, I felt apart from them. They stared at me while I tried not to pass out in my rapidly cooling mashed potatoes, my long-unwashed hair sticking uncomfortably to my scalp. I felt disgusting, and this meal that was supposed to symbolize togetherness was more like feeding time at the zoo, but I really, really missed home cooking. And after I finished that meal and was able to communicate a bit with my relatives, I realized that I had reached the end of the tunnel. My spirit felt mended by that semi-dry turkey, because I knew I had more there than a lot of people who occupied the open heart wing had.
I slept well that night for the first time in ten days, and was able to go home the next evening. As we left the hospital, my father took this picture:
and posted it to facebook with the caption:
Laura and I are Thankful for …
– our daughter’s empty hospital bed – finally.
– all the family and friends who closed around.
– the staff at Lehigh Valley Hospital.
– a commercial healthcare industry which incentivizes professionals who WANT to be a part of it.
Ten days ago I probably could not have spelled ‘spontaneous pneumothorax’. And after witnessing so much pain, I wish I still couldn’t.
Thankfully, Grace’s recovery is now underway.
Thank you to all who sent their prayers and regards. Hoping everyone had a blessed Thanksgiving!