Jim Heffernan column: When Tums for the tummy is not enough
Let me tell you about my tummy. It ached. Oh how it ached upon awakening one morning a little over a week ago. By the end of that day, it had sent me on a journey that resulted in the first overnight stay (not counting birth) in a hospital in my ever-lengthening life.
Why should you care? You might not, I suppose, but take one lesson from all this: Never ignore a persistent abdominal pain that doesn’t go away the way ordinary tummy aches do, and keeps getting worse as the hours of wondering stretch on.
You could be having an appendicitis attack. I was, that day, but it took awhile to figure out. Tums for the tummy might be fine under certain circumstances, but not when your appendix is about to burst.
Many of you probably know this. I hardly know anyone who hasn’t had their appendix taken out at one time or another. Well, actually one time, not another. It had better be.
Still, there’s the tendency to think the upset tummy is nothing serious. Maybe spicy food consumed the night before acting up the morning after. Maybe not.
So I reclined in a recliner all day waiting for it to pass, and it didn’t. The pain kept getting more intense. (Not looking for sympathy here; people go through this every day. But I never had.)
Finally, after close to 12 hours of misery, we went to a well-known local hospital emergency department — my wife drove, avoiding potholes and bumps, the jolting of which made the pain worse. The emergency personnel were very nice, making sure I had a normal temperature and asking a lot of questions because there’s some kind of global pandemic going on.
They passed me on to an affable young evening-duty resident physician, his first week on the job, who wanted to know my “history.”
“Well, I was born in a trunk in the Lyceum Theater in du Lhut, Minnesota,” I began.
“Not that far back,” said the good doctor.
What he was interested in was my medical history, which is pretty sparse, I’m happy to say. Still have my tonsils, adenoids, appendix, fingers, toes, the usual stuff. Had to admit to two hernia operations a long time ago, “way back in the 20th century.” Only time I was ever under a knife, I reported.
Still, the pain in my abdomen persisted, and kept getting worse. A CT scan was ordered; they’re often called “CAT” scans. Later I told the surgeon I saw next that I do not like cats. She responded that she has two, and we stared blankly at each other.
By now I’m on a bed with wheels, wearing nothing but one of those flimsy hospital gowns that are open in the back and hard to tie. How often do we see on TV hospital shows patients being wheeled down hospital corridors always looking either miserable or unconscious. I chose to look miserable as I made my personal appearance en route to the CAT scan, ambulatory pedestrians passing by looking sympathetically at me to see if they were looking at someone who might be about to expire. Fortunately, only my driver’s license is about to expire.
The CAT scan machine looks like a huge doughnut and you are pushed through the hole so the rumbling machine can take a picture of your stomach. The most interesting aspect of that is they have taught the machine to speak English. “Take a deep breath and hold it,” the machine says in a manly, authoritarian way, followed by “You can breathe now.” There’s a relief.
Somewhere in my absence the machine told the medical personnel that, “This guy is suffering an acute appendicitis attack,” and surgery was scheduled. First they had to finish operating on another unfortunate bloke who had the same problem.
In the meantime, a COVID-19 test must be given. With a chopstick-sized poker, a kindly nurse told me to be prepared for the poker to go through my nose “all the way back to your brain.” So I opened my mouth. I just wasn’t myself, but she corrected me and did poke it through my nose all the way back to my brain, which I was pleased to know was still there. I didn’t know it was in my nose, although that wouldn’t surprise some people I have known.
Ninety minutes later, after testing negative for COVID-19, I was being rolled through the corridor once again to the brightly lighted operating room where a friendly anesthesiologist greeted me and introduced me to his assistant. They would put me “out like a light.”
“You guys still use whiskey, right?” I inquired. I’ve seen a lot of Western movies in my day.
Suddenly, adios. The next thing I knew I was back in a regular hospital room, the operation long over, and a bright new day had dawned. Felt pretty good under the circumstances with pain medicine being pumped into my arm through an IV. Bless the registered nurses … and register the blessed nurses.
Since my wife couldn’t accompany me through the corridors before the operation due to that pesky pandemic, she was sent home with the promise that the surgeon would telephone her when it was over and report how it had gone.
She — the surgeon — called our home at 4 a.m. and told my wife the operation had gone well, all was expected to be fine and that my late appendix was “one of the three largest I have ever seen.”
Well, how do you like that? Lived all these years with a prize appendix and never had bragging rights. I returned home later that day, although I wouldn’t say none the worse for wear.
That is how the only overnight I have ever spent as an adult in a hospital went. And I didn’t even sleep … the regular way.
Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He maintains a blog at jimheffernan.org and can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.