So I know I need a laugh today, as yesterday I had an awful day, spending a large part of it at the radiology clinic downtown chugging gag-inducing amounts of barium down and then spending the next three and a half hours having pictures taken every 20 minutes so they can try and pinpoint where the narrowing in my small intestine is, as I’m considering the possibility of a surgical option to correct this. Seriously, how in the hell is it possible that medical advances have come far enough along that we can use the heart of a baboon in a human’s body, yet no one has come up with a way to make that god awful chalky barium nightmare taste any better??? Anyway, thank god that is over, and in the spirit of having a better day today, I thought I’d share an experience I had with my ostomy right after I was cleared to eat what I wanted from my surgeon after the colectomy in 2006. Those of you whom have suffered for years know what an odd concept it is to reintroduce actual food into your bodies. Hope it makes you smile.
About two weeks after my initial surgery to remove my large intestine due to the toxic megacolon, I had my follow up with Dr. S, who removed the sutures from my abdomen and said those magical words that I will never forget: “Go forth and eat”. I waited for him to read off the list of foods I should avoid, and when he didn’t, the full impact of how my life was about to change was realized. For four solid years, I had been defined by rigid lists of what I could and could not ingest, the former being far shorter than the latter. I actually had begun to write a “wish list” of foods to eat while I was in the hospital recovering, which was the only thing that kept me from being completely preoccupied with the ileostomy. The list was long and varied, containing everything from large salads with fresh vinaigrettes to corn on the cob to pints and pints of berries of every variety.
That afternoon when the mail came, there was a get well card from one of my aunts, and what she included in that card remains one of the best and well-timed gifts I have or will ever receive: a $300 gift card to Whole Foods.
I immediately got in the car, my driving privileges now restored, and drove the five minutes to the market, fantasizing the entire time about what I was going to buy. I had no idea. For years, grocery shopping for me had been like bar hopping to a recovering alcoholic. What was the point? Excitedly, I grabbed a cart and began to wander the aisles. I roamed for hours, picking things up and smelling them, putting them into the cart and then deciding later to put them back to make room for other, better things, as if it was my Last Supper. Two hours later, my cart piled high, I headed home, unsure of what I would eat first. I didn’t even bother to put all the food away when I walked in the door, instead leaving full bags on the counter and heading to the couch with three pints of berries and my phone so I could order a sandwich for dinner. There was a shop that had opened nearby about a year before, and I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I needed to have their roasted vegetable sandwich for my first meal at home as a free woman. My hands trembled as I dialed, the junkie now desperate for her fix.
About 30 minutes later, the delivery man arrived with my prize in his hands and, while I tipped him well, it was overshadowed by the fact that I yanked the brown bag out of his hands like a rabid dog. Tearing the paper away, I bit into the sandwich as I was walking away from the door, the delivery man still gawking at me. The explosion of flavor was so foreign to me after so many years…it was as if I had never eaten before. I can still recall with remarkable intensity the crusty baguette, layered with fat Portobello mushrooms, roasted red peppers and buffalo mozzarella, all coated in a vibrant green pesto. While I would love to think that the moment was straight out of a Padma Lakshmi Carl’s Jr. commercial, complete with sexy music and lots of finger licking set in slow motion, I’m fairly certain that the act was far more similar to a scene from Animal Planet’s Shark Week, my sandwich the unsuspecting prey in this bloody massacre.
I think I finished the sandwich in under five minutes, and as I sat there on the couch, surrounded by empty berry cartons and shredded parchment paper from The Sandwich, I wondered if I had perhaps literally bit off more than I could chew. I stretched out and listened to my body receive this wonderful food, its gurgles and grunts, and could actually feel each bite being digested as it pushed its way through my new system.
I began to feel more pain about two hours later, and decided to take a shower to help soothe my stomach. In the bathroom, I detached the ostomy bag from the wafer still attached to my stomach and got in, letting the steam relax me. I looked down, still violently shaken by the piece of protruding intestine along my left side. As the water beat down on my back, I looked more closely at the stoma…it looked redder and more extended than it had in the last two weeks. The nurses had warned me about overexerting myself too soon, as this could end up causing a herniated stoma, which would require another procedure and more sutures. I squinted in the steam as it moved and thought I was about to pass out. I jumped out of the shower and immediately dialed my mother in a moderate stage of hysteria.
She listened to me as I gave her the details, and as we talked, I could feel the stoma straining against my skin. Oh god, it was happening. I held the phone to my ear as she calmly instructed me how I was going to have to push the stoma back into my stomach and then go to the Emergency Room to have them reattach it to my abdominal wall. I felt nauseated and anxious as I stared at myself in the bathroom mirror and watched as the bright pink flesh lurched forward again.
“I can’t do this!” I cried, as she gave me instructions very nonchalantly over the phone. I brought my right hand down to the stoma and squeezed my eyes shut, my fingers hovering an inch or two away from it. Suddenly, I felt something slimy and smooth touch my hand and my eyes flew open. Nope, not a hernia. I was passing an entire, undigested strip of roasted red pepper, a result of my rather crazed (and apparently poorly chewed) meal several hours before. Thank god I hadn’t gone to the ER.