I embarked on nightly adventures aboard the Morphine Express during a recent 12-day sojourn at Lawrence Memorial Hospital. I showed up at a New England farm for a Thanksgiving hunt, chasing pheasants in the snow on a horse-drawn sleigh. I visited a new town that had been built overnight next door to my home by an eccentric tycoon. I found myself in a gourmet food shop that was poaching a suspicious-looking delicacy and nearly cried to the nurse for help when I saw the proprietor eyeing my arms and legs with unseemly interest.
One morning I woke up in a friend’s basement. Summoned to the task by some oriental mystic, I’d spent the entire night painting the ceilings of his house in gold. Suddenly, I realized that the hospital staff was going to be furious when they noticed my absence. I called my wife to come fetch me. Looking around, I noticed a Lawrence Memorial poster on the wall. I thought it strange that my friends would be renting out their basement to the hospital. Little by little, familiar details came into focus. At last I recognized I was in my hospital room. How I got back there I do not know.
Morphine endowed me with extraordinary powers. I traveled back and forth in time. I passed through stone walls. I wrote numerous brilliant books, now sadly lost to posterity. I read “War and Peace” in a matter of minutes. Many wonders transpired while my family kept constant vigil, wondering if I was going to live or die.
Back story: Last July I woke up in the middle of the night with an excruciating pain in my stomach. I tried an over-the-counter nostrum, but by early morning the pain was so great that I was crawling around the room, begging for deliverance. Going to the hospital for a stomachache seemed wimpish, but at last I capitulated and off we raced with my wife at the wheel.
The trip to Lawrence seemed endless. Somewhere along the way I became aware of a third presence in the car. It was Death, just along for the ride, in case his services were needed. Curiously, the prospect of my demise didn’t feel me with alarm or sorrow. There was no flash of light revealing the meaning of life. Death seemed unremarkable, mundane.
After we arrived at the hospital, action was swift. A CAT scan revealed that my colon, like a rogue reptilian tail, had wrapped itself around my intestines and was cutting off their blood supply. Prospects weren’t good. One of the doctors later showed me a cellphone photo of my innards displayed like sausages in a butcher shop. He compared their appearance to charbroiled bratwursts. One small segment alone was a healthy pink. The conservative approach would have been to remove all the brats, which would have condemned me to a life of intravenous feeding, a life that “wouldn’t be worth living,” according to one opinion. One of the doctors said he didn’t expect to see me alive again.
But it turned out that this was just a dress rehearsal for the ultimate event. It was my good fortune that Chad Tate was on duty that morning. A doctor with an aptitude for thinking outside the box, he decided against radical surgery. He untangled my organs and gave them a chance to rejuvenate. I spent the night on the ventilator with my guts, to speak indelicately, also “outside the box,” wrapped in some kind of high tech towel. By the next morning, they’d recovered remarkably. I underwent three surgeries in four days, leaving me with my plumbing somewhat diminished.
You might suppose that an experience such as this would change me for the better, would make me wiser, more serene, more appreciative of the preciousness of life. I regret to say that, three months out, I’m my old self again, full of petty anxieties and insecurities, selfish and hedonistic desires. And tedious. Like the Ancient Mariner, I stoppeth one of three and pour out my story, imagining that the details are as fascinating to everyone as they are to me. Life once again seems something I’m entitled to, death something that happens to somebody else.
But one thing I have learned is a keener appreciation for the miracles of modern medicine. Above all, I’m in awe of Lawrence’s outstanding hospital. I’ve visited other hospitals where the staff was surly and unresponsive. The Lawrence Memorial nurses were competent, compassionate and tirelessly solicitous of my comfort. Other doctors ably assisted Dr. Tate in saving my life. I shall never forget what you people did for me.
“All patients are different,” Tate said. So is every doctor, I might add. I will be eternally grateful to him for his bold approach to my predicament. Keep that in mind when you contemplate the direction our health care seems headed, in which a remote bureaucratic committee may dictate “best practices.” Medicine is an art as well as a science. If my doctor had been required to submit to rigid regulatory procedures I might now be living a life “not worth living.”
It came out that medicine was Tate’s second career. He started out as a CPA. Once he’d earned that distinction, he decided that life in a cubicle working on tax returns was not for him.
“I love surgery,” he said. Speaking like a relief pitcher, he added, “I love to get a save.”
A few months later, I ran into a Kansas University professor who expressed displeasure with a column I’d written about Barack Obama. We navigated away from that treacherous topic to the subject of our health. By another coincidence, he’d recently undergone an ordeal similar to my own. We traded details about our sufferings and parted on friendly terms. Here was something to meditate on. He and I are probably diametrically opposed in ideology, but as members of the Fraternal Order of the Digestive Tract, we are joined by a sacred bond.