The pain was too much; if I couldn’t sleep it was too much. I had barely eaten. After a modestly large meal at 5 PM I had forced myself to eat bland food, some Dutch toast crackers my roommate’s mother had bought on a whim in Breuckelen . Abdominal pain was a rather normal occurrence for me. I’d feel it, I’d lie down and drink ginger tea, it’d be gone. This was maybe every two months, and I never thought much of it. I didn’t have ginger this time, but I figured time was means enough. I endeavored to get to bed early. I procrastinated sleeping, instead exploring Caspian geography. Though suddenly, my body weakened, compelling me to rest, and I entered a haze-like sleep with swirling thoughts of faraway lands and alphabets. Around two in the morning, I awoke and noticed a stronger, aching pain. Again, I relied on time to fix my pain. I rolled around, trying to induce sleep, thinking some yet unattempted position would put me at ease. At three, I was still awake. My stomach was torturing me, as was the now disparate Cyrillic alphabet soup of my wandering, clouded mind.
That soreness emanating from my lower right, near the hip, was the first harbinger of things being beyond my control. I had suspected appendicitis as the cause of my fleeting pain so many times before that I long ago dismissed the thought that I could actually ever have it. Disturbed by the lower right tenderness and accepting that I would not fall asleep while the aching endured, I jolted out of bed to my laptop a few feet away to consult the oracles of Wikipedia, WebMD, and the Mayo Clinic about appendicitis symptoms once again. WebMD’s informs the potentially afflicted that appendicitis pain “may not be like any pain you have had before.” These words resonated with me. They not only confirmed what I was experiencing physically, but evoked in me a sense that I could potentially be undergoing something theretofore unknown.
When the nurses at McCosh recommended my transfer to UMC Princeton, I began to slowly acquiesce to the reality that at least the next few hours of my life would revolve around the state of my innards. I had walked myself over there from my room, and had an hour of hazy rest during which the anti-gas medicine they gave me had no effect. A public safety officer drove me to the hospital. When he asked what was wrong with me, I was convinced from his tone of voice that he was trying to confirm I wasn’t intoxicated Fifteen minutes later, an enormous, exhausted woman sat before me and was processing my admittance. It was 4 AM, and she told me she couldn’t wait to get out of there. I proffered that at least it wasn’t Thursday or Saturday with all the drunk students. She was working the next night too.
A wristband was attached to me which contained written on a small piece of paper what would be the sole determinants of my identity for the next few days: my name, birth date, and whether I had allergies or not. I stood around in the lobby with a cup full of hot urine while waiting for the nurse to escort me wherever. I was taken to my own partitioned corner of the emergency room and told to change into the gown. No one ever offered to tie my gown in the back, so for the next 24 hours it felt as if at any moment my gown would slip off my shoulders and I would be completely naked. A nurse came by and inserted an IV while I looked away anxiously. I asked if it was really necessary, hoping as I was that my pain could turn out just to be a case of horrible indigestion. This was also my fear; that I would be exposed as a wimpy hypochondriac with an upset stomach, wasting the hospital’s resources. But the IV was protocol, for I was in the domain of emergencies now. Life-saving fluids and medicine could be necessary at a moment’s notice.
By now I was fully in the hands of the hospital staff, each seeming to have less of an idea what was going on than the next. A doctor came by to introduce himself early on, and that was the last time I saw him. After that point he was just a distant authority, directing the nurses to carry out their various tasks. Some opiate pain-killer was injected into me and I entered a daze that was now painless and devoid of Cyrillic. At some point I stopped worrying and gave myself over to the pervasive uncertainty of the emergency room. There was a unique relaxation that came with knowing that I didn’t have to do anything at all. I could let my whole body go completely limp, for there would always be someone to move me if need be. Things would be done to me, and I would be let known when my own agency was required again.
Hospitals often evoke images of intense activity: surgeries, ultrasounds, shots, MRI’s. Yet in actuality, time in a hospital consists mostly of waiting and inactivity. I waited around two hours until I was wheeled into the ultrasound room. As hard as they pressed the device, they couldn’t find my appendix. So I waited at least a few more hours in my room, drinking some liquid that was supposed to light up my insides, until I was wheeled to the CT scan. The end of the diagnostic phase was at last approaching; once the CT scan was completed it would be certain whether I had appendicitis or not. By now the cast of medical characters had multiplied into the dozens, but the CT scan operator stood out as enthusiastic and vibrant juxtaposed with the subdued and reserved personalities of most of the medical staff I encountered. She spoke quickly; her movements were confident and seemed almost rushed. I wondered what it must be like to have looked inside thousands of bodies. Could she not on some level be affected? Even the machine joined the cast of medical characters. I was slid in and out of his cavity while he would instruct me how to breathe.
More waiting. More characters. Various interns started circulating through my room, their young age palpable by the timidity with which they moved their hands. After an image had already been taken of my insides, it seemed strange that the interns had to grope around my lower abdomen, asking how the pain rated on a scale from one to ten. I considered the possibility that they were playing educational charades, listening to my lungs while the doctors and surgeons were carrying out the real diagnosis elsewhere. Their questions continued, questions I had answered dozens of time already that day. When I told them the narrative of my pain, they said my symptoms were indicative of appendicitis. It was almost as if they were hoping it would turn out to be appendicitis so they could practice on me.
Eventually the appendicitis diagnosis was official. There would be a surgery in an hour to remove my appendix. The surgeon introduced himself and explained some medical mumbo jumbo. The surgery was necessary—the appendix would eventually rupture otherwise—but I can’t remember if it was actually presented to me as a choice. Yet this otherwise, the rupture, was not even spoken of because inaction was not a possibility. In an emergency situation, the consequence of inaction is usually death. It is a consequence that is never articulated, but implicitly understood. I signed the requisite consent papers, and preparations were made. While I was lying on my stretcher in the middle of the emergency room, again waiting for something, I skimmed through my medical records, which numbered at least ten pages. Every interaction I had had in the hospital had been recorded. My appendix was described as “tortuous,” which in my daze I had read as torturous. Some nurses recorded their various impressions of my state of pain and overall mood. I was an open file slowly heading towards closure.
I awoke from the surgery two hours later to my assembled friends and was wheeled down to the pediatric wing for the recovery phase. Apparently, there were no adult rooms left. I noshed on non-pareil, brightly colored Mexican corn candy my friends brought with. They seemed to me surprised by the pace with which things had progressed. It had started with a slightly upset stomach, and within less than twelve hours I had wound up at the hospital. It was comforting to finally lay eyes on people I knew; it reminded me of the external world that still existed. My whole hospital stay I thought of my aunt who had recently spent six weeks in the hospital, and was awed by her resilience. I don’t know if I could have withstood any longer than I did the grating uncertainties and waiting, the never really knowing what is going on.
A few days before, I had proposed to my friends that there were positive aspects to being sick. I explained that there was something nice about gradual convalescence and that illness was a welcome excuse to do nothing. But an emergency is more than a mere cold, its impact more pronounced. My father always tells me that my personality changed after I underwent a throat surgery at the age of two: I became more cautious and distrusting. The appendectomy hasn’t had such an effect so far, but it reinforced the idea that shit happens. And when it does, there are the hospitals, each its own, often windowless world, waiting to process us and leave us with a brief interlude of fatality.