The Hospital, Part Two: Farts Save Lives
This is the fifteenth chapter of Love Song by Julienne (ft Cancer). The other parts are listed below.
Prologue – Julienne
Chapter 1 – Meeting Julienne
Chapter 2 – Finding Julienne
Chapter 3 – A Kiss, and a Confession
Chapter 4 – Of Spaniel Day Lewis, Parents, and Dothraki Love Nests
Chapter 5 – Brioche French Toast
Chapter 6 – Halloween with Becca
Chapter 7 – A Ring, and a Conversation
Chapter 8 – Her Woods
Chapter 9 – Christmas, and a Chase
Chapter 10 – Alantimes Day
Chapter 11 – A Dress and a Concert
Chapter 12 – Graduation (or, Freeeeddddoooommmm)
Chapter 13 – The Joy Before the Storm
Chapter 14 – The Hospital, Part One
The first time I went back to our house after Julienne left us, I was still in a sort of Zen-like state. I’d been in that oddly calm and peaceful place since about an hour after her death and all the way through her funeral, for the most part. When I wept, it was gentle and quiet, the tears just running down my face in streams as I looked at her face, so beautiful in repose. I missed her strongly, and with everything I had, but right up until the funeral I could still hold her hand and touch her hair and kiss her cheek. I give her credit for my calm state, because it allowed me to give comfort to others in the way I know she would have done if she could. That state lasted until I walked in the front door of our home.
Julienne had always struggled with what to put over the mantle of our fireplace. For a while it was a decorative metal leaf-and-vine piece that we both liked, but she wanted something better. We tried pictures and other things, but nothing ever felt right. The final change was made to a large famed piece of white canvas with 4 words and a symbol:
That was us. A simple statement of who we were and essentially all that we needed to make a place for us to stand in the face of everything the world could hurl at us, and the world had a lot of ammunition. It was Our Pack, and we always had each other. When I walked in the door I looked over and saw that message, and I broke down. It was a symbol of everything that was lost and irreparably broken, the pack without its leader, the You that made everything OK. I still look at that over the mantle and grieve, because I’ll always be missing You, Julienne, and Me & The Dogs just aren’t enough to face the loss of You, but we’re trying. We’re trying.
I try to be as precise as possible with these posts. I want to make sure the details are right, that the dates and facts are correct and I’m not misrepresenting or just relying on faulty memory to serve as the basis of what I’m writing. So it bothers me that a couple of facts or dates aren’t available to be now as I’m writing this, like the exact day we went back to the hospital. I think I know, and will write as such, but there is no real texts or other messages I can rely on for some of it, because we were together 99% of the time. I’ll do my best, but I will change it if I can find a source to back up different things.
Anyway. Enough dithering.
After we got back from the hospital, I got Julienne into bed. Like I said last chapter, she was upset about the wasted time and money for what was just gas and constipation. Not really for herself, but for me. She apologized to me (like basically all women, she always apologized too much. I refused to accept any ridiculous apologies like this one and she asked me to help her not apologize so much, so it become part of my vows to her) for “wasting a weekend” because it was the only days I had off. It was just another facet of the person she was, always worried about inconveniencing others. We hoped for a quiet night.
We didn’t get one.
Julienne woke up four times during the night to throw up. She wasn’t really able to eat much, if anything, but she would sip water or tea. The pain from her heaving had tears running down her face, and mine, and when the nausea would subside she’d sleep a little bit, then wake up to throw up again. I’d wash out the bowl and replace it, snatching a little sleep when she slept, then waking up with her again. We were just hoping it would subside, and in the morning when she was able to pass some gas we felt encouraged that maybe something would happen and her constipation would finally end.
As the Sunday wore on, Julienne still couldn’t eat. I tried to give her a mint to suck on, some hard candy, anything to get her some calories, but she didn’t want anything other than the occasional Tic-Tac. All day Sunday we sat together in bed, hoping for improvement. I’d walk Lewis and then come back to be with her, holding her hand and telling her it was going to be OK. I was worried but tried to be strong for her, getting her water or tea or anything she would ask for, holding her, loving her, and trying to will her to get better.
Monday brought no improvement. Julienne didn’t want to go back to the ER, but she still wasn’t eating. I called out of work to take care of her, but there wasn’t anything I could do. She stopped passing gas and the pain was brutal. When she started to vomit up the water she just drank, we knew that, no matter what we wanted, she needed to go back to the hospital. She was weak from exhaustion and lack of food and dehydration. I had her lean on me as we went down the stairs and out to the car. As we drove to the hospital I was spinning inside my head but outwardly I was calm, trying to keep her spirits up, holding her hand and telling her it was going to be OK.
We got to Christiana Hospital for the second time in three days. I held her close and guided her inside. We had to wait in line to check in again. Julienne, ever strong, was talking and joking, trying to be as upbeat as possible. Then I noticed her eyes get glassy and I grabbed her just as she started to fall. I held her limp body in my arms as I calmly asked for help, that she had passed out. A wheelchair appeared and I got her checked in rapidly. She came out of it and was surprised that we were going back, since one second she was standing and talking and the next she was getting wheeled back. She often joked afterwards that passing out was the best thing she could have done, since we got immediate attention.
Of course, we still had to wait for a few hours on a bed in a hallway surrounded by other people also on beds in the hallway, but she got an EKG and a promise that someone would see us as soon as possible. Julienne finally got into a room after we spent the time making up stories, talking about distracting things, holding hands and supporting each other. We were there for hours and more hours, into Tuesday morning, July 21st. It’s hard to remember what we did. I think she was taken once for a CT scan, but mostly we just sat and waited for things to happen.
How Julienne tolerated and dealt with it so well is just a testament to her bravery and strength. We talked, watched some terrible TV, and waited, hand in hand, a precursor of how we’d spend so much of our time together. At one point she had an oxygen mask on and took a selfie minutes before 7 am on Tuesday morning.
(I was startled to find this picture a few weeks ago. I don’t remember seeing it before, but it struck a painful chord with me. The last picture Julienne would ever take is a selfie from inside the ambulance as it took her to hospice, wearing an oxygen mask. That picture tears me up inside, knowing that she was probably thinking of some kind of post to say what she was going through, a post that never got written. Having it be the last picture she took hurts me inside in a way that twists my guts around and makes me feel like they are being slowly pulled out of my body. The two pictures are like the bookends on the tragedy of her disease and the destruction it wrought. It hurts so badly, so fucking badly, knowing what she went through and the fear and pain and anxiety and worry and existential dread that hounded her ever after, but I will always be in awe of the beauty and strength and grace with which she carried herself throughout it all. Julienne is my eternal hero, and I would give anything just to be able to hold her hand and kiss her and stroke her hair and see the love I feel for her reflected back at me in her eyes, just once more.)
Not long after Julienne took the picture, it was time for what she referred to as “the second-most painful thing I’ve ever undergone” (until her pleurodesis in June 2019, it was number one). They needed to insert an NG (nasogastric) tube. This is when a plastic tube is pushed up one nostril and forced down the throat all the way down into the stomach. I held her hand as the nurse tried to do it the first time, unsuccessfully. Julienne tried to swallow this tube down as it gagged her and wouldn’t budge, tears streaming down her face. After a couple minutes they stopped, waited for a bit, then tried again. Thankfully, this time it was successful, but no less painful. Julienne hated that fucking tube so much, and a couple of hours later, a med student was sent in to adjust her tube to get it in deeper and almost pulled the fucking thing out. He would be the first person that Julienne unceremoniously threw out of her hospital room. He would not be the last.
Julienne’s parents arrived in the morning, to see her and relieve me so I could go let Lewis out of his crate and walk him. Julienne also wanted me to take a video of him to send to her. It was something she always did – she called it “proof of life” – whenever she was away from Lewis and someone else watched him. It always cheered her up in the hospital. Afterwards, I needed to shower, change, and go into my office to do payroll. It was something that no one else in my company knew how to do, so I had to hurry up, run in, do it as fast as possible, then head back to the hospital. I didn’t want to do it, didn’t want to be away from her at all, but I had to or no one in the company, including me, would get paid (I still feel guilty about it.). While I was gone she had another ultrasound and a rectal dye procedure.
(This is another of the times where I can’t place the exact day of the events. I think I am correct here, like 98% sure, but something I said happened on Tuesday could have been Wednesday. I know this isn’t a sworn affidavit, just talking about our love story, but it’s important to me that everything be as exactly true as it can be.)
The doctors suspected that the ovarian cysts were compressing her colon and causing the blockage. They were getting imaging done and planning a procedure to stick a large needle in her back and into the cyst on her left side, then drain it and hope that alleviated the issue. This was being prepared as I worked feverishly to get payroll done. They made it sound routine, so no one was very worried, even if having a long needle jammed into her back wasn’t exactly something Julienne was looking forward to. They’d gotten a preliminary read of the CT scan done and decided on the angle and details of the procedure and everything. They prepped Julienne.
She was on the table as they prepared to drain her (assumed-to-be) benign ovarian cyst when the door burst open and a radiation tech rushed in. Literally. Julienne always described the scene as something out of a movie. This tech told everyone to stop what they were doing, the blockage was not caused by a cyst, and they saw something on the CT that was a more likely cause of the issue, some sort of blockage in her colon itself, not compression from the outside.
(This became one of those what-if moments. They were going to inject a needle into what we would later learn to be a cancer-filled cyst, essentially releasing cancer cells directly into her abdominal cavity. This would have been a very, very bad thing.)
So Julienne was back to the waiting game as they figured out what was happening. The doctors were becoming very worried about the gas buildup. She still wasn’t passing gas and they were worried that the continually increasing pressure would cause a rupture and quite probably kill her. As I came back from the office she had just returned to her room from the halted procedure. She caught me up with everything. Basically, unless she passed gas soon, as in hours, they were going to need to go in surgically to deal with the issue.
I’ll never forget that scene. I stood at the foot of Julienne’s bed. The doctor was on the phone, on speaker, as they discussed the options, which were not great. Ostomies were mentioned frequently, where the intestine is routed through the wall of the stomach and a bag is attached, bypassing the colon. It was something Julienne did not want, very very badly in fact. Her parents were asking questions and discussing things back and forth with the doctor when I saw Julienne slowly put her hand in the air, one finger raised, as if she wanted to ask a question to a professor. Her parents didn’t see it but I did, and I looked at her curiously and said quietly, “what?”
Then I heard it. A rush of air whistling through a small opening like a small but brazen trumpet. It was the most wonderful and perfect sound to our ears. Julienne had farted. We interrupted the phone conversation with excited chatter about the most fortuitous flatulence that has ever occurred. Then the smell hit me, like a fart had eaten 12 heads of cabbage and farted out something that ate a pound of sardines and then it farted. It was rank, disgusting, eye-watering, and beautiful. We celebrated that fart like the game-winning score in the Super Bowl. The doctor was relieved, because no one wanted to do emergency surgery that night when they still didn’t even know exactly what we were dealing with. Julienne farted again a minute later, which was even better news, that it wasn’t a one-off. We were off the hook for the night.
(After that fart, which Julienne considered “the fart that saved my life”, every passing of gas and bowel movement that she had was something we celebrated. Evidence that her gastrointestinal system was working as intended was never anything we took for granted after that day.)
We settled in for our second night in the hospital. I hadn’t really slept the night before, while she had managed a catnap or two thanks to the dilaudid drip they had her on (seriously, the pain meds they gave her at Christiana were so strong that when we later ended up at Hopkins, the drugs weren’t able to get to the pain for a bit. The Hopkins folks thought the people who gave her that level of pain medication were out of their minds). Her dad was working on trying to get a bed at Johns Hopkins instead, since we hadn’t exactly been impressed with the folks who’d been trying to figure out what to do. They drove home that night, stopping to let Lewis out again, while I pulled a chair up next to my fiancé and held her hand as we tried to get some sleep. The first time, but not the last time.
This is the proof-of-life video I would send her the next day, Wednesday the 22nd.