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What I Learned About Survival During a Medical Crisis

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At the contemplative end of one year and beginning of the next, I have to say 2022 was a doozy, and I’m very grateful that I have arrived on the other end of it, and didn’t lost myself somewhere along the way. The older I get, the more I have settled back into the notion that I’ve had my share of big changes, I have survived unimaginable grief, chronic illness, and devastating earthquakes. I’d like to think that I have proven my mettle, I’ve managed to carry on living when dying seemed like an easier alternative, and I have managed to somehow retain a sense of who I am on the other side of massive change. Is there a quota though? Is it safe to sit back and just live through the constant small changes that define life?

Apparently not…Maria, meet 2023.

In August I was admitted to hospital with perforated diverticulitis and sepsis, I was very ill. Much to my relief, the doctors decided they didn’t need to operate, instead, they inserted a drain through my right butt muscles to get rid of the infection in my abdomen, and a week later I was sent home to recover. I didn’t get better though: I was exhausted, struggled to eat, and developed horrible cramping in my right butt. That pain became extreme after five days at home, and I ended back in hospital with a second abscess that was bigger than the first.

Again, the decision was to treat it conservatively with another (bigger) drain. Three days later, the cramping in my butt was excruciatingly painful, and I couldn’t walk properly. My infection markers were off the chart and a CT scan showed what the doctors suspected was necrotising fasciitis (flesh eating disease). The cramping I had been experiencing was due to infection in my abdomen following the track left behind by the first drain, leading to a massive secondary infection in the muscles of my butt.

I had to consent to emergency surgery for a section of my colon to be removed, a stoma to be created, and a significant amount of dead tissue to be cut out of my butt. They told me I would likely end up in ICU on a ventilator, would need more surgery in the days to come (to cut out more dead tissue ), and there was a chance I may not survive.  Thankfully the doctors were wrong — when I woke up in recovery, there was an absolute buzz around me, the medical staff were excitedly telling each other there was “no nec fash”… so I pushed my hand under the covers, and sure enough, I still had a butt.

Even with my miracle butt, I was still incredibly ill. The doctors had to cut down to my hip bone to clean out the infection in my butt, I had a massive wound running the length of my belly (held together with 37 staples), a colostomy, two big surgical drains collecting blood, a catheter, and a morphine pump. A day later I also had a nasogastric tube, because I developed a post-operative ileus (my stomach shut up shop)…and then I developed heart issues as well (atrial fibrillation). I got another infection in my butt, and had a second operation to clean that out, and the wound was left open, to heal from the bottom up and hopefully prevent further infection. During my time in hospital, my sister kept bringing in sunflowers, to decorate my bed; they brought a lot of joy to everyone who saw them, as my bed was wheeled through the hospital for various tests and trips to ICU.

Sunflowers in contributor's hospital room

I was sent home a second time, with another raft of antibiotics, anti-nausea, and painkillers. I didn’t recover though; I was extremely fatigued, unable to eat, had awful nausea, a racing heart, brain fog, and I couldn’t stop crying. I was reacting to one of the antibiotics they sent me home with, and ended up in hospital again. That was my lowest point in this whole journey. Yes, the emergency surgery and being left with a stoma was traumatic… I was coping with that new reality though. What I couldn’t cope with was the thought that I was always going to be like this, unable to do anything, extremely distressed and anxious, and not getting better. I wanted it all to stop, I wanted someone to tell me it was OK for me to stop taking the antibiotics, and all they did was admit me again, and the thought of getting my life back on the other side of this illness seemed to be an impossible dream.

Thankfully, change stepped up to the plate again, I went back on IV antibiotics and like a flick of a switch the brain fog lifted the next day and I stopped crying all the time. This time when I was discharged, I did start to see some sunlight peeping through the black clouds again, as September pushed into October. A few weeks later, my butt wound become infected again, and I was admitted for a fourth time. The butt wound got a negative pressure VAC pac dressing (a pump with tubing connected to the wound to help it heal). I had that horrible pump with me 24/7 for four weeks, as October became November. My butt wound was finally signed off as healed at the beginning of December… and I have been left with a limp, when I get tired or try to walk too much.

As the end of 2022 comes rushing in towards me, I feel a sense of relief that I did survive the worst, that my family didn’t have to plan my funeral. So many times when I was ill, I lost hope, I didn’t even have the strength to pray, and I felt as though I had been abandoned in a place of never-ending pain, with an endless list of complications. While I am still frustratingly weak, and will need another operation to reverse my stoma, I am healing; 2022 has taught me that healing is about more than just wounds knitting together again, it is about faith and hope, in the face of seemingly impossible odds.

When I get frustrated with my stoma, I remember that it did save my life, and it will (hopefully) be a temporary thing. I am reluctantly learning that it is possible for me to still live my life with a stoma. Initially I was too scared to leave the house, in case the stoma bag blew up like a balloon (something it seems to do regularly), or my stoma would let out a big raspberry burst of sound (yes, stoma’s fart, and they do it with no warning). While I still find both occurrences incredibly embarrassing, I have come to the conclusion that my illness this year has already gobbled up way too much of my life, and I shouldn’t allow it to continue to do so, as I recover.

Change is clearly the only constant in life, and there is no quota for big change. The human capacity to grow and adapt in the face of change is an astounding thing. This year has taught me that my physical body is not who I am; I am the heart and mind and soul that exists within said body…and it is those things my loved ones would have grieved, if I hadn’t survived. Being embarrassed by a farting stoma and a limp is nothing compared to the realization I have been gifted this year — that love surrounds me, whatever condition my body might be in, and that sunflowers are a wonderful representation of hope. I think I’m ready for 2023 to quietly cross the threshold, and I can only hope that the lessons in resiliency and faith I learned through the changes presented in 2022 carry me forward, once again.

Getty image by mgstudyo

Originally published: January 12, 2023
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