I started to feel like eating again about a week after the second surgery for my spinal cord tumor. I was still in the ICU, still in more pain than I’ve ever felt before (and since), and still unable to move anything below my shoulders. But I was finally feeling a little hungry and growing weary of my all liquid diet, so it was a moment of great relief when my doctors allowed me to start eating again.
Over the next two days, I worked my way up from sips of consommé and Sprite to spoonfuls of applesauce and mashed potatoes. My surgeons were concerned that allowing me to sit up too soon might re-open the incision that stretched from the base of my skull to the middle of my back, so I had to eat while laying flat on my back. Despite the less-than-optimal position and the risk that I wouldn’t be able to tolerate food after not eating for so long, everything went down and stayed down. So far, so good.
As the amount of food I was able to eat increased, so did my desire to indulge in some real food. And like most other 15 year olds, the thing I wanted most was pizza -- not just any pizza, mind you, but one from the little Mom and Pop pizzeria near my home, some 40 miles away.
And that’s just what my Dad brought me the next day when he came to visit. I didn’t matter to me that it was ice cold and most of the cheese had been lost to the top of the cardboard box. It was food with texture and flavor that I could chew. It was far more than just pizza -- it was a taste of my normal life, and a taste of home.
My Mom rounded up a plastic knife and fork, and a paper plate, from the nurses station. She was my rock from the first day I got sick, never doubting for a minute that my problems were physical even though doctor after doctor could find nothing wrong. Mom was nervous that I was pushing my already overtaxed body too hard, but she knew that I needed to take in as many calories as I could to help myself heal.
The first tiny bite my Mom fed me was heaven. It really wasn’t much more than a bit of crust topped with a spot of tomato sauce, but after eating nothing but soft, bland foods for days, the taste of garlic and oregano almost overwhelmed me. The look of joy on my face must have said it all -- both my Mom and Dad burst out with big grins and visibly relaxed, the first time either of them had smiled since they were told by the neurosurgeon that I had made it through the 16 hour surgery and was on my way to the recovery room. Over the next hour, I managed, with my Mom’s help, to finish off just over half a slice.
All seemed to be well, so my Dad kissed me goodnight and headed for home. Mom was going to spend the night with me at the hospital, sleeping next to my bed in a well-worn naugahyde recliner the nurses scrounged up. As soon as my nurse finished taking my vitals and giving me a much needed -- and appreciated -- shot of morphine, we settled in for the night.
I’d barely finished telling my Mom how much I loved her before I started to vomit. From the first sound of my distress, she was out of the recliner and calling for help. Mom did her best to keep me from choking, but was too terrified of ripping my incision open to turn my head to the side. Every trace of the relieved, smiling Mom who’d helped me eat dinner less than an hour before was gone.
My room was right across from the nurses station, and a nurse named Mary was at my bedside in seconds. Acting purely on instincts honed by years of training and experience, Mary quickly forced my head to the right just as my stomach heaved again. At that moment, preventing me from breathing in any of the vomit, not the healing wound on my neck and back, was her only concern. Despite the burst of pain that hit me as the adhesive tape holding the surgical dressings in place tore loose from my the back of my neck and head, it was a relief to get the foul liquid out of my mouth and be able to breathe without fear of suffocating.
The retching stopped as suddenly as it began. I thought the worst was over, until Nurse Mary told me that to prevent further vomiting -- and eliminate any chance that I would either choke on or aspirate it -- she needed to put a tube into my stomach as quickly as possible. This nasogastric (NG) tube, she explained, would be fed up through my nose and down the back of my throat into my stomach.
Already badly shaken, out of breath, and worried that my incision had been opened, the news that a tube was going to be shoved up my nose was more than I could take. The tears started to flow, and I managed to choke out a desperate request for my Mom to hold my hand and promise not let go just as Mary‘s colleagues arrived to start the procedure. Even though watching any medical procedure made her nauseous and faint -- never mind those being done to her youngest child -- Mom grabbed my right hand, squeezed it tight, and assured me she’d stay with me the whole time.
The next few minutes were a dizzying blur of sensations and sounds. The end of the NG tube, which seemed to be impossibly large, scraped against the inside of my nose as it was threaded up through my nostril. Unpleasantness became outright discomfort and my anxiety skyrocketed as the stiff plastic passed through the sinus cavity and started down the back of my throat, making me want to sneeze, cough, and blow my nose all at the same time. And then it hit my gag reflex. I tried as best I could to follow Mary’s insistent commands of “Swallow, swallow, just keep swallowing!” even as my throat tried to close up. Yet through it all, the comfort I felt as my Mom reassuringly squeezed my hand and called to me that it would be over soon eclipsed everything else.
My efforts to make it easier for the tube to go down must have worked, because in less than a minute it was done. Mary quickly secured the NG tube, which I was delighted to realize didn’t bother me at all now that it was in place, and proceeded to relieve me of everything that remained in my stomach while one of the other nurses went to get the supplies needed to replace the loose dressings. I burst into tears one final time that night when Mary told me that my incision was in tact and the doctor on-call that night would not need to put in more surgical staples.
As she promised, my Mom stayed with me through every awful minute, never letting go of my hand even for a second.
My Mom and I told that story to many people over the years. And every I said how grateful and proud I was that she overcame her squeamishness to hold my hand that night, my Mom responded the same way: with a red-faced grin and a twinkle in her eyes.
I always thought that it was my praise that embarrassed her so much.
It took her twenty years to finally tell me why she got so embarrassed every time I lauded her bravery. Although I assumed she was standing next to me the whole time the NG tube was being placed, in reality she’d come so close to fainting at the mere thought of what was to come that she had to crawl completely under the bed in order to keep her promise.