Like most horrible things that happen to me, this one started in a dark, second-story tattoo parlor in a small town at the foot of a mountain range.
OK, no “Hills Had Eyes” mutants barged in and started mounting everyone, but on top of the pain of having — I shit you not — a Joni Mitchell lyric tattooed onto my ribcage, I began to feel that something else was very, very wrong.
When I left the tattoo parlor in my tiny college town, I was in intense pain and bleeding ever-so-delicately through my shirt. I wasn’t feeling 100 percent, but I didn’t think too much of it and returned to campus to drink champagne and fuck hippies. And then, everything started to go south.
In the weeks leading up to the tattoo day, I had developed a strange, “turning” feeling in my stomach. I would be walking to class, or simply from my room to the bathroom and I would suddenly feel the urge to throw up. This would happen a few times a day, but as a former bulimic, I assumed it was my body getting back at me for all of those Sharpies stuck down my throat and glasses of OJ mixed with ipecac.
Next came the even less glamorous, weight-loss abetting changes. Everything I ate started to feel like rocks hitting my stomach. Coupled with the hourly vomiting, I began to drop weight even more rapidly, while my stomach continued, bizarrely, to expand.
I decided to go to my campus’ health services office, where I was convinced they would tell me I was having a hysterical pregnancy and send me on my merry way with a bottle of Valium and some dildos. But no such luck!
The school’s doctor, who had been known to ask patients to drop trou during visits for hangnails, proceeded to take the same path with me. After a (probably totally unnecessary) pelvic exam, he bluntly told me I probably had HPV, but not to worry about it unless I had symptoms.
Since I had been tested in the past and knew vaguely that none of these symptoms were typically associated with HPV, I protested his diagnosis, but left without a new one.
The pain continued to get worse over the next week, while my stomach expanded to the relative size of a basketball. Obviously, it was time to go to the emergency room. But I couldn’t even get any traction there. I knew something was wrong, but for some reason — whether because I was a college girl, or because “it’s probably nothing” is the easiest answer — they blamed my problems on everything from PMS to a hangover.
I was mad, miserable, and pregnant-looking. I made appointments to come back to the hospital, where I saw doctors who told me to “come back when the swelling had gone down” (hi, I’m here BECAUSE OF THE SWELLING), or were just convinced I had a really bad flu. Then after a week of ultrasounds, antibiotics and dismissiveness, I got a panicked phone call in the early hours of the morning.
“Sarah, we need to talk to you. Come back to the hospital right now.”
I grabbed my purse and took the drive to the emergency room I had come to know and loathe. The nurse ushered me in to a private room, where she explained to me that some test or scan had revealed a small tear in my intestines, and that the bloating was from leaking fluid and air around my other organs. She told me that I needed surgery in the next 12 hours or I would probably die.
I called my father, who insisted that I be Medevaced to Manhattan, so I could have surgery at a hospital he trusted. The nurses and surgeons told him that there simply wasn’t time, so he drove up from New York.
As I was going in to surgery, I saw my father cry for the first time when he asked the nurse if the tear was related to colon cancer, a disease that would eventually take his life.
The surgery lasted around 3 hours, and my tissue samples came back clean for any traces of cancer. I spent the next 8 days in the hospital immobile, being bathed and given enemas. I had priests pray over me while nurses ripped out catheters. I developed a newfound appreciation for broth, the only “food” I was allowed to consume.
What was harder than the pain of physical recovery (mmmm, thanks, Morphine!) was the total uncertainty with which I entered and left the situation. My doctors, who had found no signs of a foreign object perforation, had no idea why my intestine had give my body this serious “fuck you” and had little insight on how to prevent it from happening again. Which sucks, especially when you feel like you’re the only one still asking questions.
Since the surgery, I’ve been reasonably healthy, save a few bleeding ulcers and a case of scarlet fever, but I still worry that my body is a ticking time bomb. My mother died in her 50s, just 3 months after being diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and my father died from colon cancer 5 years later.
I consider myself lucky. Other than an ugly little scar that makes my new (fake) bellybutton look like an anus, I’m more or less as good as new, although I do worry what’s to come. I’ve never found a doctor who could provide an explanation for what happened to me, and sometimes I think I don’t want to.
For now, I’m just glad that my body isn’t spilling sewage into itself anymore, and I no longer look like an 18-months-pregnant anorexic. My faith in the medical establishment has been shaken; I no longer accept “there’s nothing wrong with you” as a diagnosis.
But I’ve also learned to enjoy being bathed by another person while looped on intravenous painkillers … If I ever end up in the hospital again, I’m asking for double sponge baths.