Morphine

…the ICU’s O2 sensor alarm sounds like the battle klaxon on a Klingon Bird of Prey.

I wake to a ridiculous beeping.

“Breathe deeper, hon. Your O2 stats aren’t high enough.”
I breathe as deep as I can; it starts to hurt.
“Deep and regular, there you go.”
The beeping stops, and nurse turns away to the patient in the next bed.

I’m in the Recovery Area. It’s a huge, open floor with multiple stations for gurneys. It’s pretty full. I wonder what time it is.
“2:30 PM, baby.”
Apparently the morphine has directly wired my brain to my mouth – and my nurse is definitely a mother in her spare time.

I doze; the beeping starts again.
“OK, you have to breath deeper. Are you supposed to be on a CPAP?”
I nod, focusing on breathing just until it hurts.
“Oh. Well, let’s get one down here.”
She makes a call. “Roger, I need a CPAP at bed 11 in Recovery.”
“Do you have your own mask?”
She taps my hand. “Do you have your own mask?”
That was for me. I nod.
“He’s got his own mask.”
They exchange a few more details, and she hangs up. “He’ll be down in a few minutes.”

The O2 sensor goes nuts 4 or 5 more times before Roger finally shows up, rolling a gigantic CPAP machine obviously designed for elephants.
He starts things off with a breathing treatment; it’s a nebulizer full of Albuterol and water, and makes me giggle because it gets everything wet.
I realize that I am giggling, which means I’m definitely high.
He wrestles my mask over my face; I try to be helpful. He’s very patient.
As soon as he’s gone, I’m off to La La Land again. The O2 sensor keeps quiet, and though I sound like Darth Vader, I manage to sleep for most of the next 8 hours.

A stylized CPAP mask.

I slowly return to consciousness, and look over at the nurse. She grins, and puts a glass of ice chips on the tray table beside my bed.
“You might need these.”
I realize that my tongue has transformed into 80 grit sandpaper, and I nearly knock the glass off the table in my haste.

Ice chips are amazing.

I am in a bit more pain than before.
“Just push the button right here.”
Yep, brain is still hardwired to my mouth.

I click the button a few times. The nurse smiles, the pain recedes.
Morphine rocks.
The nurse laughs.
“You should have been in the ICU by now, but there was some big trauma event, and they’re full, so you get to stay here with me.”
I smile. As long as she gives me ice chips, that’s totally fine.
She laughs.
This brain-mouth thing might get awkward.

A few hours pass. I know this because I can only have ice chips every hour. Apparently Morphine wreaks havoc with my perception of time.
The nurse comes back from doing something, and lets me know that an orderly from ICU is on his way down to get me.
I feel bad for taking up a bed in ICU just because I’m fat.
“It’s ok, hon. You’re on the right track now.”
Damn it. Stupid brain mouth thing.
She laughs.

I have a perception of Intensive Care Units as dangerous places, but that changes after just a few minutes in GW’s ICU. There is one nurse assigned to do nothing but watch my vitals and the vitals of the patient in the room next to me. The nurse is very attentive; I know this because he’s telling me to “Breathe deeper!” every time my O2 stats drop below 95%.
Of course, the attentiveness might have something to do with the fact that the CPAP machine hasn’t made the trip up to the ICU with me, and the ICU’s O2 sensor alarm sounds like the battle klaxon on a Klingon Bird of Prey.

It takes the CPAP almost 2 hours to follow me up from Recovery. The respiratory therapist is apologetic; he’s working by himself at the moment, and it’s pretty busy.
I forgive him, and fall asleep.

Time’s up.

My gurney begins rolling toward the OR, and now it feels real.

The George Washington University Inn shouldn’t be difficult to find, but my nerves are in overdrive. I scan the street numbers on both sides of the street to make sure that I don’t overshoot. I have a moment of not-quite-panic as I come to a building that just has to be the Inn, but only has an entryway for a tiny Italian Trattoria.
A few more steps reveal a drive-in courtyard just past the eatery; I sigh in relief and slowly make my way along its narrow sidewalk toward a secluded entry, mildly regretting that I can’t stop for a glass of Chianti.
It’s an old Inn, but having spent time in a few very questionable establishments in New York during my days traveling for business, I can tell the difference between just “old” and “old & dirty.” I check in with little hassle, and make my way up to my suite. It’s spacious, with a kitchenette, dining area, living area, and a bedroom with a king bed. The bath is huge, and I decide that a relaxing shower before bed is definitely the plan.

Carefully laying out my clothes on an armchair becomes a subconscious assertion that I’m in control, and that all of my planning is coming to fruition. When I start lining up my toiletries on the bathroom sink, I realize that I’m definitely wound up, and decide to skip directly to the hot shower.
Forty-five minutes later I’m lying on the sofa in my sleepwear, feeling a bit more human, but no less nervous.
Eight months of doctors’ visits, paperwork and planning all culminates in the next eighteen hours. In twelve hours I’ll walk into George Washington University Hospital alone, check myself in, and be prepped for RNY Gastric Bypass surgery. Eighteen hours from now, it’ll be over, and I’ll be in recovery.

Or you’ll be dead.
My subconscious is being maudlin again tonight; the memory of my friend Eileen’s sharp retort jumps to the forefront, and I rally.
Don’t say that. Don’t even put that thought into the Universe. You will be fine. I know it. I believe it – and so do you.

I walk into the bedroom and set the alarm clock on my phone, then think better of it, and call the front desk.
“Can I have a wakeup call at 4:45 AM?”
“That’s quite early, sir!”
“Yeah, I have to check in for surgery at GW tomorrow morning at 6 AM.”
“Oh my! I wish you all the best; we’ll call at 4:45 AM. Have a good night!”
I lay down, just hoping that I can actually sleep, and the universe sees fit to grant my wish, immediately.

My phone alarm rings before the wake-up call, and I’m instantly alert. I lay staring at the darkened ceiling until the phone rings.
“Mr. Akins, this is your wake-up call. It’s 4:45 AM.”
“Thank you. I’ll be down to check out in about an hour.”
“We’ll see you then, sir.”

Another shower, a few moments re-packing my bag, and I’m heading to GW Hospital. The District is deceptively calm at 5:45 AM – the panhandlers are all still asleep, and the only traffic around GW seems to be a trickle of doctors, nurses and medical students.
The Surgical Admitting area is terrifyingly busy for 6:00 AM, but the orderlies and staff have their routines down to a science. Twenty-five minutes later, I’ve changed out of my sweatpants and into a gigantic bariatric patient gown, laid down on my gurney, and am about to be poked.
The nurse is not a vampire, and I get stuck about 5 times before she finally gets a vein that works.
The anesthesiologist comes to talk to me, and for once, I feel like I’m actually giving informed consent – he’s incredibly thorough, patient, and professional.

Dr. Afram pops through the curtain.
“Are you ready! You’re ready! You’ll be fine, this is a great hospital!” He has entirely too much enthusiasm for this hour of the morning.
It occurs to me that this man will literally have his hands inside me within an hour, and I have a moment of nausea.

A stylized image of an operating theater.

My gurney begins rolling toward the OR, and now it feels real. My heart is thumping, and the nausea returns. We roll into the OR; the lights are dimmer than I thought they’d be.
“Mr. Akins, let’s get you up close to the table, and then just scoot over from the gurney onto the table.. Yeah, just like that. Great! Ok, lay back…”
There is a giant bundle of towels in the middle of the table, and I twist in confusion, trying to figure out how to lay down on them.
“Uhhhh….?”
“Yeah, those towels are going to help us position your insides for easier access. Just go ahead and lay back, like that… yeah. Perfect. Oooooh-kay.” I am sorry I asked.
“I think I’m going to have a backache when I wake up.”
“Trust me, you won’t feel it. We’re giving you the good stuff. As a matter of fact, I’m going to give you something to calm you down right now…”
A feeling of lassitude seems to spread from my chest into my limbs. I relax.
“Yeah, I feel…”

I cease to exist.

Pain. Pain more intense than anything I have understood was possible. I want to scream, but I can’t breathe deep enough for anything except moans of agony.
“Hold on. Hold on, Mr. Akins. Just a minute. Hold on.” A prick of pain, someplace else.
I cease to exist.

I wake again; there’s pain, but it’s distant. It’s almost someone else’s pain. I look at the nurse sitting at a computer beside my bed. She sees me move my head, and glances at me.
“How’s the pain?”
“I’m ok. Am I OK?”
“You’re doing fine. You woke up on the way down here, before we got the morphine pump hooked up, and we had to give you a shot of Dilaudid.”
I smile. “I’m ok.”

I fall asleep.

Jorge and his rainbow ring.

When I first started to toe open my closet door a few years ago, one of the staples of my “coming out speech” was an earnest assurance that I wasn’t going to turn into one of those faggy, rainbow-waving, San Francisco gays…

When I first started to toe open my closet door a few years ago, one of the staples of my “coming out speech” was an earnest assurance that I wasn’t going to turn into one of those faggy, rainbow-waving, San Francisco gays. I instinctively understood that the homophobic conservative mainstream fears the emasculation they think comes with being gay, so I displayed my masculine credentials and polished them until they shone. I was the guy who went to the gym 5 times a week, who loved Sci-Fi shows, cop movies and action flicks. Hiking, old hunting stories and a penchant for Vodka rounded out the montage.

I felt like I had to make sure that my friends understood that I wouldn’t be pushing the proverbial dick in their faces. None of that has really changed over the intervening years. I’m still one of the most tightly self-censored gay people I know. I’ve only wolf-whistled a guy once in my life, my fashion sense is all Midwestern farm boy, and the only bag I carry is my laptop bag. Until lately, it would have shocked me if anyone other than my friends picked me as the gay guy in a lineup. Even after a year riding the same bus to and from work every day, my fellow mass-transit commuters wouldn’t know what to make of the quiet, 6’4” tall, corn-fed giant hiding behind his sunglasses in the back of the bus.

Wearing sunglasses gives me the sensation of sitting behind a two-way mirror. It is that comfortable anonymity that allowed me to learn so much from a young commuter I’ve come to fondly think of as “Jorge”. He and I cross paths for about 10 minutes at a time on seemingly random days. He boards the bus at some stop before mine, and exits before me, as well. The first conscious thought I had about Jorge was “my god, he’s beautiful.” He isn’t “hot” or “cute” or “pretty”: he is simply catch-your-breath-and-stare gorgeous. He has jet black hair, styled in that short, swept-across-the-face emo/scene cut that’s so popular right now. It is paired perfectly with deep blue-green eyes, almost over-full lips, and a perpetually preoccupied look. Reed-thin, but well-built, he often wears jeans that hug his hips and leave little to the imagination. Continue reading “Jorge and his rainbow ring.”