Dispatches from Hospitals – Elizabeth Caplice
Editor’s note: Elizabeth Caplice passed away on the 12th of July 2016, surrounded by her friends and family. You can read Elizabeth’s partner, Alex Seton’s, moving statement on Elizabeth’s death here on Elizabeth’s blog, Sky Between Branches. We are honored that Elizabeth trusted us with this work. We miss her.
The intensity of vulnerability and fragmentation that happens in hospital wards strikes me as being fleshy. There are veins and blood and vomit in all of us, shit and tears and earwax. Our bodies are compromised. I have been penetrated and torn apart and re-established in strange alien ways over and over again, and I wonder who I am now after so many hands have been inside of me, so many plastic lines inside my veins and the tubes in my neck. What is the act of penetration when it becomes a medical necessity? When it becomes organs replaced in my body, permanently altered in a perpetual game to keep me alive for as long as they can?
Patient in bed three was in after minor surgery. She spoke on the phone until the middle of the night, between abusing the nurses. At one point I gave up, and in a moment of fury asked her to treat the nurses with more respect. I told her I had found out earlier in the day, after my surgery, that I was terminally ill. I needed some quiet, I said. She abused me further, saying any of us could be terminally ill.
Half an hour later, she realised what she said, and came back to me to apologise. It was 2am at this point, and I couldn’t move due to the pain from my abdominal wound. I accepted her apology, and she wept, and asked if she could pray for me. She prayed, and I shivered through the pain, pressing the button delivering the Dilaudid button every five minutes. She gave me a crucifix to wear, despite me telling her I wasn’t religious. I treasured it anyway because it was a symbol of what mattered deeply to her, and she gifted it to me, but in my pain killer induced vagueness, I lost it. It felt like losing my faith, and i’d done that years ago. I felt passingly bad, but I felt worse about the fact that I was now unable to hope for anything resembling a cure for my cancer.
Patient in bed one was an elderly Jewish woman, who had not been allowed food for over 2 months, and was fed through a nasal gastric tube. I heard her cry out softly, ‘I just can’t take it anymore,’ to her doctors, as she begged to be allowed something, anything at all, to eat. Her children visited her morning and night, every single day that she was in the hospital.
One evening her family were there, and saying to her, ‘Don’t worry mum, this will soon be over and we’ll all be able to laugh about it.’ She paused, and softly said ‘we will never, ever laugh about what is happening to the girl in the next bed.’ That girl was me.
She was allowed to have her first food item just before I was checked out. She got to have food for Passover.
I woke up from surgery in a well lit room, with no tube in my throat. I could see the cannulas in both wrists, in both arms, and I could feel one in my neck, but it was too early, and I was supposed to be in the ICU. I could feel the incision from the surgery; the only sensation I can liken it to is the feeling you get when you hold a sit-up for several minutes, only there was no possibility of relaxing it. My muscles split and torn, my liver taken out.
I asked the nurse what day it was, what time it was, hoping that this was my first hint of consciousness after being in the ICU. I remember crying, and softly saying ‘I’m alive,’ over and over again, coming out of a surgery with a 15% mortality, but there was something wrong. He told me it was 5 hours since I went into surgery – for an 8-10 hour operation, and that I was in standard recovery. I vomited, and cried, and I was afraid, and begged him to tell me what had gone wrong, but he was not my surgeon. I became increasingly distressed. I could feel the wound, and I was breathing unassisted. My lungs should have been slowly heaving up and down from a tube in my throat.
My surgeon came by, and he said, ‘It’s not good news, Elizabeth.’
I shared my room for my first chemotherapy round with a young woman for a few days, and an elderly woman for another few. This was at the start of my treatment. I’d had one operation; a port for chemotherapy. I’d not been in hospital since I was a child. The young woman came back screaming after a liver biopsy, howling and sobbing like her body was being stripped of life.
My first chemotherapy was effortless. I was dizzy, I felt drunk, and my pupils dilated. Other than that, I felt fine. Star Trek was my night time companion.
My next room mate told me about her rich and beautiful 70 odd years of life, between begging to not be taken down for radiation therapy because she couldn’t stand it. The palliative care team came in, and they spoke about maximising comfort. For a moment, I thought my life would never come to that moment, while I knew that moment would come. That moment has come now.
The stomach cramps i’d been having for several months I put down to irritable bowel, or radiation I’d had to my pelvis a year ago. I had a colonoscopy to check, and my doctor found that my bowel was almost entirely obstructed by a tumour that wasn’t supposed to be there anymore. The day after the test, I spiked a fever, and spent a week in isolation, waiting for my body to be strong enough to give me a stoma. There was no point in removing the tumour, because the tumours in my liver are killing me, and the cancer isn’t going to stop if they take it away, and no matter what, I’m still shitting into a bag next to my navel for the rest of my life.
I am convinced I carry the stench of shit.
I am convinced I carry the stench of death. There is no point removing the cancer, because my liver is killing me.
During my time in isolation, prior to my bowel surgery I spent over a week on a liquid diet. By the end of it, I had started to become almost delusional. I cried in the middle of the night once, begging a nurse for a dry cracker. I stared out the window of my hospitable room at a tower on the mountain to the east, and it looked somehow like a burger. Mid conversation, I would interrupt people because they said something that made me think of how lettuce feels in your mouth when you bite into a sandwich. Friends bought me broths with flavour in them, rather than the stock cubes dissolved in boiling water, but I had jello for three meals a day, every day for a week.
Somehow, I thought that eating again would be near a religious experience, but it actually proved difficult; my body got used to surviving on liquid, and eating an average sized meal is a struggle. And everything is linked to the shit I will inevitably see coming out of my body now, into a bag I detach several times a day.
I spiked a fever after surgery one evening, and I started hallucinating. I became more and more disoriented and confused, my voice slipping to a whisper as I tried to describe the horror of the skinned horses I was seeing, one horse inserting it’s bloody fleshy head into the anus of the other horse. This could have been hours until the fever broke, and eventually, the doctor gave me valium. He was an intern, and came back the next day to ask me if it helped. It knocked me out, so I suppose it did, and he was pleased.
I can still see the horses.
There is an intense grief to surgery for me. The weakness and the loss of control over my body seems to dig inside of me and leave seeds that, weeks later, flood out and grow. It is inside of me, and it is on the surface of my skin. It is my body as it eases into the operating theatre, the lights. Before my liver surgery, my anaesthetist told me that he would not be administering any of the drugs that tend to be administered to make you forget the process of being wheeled into the room and positioned on the table. He gently told me that his job was to make me feel safe, and somehow, he did, and I remember moving onto the operating table just before he started the process of sedating and anesthetizing my body. For the bowel surgery which was a matter of weeks ago, I struggle to remember the process. I cannot recall being taken from my room to the theatre. This time, I couldn’t walk. Nor do I recall the plasma and blood they gave me on waking. They made me forget, and I am grateful for that, but I am also frightened of what I have forgotten because more of me was taken away.