“Vomiting Rainbows” by Micaela Gardner
I was born with a congenital heart condition.
I was seven years old and was getting my pacemaker replaced, a simple enough procedure. The only other pacemaker I had ever had was in my belly, because it was the only place where it would fit when I was four, but by seven, the doctors had decided to put it into my shoulder. They told me it was the “grown-up” way of doing things, but the truth is, things aren’t being done one hundred percent the “grown-up” way if you’re using the phrase “grown-up” at all.
There is something I need to get off my chest (no pun intended) before continuing on. I’d like to extend my apologies to the nurses and doctors of UCLA pediatric cardiology at the time. Constantly overworked, with extremely high risk operations to be done, and then, of course, me to deal with on top of all that. I wouldn’t blame any of you if you popped a few Percs to get through your shift. Lord knows I have much weaker moral fiber than that.
Anyway, so if my body were a house, I suppose this would be like adding an attic. My shoulder was uncharted waters. I’d had scars straight down the middle of my chest, on the side of my chest, and even on my legs, but never one very close to my heart. I remember them showing me the device before I had my surgery, but my memory is incorrectly remembering it as an unopened box of Altoids. (We hope. Or else they were really looking to cut expenses that year.)
So, I was in this weird limbo where I was getting the grown-up surgery, but still in the pediatric unit, which meant that I was still stuck with popsicles and Casper constantly airing on the TV, so often that, in possibly some sort of Stockholm Syndrome, I humbly admit to having grown a crush on Casper over this hospital stay. Yes, this hospital stay pushed me to fictional necrophilia. But more on that later.
I remember a male doctor administering my anesthesia before my surgery. I was in the waiting room, which is kind of a weird place to receive anesthesia, but maybe they were sensitive about me seeing the O.R. The doctor told me the small vial of amber liquid was going to be bitter, and it was, sort of like one’s first taste of beer, which I’d already accidentally experienced.
And, not too unlike what happens if one drinks excessive beer, I began to stumble around, the world began to slow down, and I remember my father holding my hand as we sat by the huge windows. It was raining and there were black and white limousines driving in front of the hospital. I remember thinking how beautiful that was before the world started to fade away and I crumbled into my father’s arms.
Everything up to this point went relatively well. I don’t remember being scared, because I was young and didn’t think anything bad could ever happen to me. Which is a kind of weird sentiment to keep while in the hospital for heart surgery, but I guess that shows how far childish denial will you get you.
A weird aside about a mystery that no one has ever been able to solve: we don’t know what happened to the pacemaker in my belly from ages four to seven. When I was seven, I got the new pacemaker put in my shoulder, but there was no incision to the belly. Years later, when I got x-rayed, they only found the leads from the original pacemaker, which made my stomach look like a junkyard. Phantom pacemaker? Some sort of Casper conspiracy? I guess I’ll never know when or where they removed my first pacemaker, but I’m happy to note it was as painless and stress-free as possible.
I came to in my hospital bed, experiencing a pain in my shoulder unlike anything I’ve ever felt. Basically, they cut into my shoulder and jammed something a little smaller than a deck of cards in between my muscles and then sewed me up. I was on a lot of drugs at the time, so the pain isn’t overwhelming, but I’m experiencing the strangeness of post-anesthesia.
Basically, I am, and always have been, a glutton, and any time fasting was part of a medical procedure, I made sure everyone else was as miserable as I was. Massive props to any religious or political leader who uses fasting as a form of protest. I would never be able to entertain that as a possibility, even if it meant making the world a better place.
The worst fasting experience I had was on Thanksgiving. Thanks-fucking-giving. I got to sit and watch everyone eat, and I couldn’t because I had to be pumped full of drugs the following morning, and it’s apparently only acceptable to do that on an empty stomach. (Something I would later find at odds with my sister’s pothead munchies tendencies, but life is just a long series of lessons, I suppose). Anyway, I can’t imagine how annoying I was when having to fast, because I’m three times as old now and still very annoying when I can’t eat, even on non-holidays. To add to the surreality of this whole experience, we were having our Thanksgiving in a closed KFC for some reason. Naturally, as a seven year old child, this made it an even more precious holiday dinner to miss out on, though, as an adult, KFC Thanksgiving sounds like one of the most depressing two word phrases in the English language, perhaps with the exception of “man-shaped pillow”.
Anyway, the odd thing about fasting and anesthesia is that the first thing on my mind when I’m going under is always how much food I’m going to jam in my trap when I’m awake. I am positive I have spent more time fantasizing about the various post-op meals I intend to devour than philosophizing over the issues of life or death, of the implications of being chronically ill. For this reason, I feel like I will never reach the top level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs–“Self-Actualization”, mostly because I keep envisioning a food pyramid. So, in all of my experiences of anesthesia, the heavier the anesthetic, the less hungry I am when I awake. They knocked me out entirely so when I awoke, I was lethargic, bleary-eyed, seeing only Casper in front of me, and decisively not hungry.
I was eventually coerced into eating popsicles, which I think they thought was a smooth move on their part. Kids love popsicles, right? Well, not me. I figured out the popsicle conspiracy from early on. You take some water, put some bright colors in it, throw some high fructose corn syrup, and then slap on a wrapper that says “grape” or “cherry”, according to whatever color fruit the sad frozen phallus is most reminiscent of. Only with the fine-tuned taste buds of a snooty wine connoisseur could one truly decipher the flavor blindfolded.
They had no connoisseurs available, nor blindfolds, so I wasn’t able to test my hypothesis. I was, however, able to choke down a suspiciously neon green popsicle that I was pretty sure was just a way to get rid of nuclear waste. Minutes later, the popsicle erupted from my tiny mouth like how I imagine Mount Vesuvius destroyed the city of Pompeii.
At that point, my incision had healed enough that I was free to go home–with the stipulation that I could keep down a popsicle. I was then given a bright purple popsicle before the residual vomit taste had even left my mouth. This time I just bit into the popsicle, because I figured I might as well tackle my nemesis head-on, and I finished it just in time to see it shooting out on the floor.
The nurses continued to give me different flavors of popsicles, in hopes that I would be able to keep them down. As if the very slight differences in flavor and color were somehow the problem. I continued to vomit up rainbows, until finally, I could take it no longer, and I decided to take this matter to the floor. Not on the vomit, which had already been cleaned up by some hospital underling that probably questioned how he got to a place in his life where he cleaned up a seven year old’s multi-colored vomit probably on a daily routine. I crawled out of the starchy warmth of my sterilized hospital bed, and I curled up on the cool linoleum floor.
“I want to go home!” I yelled at the nursing staff, my parents, and anybody who happened to be passing by, other patients not excluded.
I continued to scream until I was no longer forming words, just primal sounds of frustration. At one point a team of cardiologists and medical students entered the room with clipboards, eager to talk about my condition.
“Isn’t it unhygienic for her to be on the floor like that?” I remember one of the residents asked my frustrated nurse.
My nurse shrugged and walked off like she was about to take a swig of whiskey in the sweet sanctity of the broom closet.
In my defense, all I wanted to do at that point was to be home. I was in a small amount of pain, I’d just vomited up enough popsicles to fuel a daycare center, and I was becoming more enamored with Casper the Friendly Ghost by the minute. If ever there is pivotal point when one realizes they are in the midst of losing her mind, much like the moment after you’ve dropped something fragile and before it’s hit the floor, it comes with the realization of real love and devotion to Casper the Friendly Ghost.
I screamed on that floor for hours. The cool linoleum only further fueled my wrath. I didn’t want more popsicles, I didn’t want more medical students, coming in with their notepads, probably just drawing the conclusion that one should not have children. By the end of it, I didn’t even want Casper anymore. He was dead, and I was alive–how was that ever going to work out? Not to mention that he never existed in the first place.
I screamed until the doctors broke the rule that I had to keep something down, until all of the necessary paperwork had been signed, until I was loaded in the car with a vomit bag, until we were on the road. Although I’m pretty sure that they made some sort of note in my medical record, probably something like “Beware: Spawn of Satan”, I felt instantly more at ease in the car on the traffic-jammed drive home.
I’m not going to lie and say I learned a valuable lesson that day that helped with my growth as a human being–if anything, I learnt if you’re vocal enough, people will do anything to get rid of you, which probably offset my maturing by a couple of years. But I will say this: hospitals are a great place to get fixed, but home is a greater place to recover.