Part 26. Papa’s Got a Brand-New Bag
There’s no way to sugar coat this, so I’ll just say it straight: for half a year, I walked around carrying a bag of shit. (Fortunately, it was my shit. If it had been someone else’s, it would have been even more awkward.
Seems to me there ought to be some alumni association for people who’ve had ostomies or colostomies. It’s like a Brotherhood of the Bag.
Doctor Corwin tried to prepare me for it and nurses gave me pamphlets. But until you look down and see a bag of shit attached to your lower gut, you’re not really prepared for the weirdness of this.
Carrying a bag of shit around is one of the more hideous things I’ve had to do in my life, even worse than watching “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” or inhaling next to a University of Alabama football fan. (Sorry, Bama friends — SEC rivalries run deep.)
Here’s how I joined this disgusting brotherhood.
As I came out of my morphine haze and settled into a semi-lucid state, my room became a revolving door of physicians, nurses and therapists. What they had in common was the notion of keeping me alive and I looked forward to helping them reach that goal.
Corwin’s residents showed up at 5:45 each morning and the chief resident — Doctor Tom Powers, whose noggin showed evidence of his recent experiment with a mohawk — was leader of the brigade.
The first lucid morning — two days after the surgery — he showed me around my body: the drain in my belly, still expelling the excess from the splaying of my gut, and the bag — a durable, semi-plastic material that held my waste. He showed me how to remove it. It was held in place by an adhesive, the opening of which suckled a huge nipple way down there in Mr. Happy’s Neighborhood.
Doctor Corwin cut a hole in my belly and pulled out this bit of intestine, cross-hatching it so that my waste could spill into a waiting ostomy bag. This is what that thing — I thought of it as an angry red nipple — looked like when it was not covered by the bag and spewing disgusting filth into the world.
It looked like a nipple — an angry red nipple the circumference of a quarter that rose an inch from the wall of my abdomen. Corwin had cut a nice neat circle in that abdominal wall and pulled out some of my intestine to form this monster nipple. He cut a small hole in the intestine and that’s where the shit came out.
After Doctor Powers showed me this angry red nipple and observing a small expulsion of waste (I’m trying so hard to be polite and clinical, but let’s face it — it’s shit), he called for a nurse to help. He wasn’t sure how to attach a new bag.
And that was part of the thing. These bags weren’t reusable. You didn’t just take them and dump the shit and then just stick them back. You had to get a brand-new bag each time and reattach it. There was an adhesive and it supposedly worked pretty well. But once you broke the adhesive, you couldn’t reattach it.
So that was the part hanging over my head: I had to learn to do this myself. I couldn’t stay in the hospital for six months, with kind and efficient nurses taking care of me.
Look at the lovely bouquet of ostomy supplies and accessories!
I did not look forward to this. By the second day after surgery, nurses began showing me the tricks of the trade every time they changed my bag. Because every ostomy was different, each time you changed bags, you had to cut a new opening to fit over this intestine-nipple.
There was a circular part that needed to be cut to fit over the nipple. Then you had to get the adhesive to stick to the gut just right. For a hairy bastard like me, this meant you had to keep the skin soft as smooth as a newborn’s ass. Then the bag itself was attached to this piece that was stuck to my body.
It takes a lot of practice, I was told. It also took a particular skill to make sure there was a good adhesive seal. Nurses told me that some people — people who were really good at this — could get multiple uses from a bag but that I shouldn’t worry if I needed a new one each time. I’d have a home-visit nurse who would set me up to receive mail-order ostomy bags every other week or so.
Oh Jesus, I did not want to do this.
This is what the adhesive seal looked like. Each ostomy bag came with a template, so you could measure your intestine-nipple-kinda-thingy and cut a hole to its specifications.
Would that be my life? Standing by the road, waiting for the UPS truck and new Bags O’ Shit to arrive? Would I be reduced to that?
On the second lucid day, Corwin sent one of his residents — Doctor Hernandez, if memory serves – to remove my drain. He grabbed hold of the burgundy straw protruding from my belly. He’d just pull it and it would slip out.
“This will be just a minute,” he said, giving the straw a yank.
“Juuuuuust a little tug and this will be out of you.”
Holy Mother of God!
“Does that hurt?” he asked.
“Like a motherfucker it hurts,” I said. “It feels like you’re ripping me apart.”
“I don’t want to hurt you,” he said. He looked suitably terrified. “I need to talk to Doctor Corwin. This isn’t working like he said it would.”
Hernandez left and the pain subsided but took its own damn time to do so.
I had another session with an ostomy nurse, in which she assured me everything would be all right. But each attempt of mine to attach the bag to my flaming-red nipple ended in a fog of ineptitude and failure.
The bag leaked a black, tarry half-liquid substance and I’d have to call one of the regular crew of nurses to help fix it. All nurses, it seemed, could do this and be pleasant, with no obvious signs of revulsion. I wondered how they did that. Is “Dealing With Horrifying Assholes and Their Shit” a standard part of the curriculum in nursing programs?
Late that afternoon, Corwin strolled in to check on me, smirking a little bit.
“I’ve slipped those things out hundreds of times,” he said, glancing down at my gut straw. “I figured Hernandez had seen it enough to do it, but looks like this is a job for the boss.”
Corwin was nothing if not confident, but it never expressed itself in smugness. He never crossed over into the Arrogant Zone, but this time I think he was reducing speed for the Overconfident city limits.
He pulled back the covers to reveal a square of my loathsome belly and — all gloved up — got a firm grip on the straw.
“Here we go,” he said, and tugged.
I grimaced. He kept pulling.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “This will just slip out in a second.”
I held my breath, then let go with an exhale of fucks.
I heard a disgusting snap, then looked down at Corwin. He held the straw in his hand, the bottom half — the half I thought was stuck in my tummy — was a jagged edge. It had broken off. His face was fixed in comic horror, a near Loony-Tunes like gesture of surprise.
“Oh my God,” he said. He stood up, stunned as if he’d been Tasered. “Just a minute,” he said. “Just a minute.” He turned and quickly left the room.
It was more like twenty — minutes, I mean.
Gone was the confidence when he came back. If he’d had a tail — and, I could not verify that he did not have one — it would be between his legs.
“That’s never happened before,” he said. “I’m so sorry. That must’ve hurt. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay,” I said. And since he wasn’t yanking on part of my body, I was feeling pretty good and pain free.
“I had to go call this surgeon at Johns Hopkins,” he went on. “He’s sort of my mentor, I’d guess you’d call him. And I guess what I did” — and here he stumbled, scratched his head, awfully uncomfortable — “I guess I sewed the drain, uh, to part of your, abdominal wall. Allbyaccidentofcourse.” It came out as one word. “I’ve never done that before, and I’m so sorry, I can’t imagine how it must feel . . . .”
I cut him off. “Dude,” I said, holding up my palm as a way of saying I’ve-got-this. “It happens. My father was a surgeon, remember? He told me about things, like the time he operated on some big-ass general and his nurse screwed up the sponge count. But he took the heat and told the general they’d have to operate again, to get the frickin’ sponge.”
“I am,” he said, “so sorry. We have to go in and remove the drain. I’m so sorry.”
“Dude,” I said, holding up the hand again. “It’s no biggie. Look, if anything — if anything, it was worth it to see that look on your face. You looked like Wile E. Coyote or something, right before he falls off the mountain. That look — that surprise — shit, man, that made it all worth it.”
“I-I-I’ve just never had that happen before,” he said. In a career of great achievement and confidence in his remarkable abilities, he’d learned that mistakes happened to everyone.
“Seriously: I’m fine. I feel better knowing it was something like this and that I’m not some wuss who can’t handle an acceptable amount of pain. So don’t apologize,” I said. “Besides.” Pause. “That look: it was so worth it.”
The next afternoon, I was in pre-op again. This was going to be a quickie, an in and out. They’d give me a day to recover, then send me home.
And so they did. He removed the straw. No morphine and no hallucinations. The specialized ostomy nurses still tried to show me how to correctly apply and remove my Bag O’ Shit.
A week out from my first surgery, they sent me home with several bags and a starter kit of supplies. I’d begin to get visits from a specialty nurse, I was told. For the next half year, I’d be living the life of a man without an asshole. Nothing was happening back there. For all I knew, my southerly orifice was covered in cobwebs. It’s as if Wile E. Coyote (him again!) had put up one of his fake “Detour” signs in another vain effort to trick the Roadrunner.
I set up camp in the bedroom and cleared off my end table to make space for my buffet of ostomy supplies. If this is what I had to do to stay alive, then I’d do it. I’d get this right. I’d deal with it.
I never imagined that within a week I’d be back in the hospital.