THERE’S NO GOING BACK
Last week I spent four days in Royal University Hospital, Saskatoon – my alma mater. From 1979 to 1986 I fought death there for months at a time. The staff became my family, my safety net, so that when I did recoup from a surgery going home was a scary proposition.
Having experienced for several years the brokenness of our health care system, when I was informed I must re-enter RUH for diagnosis and treatment, I imagined the worst-case scenario anticipating the situation couldn’t possibly be that bad, so the experience would seem good in contrast. That bad it was! With so many patients in the ER the resident ended up examining my abdomen at the end of a public waiting room, screened only by my husband’s body. An hour and half in, I finally lay on a gurney in an open cubicle for my ECG. Minutes later I was back in my wheelchair in the waiting room, because they needed the gurney for the next person. Finally, they announced they had a cubicle in ER for me and I was moved into a curtained area, where I collapsed on a horizontal surface for the first time in hours. Twenty minutes later, I was told someone sicker than me needed it and I was being sent over to the ER in the old hospital basement. Once there they maneuvered me into a small corner. One wall was frosted glass floor to ceiling, the nurses station closed off the opposite side, and along the bottom where curtain areas with other patients hidden from view. However, this did not save me from hearing their detailed health problems as recounted to doctors and nurses throughout the day, and gave me no privacy for answering the staff’s many personal questions.
I settled myself in my snug corner as sunlight filled the window and felt I could be safe tucked away there for the next couple of days until my MRI took place. But at 12:30 am I am informed I am being moved up to a ward. “No,” I said, “I want to stay here.” “You can’t stay here this is for ER patients you have to go up.”
Now staying in a multi bed ward was my worst nightmare. I have a real phobia of being in an enclosed place full of strangers. You should see me on an airplane! However, they tucked me into the far corner of a three-bed ward. The other two patients across from me, where basically comatose, and I had the bathroom all to myself, so thought, “This isn’t so bad.” The next afternoon I am told I am being moved again, some man needs that space. “Why can’t you put him where you are planning to move me?” “He needs more care giving than you.” That will teach me to do as much as possible for myself to save work for the staff! I took a stand. “I’m not moving. I feel safe here and all these changes are too stressful.” Two hours later I had the administrator of the floor apologizing but telling me firmly I was being moved.
Now I am in a four-bed ward that has had a fifth bed squeezed into the middle of the side I’m on. My bed is right at the main door to the room, in fact the door can’t be closed because it is caught behind the small space I have. I’m pushed far beyond any protection from a curtain and lie exposed like a beached whale for everyone passing or entering. The bathroom is right across from me, and for the next twenty-four hours, my male neighbour and I run a silent and intense competition around who gets there first, every hour on the hour. I get up in the dark and do my wash and change in a corner of my room, sans door or curtain.
I call my tiny space the mousehole, and getting the door partially closed to block one side, and a curtain pulled across the end of my bed, settle in. At this point, I expected to be screaming, “Get me out of here.” Instead, a miracle happens. I start seeing the humour in everything. My creepy neighbour becomes, Raymond, someone I can take an interest in, as he peeks through the slit in the folding screen between us. The constant change of people being added or removed from the ward, produces dramas such as two hours of a woman gossiping nonstop to a nurse in the middle of the night, a man who refuses to wear earbuds on his TV and forces us all to listen to baseball games all afternoon and exploding bombs of a war movie at night. Requests for quiet from staff so the rest of us can sleep, last only if they are in the room, then up goes the volume again. Across from me another man moves in. He is deaf. The nurses are forced to yell at him “Are you in pain? Etc. etc. through the night. They could have a bull horn and get no answer, but the rest of us sacrifice the tiny chance of sleep we have.
Maybe being sleep deprived helped me find the humour, my body flooded with adrenaline, from unending fight or flight response, provided me an opportunity that brought me home feeling a better version of me.
My MRI took place the next day, not without complications. However, my specialist received enough information to advice me on the best course of action, and I had already done my due diligence on the options available to me moving forward. Amazingly, the special course of medication was found in a small clinic in Saskatoon and sent up to the hospital just for me. Warned it might take days to get it, I suddenly found myself receiving a quickie course in how to inject myself subcutaneously and being released that afternoon.
So, after four days that seem like a surreal experience, a mystifying dream from which I’ve woken, I am elated to be in my home by the river, buzzed up on Prednisone and racing about like a monkey on speed.
My old home at RUH is no longer a haven, but a sprawling spew of chaos. The sheer size of the hospital, with the children’s hospital added on, along with several other floors that were built after my initial stay makes getting around not only intimidating, but a marathon workout. Over forty years there are massive changes, in size, numbers, and systems; but several stood out: there is a much higher percentage of male nurses, there is a wide variety in ethnicity of the staff, who have In common, their caring, and frustration in not being able to give the time they wish to their patient. They spend more time moving them around than making them comfortable. I am most grateful for the expertise, sensitivity and good energy they brought to all our encounters.
Our overcrowded hospitals have mastered one skill since the demands of covid. Triage rules. The constant relocation of patients a driving force. Most decisions to move a patient happen on rounds later in the day. This means the patients are almost always moved in the middle of the night, as it takes cleaning staff hours to sterilize the cubicles and equipment for the newest occupant. So, more fodder for humour, as an entire ward of exhausted patients put up with the lights, noise, and personal information thrust upon them at 2:15 am by the arrival of the newest occupant. You don’t go to a hospital to rest.
My next-cubicle neighbour and I are eyeing the bathroom door. Who will win? Whether I’m first in or not, I know I’ll have a grin on my face. Hospital turned out to be a hoot!
Opening myself to the experience those last two days proved so much more beneficial than my earlier attempt to isolate and keep my protective wall in place. With awareness came gratitude. How could I complain about my mousehole, when there were dozens of patients who didn’t have a bed, thousands of Canadians who don’t have a doctor and millions of people around the world who can’t get treatment? I was blessed indeed.
Coming from this new perspective I could laugh at what days ago would have disgusted, frightened or turned me judgemental. Where else could I listen to a woman talking about her bloody stool while I tried to eat my lunch; or smile at the irony of five milk-based foods on my tray marked “no dairy”? Where else could you have a nurse shout at a room full of visitors “Do you know how much he weighs? Do you know his height?” When they can’t answer, and the man can’t hear you think they’d pull out a writing pad. Instead, the nurse goes by my bed muttering, “I’m saying he’s 5’8” a hundred and eighty pounds, so tough.”
Reps from the physio department and abilities centre are now interrogating me about my needs. Can I manage at home. Can I walk on my own? Can I climb stairs? They want to take me for a trial test. I leave the woman in the dust as I stride down the hall, up and down a stairwell and back to my room. I’m no ancient lady who needs a pole to pull herself out of bed. That they think I might be incurs a stream of silent laughter that delights my mind. I will recover fully, paddle the river, ski the hills. Time and will power have proven me right many times. I have total faith that forty years after my first victory I am in an even stronger position to combat Crohn’s, for I have a more powerful weapon in my arsenal — humour.
I feel like an anomaly, raised on a flat piece of prairie when I have a climber buried deep in my spirit. Rocks — pebbles to boulders and great towering peaks of granite attract me. As a young girl, I found my greatest thrills climbing the Couteau Hills around Clearwater Lake through the summer and the small curves at Eagle Creek the rest of the year.
Since, I feed my spirit with stories of other climbers and great climbs; and been fortunate to draw from an extensive library on the subject put together by my brother, who did roam from the flat prairie to the top of mountains around the world. Recently, he lent me Ed Viesturs autobiography No Shortcut to the Top. A high-attitude climber, Ed was the 5th person to climb all 2800s the 14 tallest mountains in the world without supplemental oxygen.
Ed, who also grew up in central United States not a lot of mountains) had his interest piqued, as a young man, by reading Annapurna by Maurice Herzag, who describes the first summitting of a 2800 by a French team in 1950. Lured by the exciting account, yet, with no experience in high mountain climbing, Ed spent the next ten years honing his craft by guiding amateur climbers in the Mt. Rannier area and creatively attaching to international teams who had permits in place to attempt the bigger forays on Everest and others. He’d been climbing for several years and had conquered six of the 2800s before he set a goal to summit all fourteen.
Now you wonder why I am going on about climbing while I sit in a hospital bed 5:30 am unable to sleep for all the noise around me. I clearly see Ed and I had equally meaningful goals on which to focus. Over the next ten years Ed met his, but with many setbacks. Often his summits were cut short at the last stage because of other climbers who would not survive getting down without his help. Sometimes dangerous snow conditions on that last tantalizing slope meant he had to turn back. Often the effort of planning, putting together the perfect team, obtaining the correct permits, finding sponsors, stockpiling equipment and sending it around the world, setting up base camp and auxiliary camp sites for the last push and a safe descent, ended in a failed attempt. A challenge for the next try. Dealing with a chronic disease that seems intent on putting many obstacles in my way provides similar preparedness and flexibility. Above all it requires knowing the end goal–good health and determining to take every step you can to get there.
Though Annapurna was the first 28er Ed dreamed about it became the last he summitted. His attempt of the north face solo in 2000 and was turned back 350 feet short of the final peak. He tried the east ridge in 2002, ran short of time and chose getting down safely to the glory of the summit. For an hour in 2005 he stood on top of Annapurna and looked across the Himalayas and Napal at other the towering peaks in he had stood upon. Ed does not say he conquers a mountain, rather, he believes the mountain decides if it will let you succeed. This philosophy is now applied to my health care, as I no longer feel bullying and pushing my body to perform will bring me success. I listen and work with my body at what it tells me it needs.
Now a keynote speaker much in demand, Ed shares his philosophy and what kept him alive when so many others died. In all his climbs he is one of the few who did not lose fingers or toes to frostbite. “Getting up is optional. Getting down is mandatory,” he tells his fascinated listeners. This is his bed rock motto. If he does not reach the summit by his designated time he turns back, refusing to be caught up in the euphoria that take so many other climbers past their final bit of energy so they freeze to death on the mountain with no strength left to descend. He turns short of his goal, knowing retreat and lessons learned this time is a higher guarantee of success the next.
The last line of Herzag’s book is, “There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men.” Ed Viesturs builds on this theme as he talks to corporate executives striving to grow their companies, a group of young people searching for their place in the world, a ward of cancer patients fighting to meet their goal of remission and survivor. I relate, having gone through the first of several Annapurna’s in my life. Granted some, where forty years ago. Today I make my climb again as Crohn’s attacks my body. I am certain, like Ed, I will be turned back at times by treatments that don’t work. I can take only one step at a time, focused and fully aware of the dangers around me. I may settle for never quite reaching my summit or find the glory of looking down with elation on the world of good health spread below me. Acceptance is one of the hardest and best lessons I’ve learned.
I do know, like Ed, my wins are short spurts of focused energy supported by a great team of health care workers, family and friends. And I feel I have an advantage over many facing their own Annapurna for the first time, for I know I have found the strength, endurance, resilience and will to make successful climbs in the past. Thank you, Ed, for the exciting descriptions of your attempts, failures and successes.
Getting up is optional. We have little control over the disease attacking our body, but the belief at some point our body will decide we are worthy of victory. Getting down is mandatory. We do have control over when we make that all important turn – challenge the mountain and possibly die or get down so you can try again. Going down Is creating a different lifestyle for myself, it can be even better if I discard my tunnel vision on a fixed route and try the one that looks best this time around. Ed doesn’t talk of challenging the mountain and beating it. He builds a relationship with the mountain and lives by its rules. May you all recognize and manage your own climb on Annapurna. It can become the best learning experience of your life.
WHERE IS M?
She isn’t dashing from window to window checking wind speeds at six in the morning. Her kayak lies dry in its rack.
She isn’t standing at her stove, pouring boiling chokecherry jelly into jars; or chopping vegetables at the counter for the homemade soups she lovingly crafts, a recipe rebel.
She isn’t kneeling in front of a rock bed in the yard picking leaves from between their jagged teeth. Nor is she sitting on the back deck laughing at an industrious sparrow taking his morning shower in her birdbath.
She isn’t at her desk. Her laptop lolls a dusty witness proclaiming productivity nil. A half-made puzzle splatters a table, the pieces scattered and isolated like the bits that make up M.
Step lightly across the hardwood floor and peek around the edge of the double door into the bedroom. Is that M curled on the bed, her breathe a reassuring rise and fall? Is she asleep or enclosed in an imagined sanctuary, a sandy alcove on a private stream where she can float in cool water and dream.
STOMP ON THIS
Today is International Earth Day. While governments of one hundred and ninety-two countries are recognizing this important event with speeches and programs (and please not a flood of bright coloured balloons set aloft to kill more birds) little is being done to save our planet.
Traditionally, today, I pick up the garbage others have strewn over the living surface of our land like confetti rained down on a globe. Years of observation force me to conclude the people most dependent on the land are the ones that least respect it. I watch TV shows of subsistence dwellers in the north, who take 200 salmon out of a river a day while the runs are on, and drop their spent cartridges onto the land without retrieving them. I find empty bait containers of Styrofoam and plastic tossed away by fishermen (reaping the rewards of a tasty trout without respecting the waters that produced it). I see the farmers covering hay bails with mammoth sheets of plastic, spraying their crops with fertilizer and weed killers which sink into the water table and ripping up the brush around a small slough to squeeze another bushel of wheat from their land, while birds are left with nowhere to nest. Urban dwellers are little better. I locate the bag of trash someone throws into the ditch once a week on their way into the city. I pick up the bottles and cans and shiny pieces of foil that, heated by the sun, spark a flame in the dangerously dry grass and bush.
EARTHDAY.ORG is supported by many organizations trying to voice the despair of a dying planet. They sent representatives to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2021 to plead for more action and are behind many structured and positive programs to resuscitate our world before it chokes to death.
They’ve posted eight ideas to teach children about green living – which I think is a hoot, because our youngest generation knows more about it than the three generations who proceeded them and who still create the greatest amount of destruction. So, while you are “reading a book on nature” to your children or grandchildren as EDO recommends, please absorb the message.
“Go out and enjoy nature.” They suggest as an act of honoring Earth Day. They don’t say leave pieces of clothing, footwear, backpacks and your food wrappers behind when you head home. They don’t ask us to swing on tree limbs until they snap under our weight, or trod a path across the hills, where others have gone until a wavy line of bare dirt replaces the prairie wool and indicates your passing for the next millennia.
“Open your windows.” EDO notes homes contain 2.5 times more pollutants that the outdoors. They don’t point out that opening our window can bring in the toxic smell of manure from a feedlot, the acidic destruction of land from pig urine, the chemical vapours of a crop sprayer or the ripe smell of the lagoon filled with our waste; all caused by our greed for food and more food.
“Feed the birds”. I live in a provincial park. The administration has asked us not to put bird feeders out because the seeds dropping on the ground bring in other predators. So, while you’re kindly feeding a bird you’ve set up a bait stand for a fox or coyote.
“Take a bike ride.” Ha! More and more overfed people are buying electric bikes, which mean more lithium batteries, in other words more lithium extracted from rock or alkaline water in the earth and more batteries to dump into our landfills. According to authorities our planet has approximately 30 to 90 million tons of lithium in reserve, which means we will deplete the earth’s supply, possibly as early as 2040. Will we then sit upon a mountain of junked electric cars and bikes? And more frightening to me, has anyone projected the damage done to our water systems when we start harnessing more rivers and waterfalls to produce the mammoth amount of electricity needed to charge electric transportation?
One of EDO’s ideas I can get behind is “buy more locally”. Imagine the difference in how much fossil fuel is used to transport bananas from Brazil to the prairies, or pineapple from Hawaii to Toronto instead of eating the local berries and apples grown within a few kilometres of our homes? I wonder why governments aren’t investing in large greenhouses, employing hundreds of workers to grow the kind of food we insist we must have. We already make ethanol from plants, so we can heat the greenhouses with the waste from the plants we produce. But hey, maybe this idea is too simple, cost efficient and easy – let’s pay another three quarters of a million dollars to study the problem for five more years and come up with something far more complex and short-sighted.
Yes, the cynic in me is up and running and using the weak weapons of sarcasm and irony to attack. Nature is my battery charger, my spiritual inspirations and mental medicine. It infuriates me to see how carelessly others treat her. So today I post this blog in hopes my plea stops a paper cup from being tossed on the sidewalk, or a large piece of plastic being shredded on a barb wire fence. I stand by Mother Nature who is waving that plastic in the wind and rattling that cup down the street trying to catch our attention.
COMMENTING ON COMMENTS
Over the past two weeks I’ve heard multi times, “I read your blog, but my comments didn’t show up”, or “Your website wouldn’t accept my comment”. This is not good! An email to my tech, some changes in my dashboard and the problem is semi fixed; enough that I can reply to comments waiting since October. Yikes! I discover the algorithm sending me an email link to a submitted comment has stopped working. Believing I am getting no comments I’ve not investigated, instead I sagged with rejection.
No wonder I’ve lost my writing momentum. Without your feedback my conclusion became, “No one is reading me. Is there any point?” I trust this explains why I am addressing the importance of your comments – not just for me, but for every writer. Your interaction is a vital part of the process of putting ideas, through words, into the universe. A writer plants the seed, the reader sees the tender shoot, and waters it with comments. These, in turn, form the bloom. And of great interest to me, both sunshine (good comments) and fertilizer (negative feedback) unfurl the petals.
Writers write for a variety of reasons. My husband will be the first to point out I don’t write to make money. My sisters will say I’m not in it for fame – or notoriety.
I write firstly to inform. It pleases me, that through my blogs, I can share something I’ve learned, a philosophy tickling my soul, or an inspirational idea sparking my mind. I am happiest when I evoke my reader (you) into an inner search of your lifestyle, heart or mind.
My romantic suspense books let me entertain. Night and day my imagination feeds my brain stories. I write them down, get them in print and hope you take a vicarious ride with my protagonists through the amusement park of my plot. My goal is eliciting a belly laugh, an eye rolling groan, a cry of fear, the heat of anger or a swoon of sexy endorphins in you.
I write so my readers know they are not alone. My books and pieces on chronic disease proffer my experience on living with Crohns, along with the knowledge gained, and the challenges overcome of many other people dealing with physical and mental health problems. When you comment, you support them.
Good or bad, a comment moves my goals forward. Whether you argue my theory on Facebook, write a glowing review on Amazon, or share your experience of the topic on my blog, I benefit. I learn from you. Your thoughts on my remarks make others think, maybe even share. Your reviews cause other readers to read my books: your criticism stimulates discussion. All has a purpose. You are the one thing a writer must have – comments are the bonus.
STS – SMALL TOWN SYNDROME
I grew up in Rosetown, SK. And although I’m not a proponent of saying the SK is flat, Rosetown, in its square-on-square shape sits on a flat piece of prairie. If you wanted something exciting to do you had to drive at least 50 minutes in any direction. The nearest thing to nature we had was a low set of hills along one edge of Eagle Creek (which held only a trickle of water for as long as I lived there).
We were the Thrasher kids, privileged, popular, vigilantly protected from town gossip by our guard dog father and conflict avoiding mother. However, we couldn’t escape the labels, expectation and rampant gossip that goes along with small town life. It is a given that if you live in a small town, you are entitled to be apprised of everything that happens to your neighbours. With a high-profile father, and community involved mother, the Thrasher kids were fodder for gossip.
As a child I can remember making a lot of exciting moments for family and friends. A three-year-old, I fell between the side of a bed and a small space on the wall and slept soundly through a town search that went on through the night. At five I played hookey from kindergarten and defecated under the steps of the Presbyterian church when I couldn’t go home to use the bathroom. At seven instead of walking to school I hid behind a set of skis in the back yard and watched my mom hang laundry on the line. As I look back now and see a theme building, I guess I didn’t much like the rules. Even then I bucked the system.
In grade four they discovered I needed STRONGG glasses and finally my family had an explanation why the town labelled me stuck-up. With my blurred vision I couldn’t recognize anyone on the street, so I walked past without acknowledging them, too embarrassed to guess. To this day I am oblivious to much that goes on around me – taught in my early years to avoid rather than observe.
The Thrasher kids created conflict of every type between themselves, but Lord help anyone who went after one of us. Suddenly we were a united unit, fiercely aggressive in our defense of a sibling. The fight for fairness and burning loyalty still fire my gut today
We were raised with upper middle-class standards. Our dining table every evening became a classroom in proper etiquette and edifying conversation. My parents hosted many adult guests for Dad’s business and pleasure, and we were expected to entertain them with courtesy.
Our strict parenting meant we were often isolated from our peers. I couldn’t be out the same hours as my friends, go to movies they were allowed to see, sleep in on Saturday morning, miss church on Sunday for a skating party or hockey game. We were expected to give to the community. So, I entered my adolescence with a lot of rebellion. When I wanted to be with my friends, I was expected to babysit a neighbour’s kids. If I wanted to go to a party with my boyfriend my curfew was so early the party had barely started before I was expected home. Our after-school hours were filled with dancing lessons, music lessons, skating practice, extra curricular activities, helping mom, doing chores and as soon as we were old enough a job to teach us the lessons of good work ethics and budgeting our money. No time to get into mischief or learn bad habits. Regardless of my parent’s hopes I accumulated many!
I had a paper route from age 14 on, and this again exposed me to the censorious attention of many townspeople. I could be labelled that lovely Thrasher girl who always gets the paper here on time, or just as quickly the idiot Thrasher kid who got her bike stuck in the mud of the back lane. And faster than the spin cycle on a load of crap word spread through the town.
How does this affect me still? You may have guessed foremost I have an antipathy against small towns. I resent labels, spent the first fifty years of my life fighting to gain control instead of letting others control me. Since, I continue a constant battle for autonomy. I may not shave my head, cover myself in tattoos or piercings, but my mind and heart are those of a born rebel. Don’t tell me I can’t do something. Don’t expect me to do something just because you think I should. And whatever you do don’t back me into a corner, because I’ll come out as mean as a badger poked with a stick.
Living in Rosetown also influenced me positively. Because it was so blah, square streets, flat land, rigid controls, and spying eyes everywhere, my imagination became my greatest friend, weapon and savior. For several years many people thought I’d be sent to school in Texas. I told them that when they asked where I got my strange accent. They bought it and pinned it to the gossip clothesline faster than Pinterest works today. The truth is we had a German nanny at the time I was learning to talk. As my father worked most the time and my mother was hospitalized with a back injury a German accent crept into my speech, then was later diluted by an Irish caregiver, then a country girl who helped mom into my teens. I call it my Mickey Mouse voice.
My imagination and creativity also made me extremely sought after. I had three sets of girl friends and could join any group from the popular to the losers – yes small-town labels! The boys hung around because they liked my grit, adventurous spirit and willingness to take on any “I double dare you’s”. Part of this spun off from being a middle child and the constant fight for attention. Whichever group I took part in expected – yes there is that word again – me to come up with something exciting to do, something new, and of course fun, and just short of breaking the limits – my limits – because my friends’ generally exceeded them.
Like the title of a Clint Eastwood duster, small town life was for me the good the bad and the ugly. I am adamantly opposed to living in one again, and decry STS with passion. It has taken me 70 plus years to shake the labels of snob, spoiled, ferocious, soft-touch etc. “out of my hair” as Mitzi Gaynor sang in South Pacific – a song to which I related. The one label I claim with pride is rebel. It got me to where I am today, and that’s a mighty fine place.