Six days after an unremarkable lumpectomy, I had rushed to the local hospital, not so much because of pain but out of concern. I had been eating and drinking as usual, but what was going in was not coming out.
I cursed my faulty plumbing — an operation for ovarian cancer had produced infections and then, in 2009, an ileostomy. I’m one of about half a million Americans whose body wastes are collected in disposable external pouches. And now the pouch was clean and empty, which was a problem.
Unfortunately, I had made the situation worse by forgetting to bring a book to the hospital with me. Within an hour, a nurse named Rachel came to my rescue with a thriller, “The Donor.” According to the flap, Frank M. Robinson’s hero awakens in a recovery room to discover that one of his kidneys has been harvested by a mysterious villain who will next time seize the poor guy’s heart. Sounded perfect.
Rachel’s book, a life preserver, saw me through 12 hours in the emergency room as well as most of the next day, which I spent in a hospital room. I was receiving “rest care”: nothing by mouth, an IV with saline to prevent dehydration. If my intestines did not start working, I would be transferred by ambulance to a major hospital in Indianapolis, an hour and a half away from Bloomington, where I live.
One doctor told me: “You have an 80 percent chance that the obstruction will right itself.”
It was a new experience to look down at the pouch plastered on my belly with alarm that it was clean. Daily since the ileostomy eight years ago, I have struggled with disgust: certainly not the prescribed or healthy response, but mine nonetheless. A bit of intestine — called a stoma — had been pulled out of my body and stitched to my stomach so stool could be evacuated.
Until this stoppage, the productivity of the stoma had revolted me. Every few hours, the bag needed to be emptied. Every few days, I changed the apparatus that, glued to my body, collected waste. Like many others living with temporary or permanent colostomies, ileostomies and urostomies, I hid the pouch beneath my clothes, while I stressed over skin irritation, accidental leaks and mortification.
Was the pouch empty because of something I had ingested? People with ileostomies are warned against fibrous foods. Corn, cauliflower, mushrooms, cabbage, celery, beans, nuts and berries can cause blockages, so I am supposed to follow a diet low in roughage. At my last meal, I had eaten a sprinkling of parsley on a piece of cod, but surely not enough to clog the works.