My Rare Disease Part 5: Dignity

Back to Part 4: Specter ~

My mother would later tell me that she’d seen in my eyes a look she had only seen twice before in her life—once in my great aunt’s eyes just before she passed away, and once in my great grandfather’s eyes, also right before he died. She’d left my house that morning and headed straight for the doctor’s office, where she marched past the waiting area, through the doors to the nurses’ stations and stood with tears streaming down her cheeks as she told the doctor in no uncertain terms to help her daughter or find someone else who would. The doctor wasn’t about to argue, and my mother returned to haul me back in to the emergency room, where the nurses tried exhaustively to insert an IV. In the end, they called a distinctly zealous EMT who wasn’t going to take no for an answer. He found success after several moments of twisting the needle in a variety of directions under the skin and jabbing forcefully until it penetrated a vein I hadn’t previously known existed in the base of my left thumb. I had to give the man credit for his ingenuity.

I then learned that the hospital had no beds available, or rather, not enough staff for the beds. So I remained on the little metal folding cart in the ER overnight. Every few hours, a different doctor came in to check on me. One of them looked at my fingernails and asked me how long they’d been curled over the tips of my fingers like that. “Forever,” I told him. “But they’ve gotten worse in the past couple of years.”

The next day, I was admitted into the hospital and provided with a real bed and my very own bathroom. Not having to share a bathroom normally would have been enough to brighten my spirits. But by that time, I had no spirits left to brighten. It was all I could do to watch as the world proceeded to function around me.

Eventually, my doctor came to see me. A week earlier, that same doctor had examined me in his office and told me with all the confidence I’d ever seen in a human being that I was on the mend from the terrible stomach virus that had been going around. I was “definitely getting better,” he’d said. Now he told me that my potassium levels were dangerously low—among the lowest he’d ever seen. They’d have to change my IV solution. Up until that time, I’d been able to endure the multiple IV stab wounds as well as the fact that they’d had to extract blood from a new puncture wound every six hours, but when they changed that IV solution, the potassium felt like liquid fire running through my veins. As the scorching pain extended into the flesh of my wrist and traveled up my arm I felt the familiar warmth of tears on my cheeks. Over the past two years, those tears had become my constant companions.

Several days later, my doctor asked if the potassium hurt. When I said yes, he had the ratio adjusted, so it didn’t damage my veins. “It shouldn’t hurt,” he said quietly. The same doctor who’d told me with a self-assured smile that I was getting better one week earlier now looked at me in a quiet way with a curious tilt of his head. I tried to define the look in his eyes, but desperation didn’t seem to capture it. Though his face was a picture of professionalism, his eyes, if mine did not deceive me, held something akin to sorrow.

Every day he called a specialist with an update on my condition. Every day the specialist told him about the stomach virus that was going around. So we waited. I had already gained a significant number of my lost pounds via the IV. I was hydrated and could once again recognize my face in the mirror, but I continued to eliminate more than I ingested. This I knew, because they measured. At one point I began to wonder what I could possibly have left to eliminate, but the images that line of thinking conjured were unbearable in my given state. I quickly banished the thoughts.

Instead, I considered the concept of dignity. Though I knew chances were likely that I’d experienced dignity once, maybe even possessed or enjoyed it, that state of existence was so far gone—years since removed—I could no longer remember how it felt. Lucky for me, hospitals don’t allow for dignity. That’s a life lesson learned the minute you trade all your undergarments for an approximate square yard of hospital-blue, threadbare fabric masquerading as a backless gown. At this pinnacle, dignity transforms from an illusion of superiority into a cruel joke on all humanity. (And if that isn’t enough, the subsequent measuring of bodily eliminations will step right up to hammer the last nail in dignity’s coffin. Of course, by that time, the joke’s on dignity.)

Who invented this circular concept that is destined to turn with venomous disdain on each and every one of us some day? That’s what I wanted to know. The good news was that I’d already lost much of my dignity prior to the hospital experience. Imagine the damage potential in one who is not so fortunate. A person, I considered, who does not experience dignity-crushing events at a still formative age may never learn that having dignity is the ultimate exercise in self-deception. At least I’d figured this out before it was too late. That I’d once had dignity, myself, was the impossible concept to grasp. This is how comprehensively it vanishes. Before the hospital, I realized, I’d been trying to recapture my dignity. In the hospital, by contrast, dignity was not an option. How freeing, I thought, then forgot about it altogether as I lay in the hospital bed awaiting my mother’s arrival.

Next ~ Part 6: Pride

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