“Sleepers” is the kind of Film invented to be the Prize unknowingly sought by Channel Surfers everywhere so they can finally put down the TV Remote and know they have struck Gold. Like that feeling you get when you are with the person you’d choose above anyone else and when there is no other place you’d rather be than where you’re at, a couple of other Films come to mind that would similarly comfort me from a hard day of Life albeit for different reasons and/or depending upon my mood. These are Films like “Casablanca,” “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid,” “Thief” with James Caan,“ “…And Justice for All,” “Absence of Malice,” “One on One” with Robbie Benson and “Stormy Monday” featuring a classic Tommy Lee Jones performance and underrated and presumably under-promoted acting by the Famed Musician, Sting. Besides the display of genuine entertainment and drama, these films remind me of less complicated times in my Life when chronic illness, medical bills, health-care paperwork, obtaining Prior Approvals and Crohn’s Disease did not have a dominating presence in my thought process or in my typical day or even hour.
But the first time I saw “Sleepers” I immediately related to it in a way I have never connected with a Movie. “Sleepers” was first a Book written by Lorenzo Carcaterra and then adapted into a Screenplay by Barry Levinson. Mr. Levinson also directed the Film which is focused on the lives of four fun-loving friends growing up in the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York City who through some rough neighborhood criminal pranks get sentenced in their Teens to more than one year in a notorious Reform School in upstate New York. However, the Reform School turns out to be no more than a corrupt Prison for budding Juvenile Delinquents and the four friends are forever changed by the beatings, humiliations, sexual molestations and abuses committed by the same Guards who are seemingly sworn to protect them. Then, thirteen years later, via a chance encounter with the most vicious of the Guards, played masterfully by Kevin Bacon, the boys, now as adults, devise a chance for revenge against both the Reform School and the Corrupt and Molesting Guards. Kevin Bacon is scarily convincing as a Child Predator who eventually pays for the despicable manner in which he treated these four tough, but still innocent, teenagers.
While the Film delicately conveys the despicable behavior by the Guards, its focus is more on how these four neighborhood buddies each managed to cope, survive and deal with their private nightmares and flashbacks of abuse and humiliation in their own way and come out the other side as adults. Their journeys are rough and their futures uncertain but in some ways I’ve always thought the Film reveals the wide spectrum of options one has when he or she is forced to live with such haunting, tormenting mental and physical pain. Robert De Niro plays the street-smart Neighborhood Priest who is all too familiar with the realities of the Reform School but there’s nothing he can do to stop what is being done to his “Boys” while they are there but he does manage to help them get their revenge. Among many, there is a memorable scene when Robert De Niro visits one of boys at the Reform School and in a classic Prison-like Visitor Room setting he has to discreetly and out of view of the Security Cameras tell this former mischievous altar boy not to cry and “let them see and get any satisfaction.” The boy in turn makes De Niro promise to keep his mother away from the Reform School because he doesn’t want her to see him in this setting or condition.
Thank God, I have never been Molested or Abused and thus I can’t relate to the deep-rooted Pain and Mental Anguish which I suppose can be triggered merely by a sound, sight or even a dream not to mention the actual sighting of your Abuser. But for some reason, the manner in which these four teenagers got through this horrific experience at the Reform School and nevertheless became adults (whether it was a true story or not) always reminds me of when I truly became a Man except it wasn’t Prison or Reform School which facilitated that journey; it was the Decrepit Wing at an otherwise outstanding New York City Hospital in which I had my First Crohn’s Disease surgery in 1988 when I was 25. I’m 48 years old as I write this, and for the life of me, I still can’t comprehend how such a fine Medical Facility housed its Post-Operative Gastroenterological Patients in this arguably barbaric environment.
I know, you are reading this hoping to be entertained but instead growing increasingly concerned about the grimness of this Blog Post but please trust me that you will soon be Laughing because with Pain and Suffering, at least when it happens to me, Laughter always ensues. For example, let’s start with the logic of this Hospital Wing’s Design whereby the conditions of the Patient Rooms were so sparse and minimalistic that the only Patient Bathrooms were in the hallway AND they were co-ed. Again, the Patient Bathrooms were not in the Patient Rooms so if you were forced to “try out” your newly connected Intestines you had to somehow collect yourself and get through the stifling pain of having your Torso sliced open, then prop yourself up and off the bed, all the while making sure you dragged and carried your IV Pole and Foley Catheter on your Journey to the aforementioned co-ed hallway bathroom. Most likely, however, you did not read the signals correctly from your newly-connected Intestines and you have to conduct this Chinese Fire Drill each time you feel the prospect of farting or defecating since passing gas and “dropping a deuce” are the only ways out of this Nightmare. I guess my dreams of having Robert Downey Jr. play “Me” if my Life were ever made into a Movie are never going to happen as Jason Bourne I am not. By the way, there might also be a co-ed Waiting Line for the hallway bathroom and your Insides may not be “in synch” with such a snafu in your schedule. Look, not having unfettered access and/or always being within feet of a semi-clean, semi-private bathroom for a few days after abdominal surgery is like going to Afghanistan with only a Paint-Ball Gun for protection. See what I meant about Laughter always ensuing when I interact with the Health-Care System?
At the time, it was the oldest Hospital Wing in New York City and I believe it was scheduled for demolition and remodeling but with my luck I am convinced they kept it open just for my first Abdominal Resection Surgery to toughen me up for my subsequent extreme and often bizarre Life experiences with Crohn’s Disease and Chronic Illness. What they say about “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger” should be written on my Gravestone as this experience in 1988 almost “broke me” but instead it ironically prepared me for whatever was to happen to me in the ensuing 23 years with my Crohn’s Disease and its auto-immune side effects and complications which to-date has necessitated a total of approximately Twenty (20) Major Surgeries and in excess of Two Hundred (200) Hospitalizations.
Again, I’m not positive of the specifics as to why this broken-down Hospital Wing was still operational in one of the world’s most sophisticated Cities in the late 1980s but with that Decrepit Wing came top-notch surgeons and gastroenterologists so I simply listened to my Doctors and did as I was told. After all, how much of a factor could the actual medical facilities themselves play in the overall experience of undergoing and recuperating from major abdominal surgery? It was also 1988 when such cool music as “The Traveling Wilburys” and John Hiatt’s brilliant Album/CD “Slow Turning” were finally getting noticed by the mainstream and Steve Winwood’s “Roll With It” was heard every 5 minutes on FM Radio and Bobby Mcferrin kept reminding us, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” So, how much impact could a “place” have where all you had to do is lie down, give blood and try out your newly configured Intestines? More than you could ever imagine.
I had just been on a great vacation with a few buddies in Mexico and while the nights of Tequila and recklessly carousing with beautiful women inched me closer to my predestined run-in with my first Crohn’s Disease Surgery, I did possess a great tan and a classic washboard stomach. However, “The Situation” need not worry as I was never to see my washboards again except when they were re-created on a 12-year old boy who was an Child Actor featured in a local/regional late night TV Commercial playing a “typical” Crohn’s Disease Patient who needed to have a second Crohn’s Disease Resection Surgery only months after his first. The commercial was heart-breaking and intended to elicit sympathy for fund-raising purposes. Upon first seeing the commercial, I was hoping the sympathy and altruistic intentions were for the benefit of me losing my washboards but the pain medications soon wore off and I was able to grasp the big picture. In any event, yes, a Modeling Agency had contacted me after I was recommended to them by my Surgeon since the combination of my flat stomach with tan background made for a “beautiful scar.”
So, at this point, technically it appears that my experience at this horrific excuse for a Hospital was pretty decent as it did formally classify me as a Model, right? That said, when someone brags to their friends that they are dating a “Model” or tries to set You up with a Model for a Date, do you think they mean some 25 year-old guy who posed for his Crohn’s Disease Intestinal Resection Surgery Scar? Didn’t think so and with that introduction, welcome to my world where the “Devil’s Always in the Details,” progress is made painfully slow with 3 steps forward and then 2 steps back, I’m always making Lemonade out of Lemons and I’m never out of Lemons. Now we are getting to the crux of my Story and why watching the characters in “Sleepers” was like a Tutorial for me in terms of how I was to cope with the crazy way my Life would play out ever since I signed that first Modeling Contract, I mean, had my First Crohn’s Disease Surgery at the most archaic Hospital Wing in the late 1980s all the while when Steve Winwood’s “Roll With It” rang out from every Boom Box in Manhattan. Let’s just say that the upbeat and current coolness of Winwood’s song did not remotely match what I was experiencing at this Hospital Wing. It was like having Family dinner with the Cunninghams from TV’s “Happy Days” and then saying goodnight and traveling home to your 5th floor walk-up apartment in the Projects of the South Bronx.
Up until then I had been hospitalized several times for my Crohn’s Disease with medical treatment usually comprised of IV Dosages of Steroids targeted at staving off surgery because frequent recurrence is inherent in Crohn’s Disease such that a Spring Intestinal Resection Surgery in your Small Bowel might very well act up again at the new “connection points” (think Plumbing applied to your Intestines) and require identical surgical Small Bowel Resection treatment in the early days of that summer’s July. Therefore, barring extreme emergencies in which the Bowel is perforated or cut, Doctors try every trick in the book to simply buy time hoping the Crohn’s Disease or Colitis Flare-Up quiets down and often they are successful. They use a variety of methods to do this and the most dreaded one, at least from the Patient perspective, is the “NG Tube,” whereby a rather thick Tube is “passed through” your Nose and with your reluctant cooperation it is painfully “swallowed” deep into the Intestines so that once in the proper position it acts like a siphon and then because of physics, gravity and with the assistance of a Pump it starts to suck up everything that is putting pressure on the obstruction, block or kink in your Intestines and compiles it in a carefully measured and monitored output collection bottle. Sometimes it stays in the Patient for weeks, if necessary.
While the NG tube is by far the most demeaning and dreaded method used in treating dangerous Intestinal Obstructions, it is usually very effective in alleviating the pressure on your bowels which is causing so much of your pain and discomfort and thus in turn it can prevent surgery. Over the years I became familiar with the warning signs of an Intestinal obstruction or blockage and just like The Weather Channel noticing a “bow echo” and thus “danger” in a Spring Radar Impression above a small town somewhere in Missouri, my body senses these increasingly persistent and painful cramps and issues an “Intestinal Obstruction” Warning to my brain and then the safest way to survive unscathed is to regurgitate whatever I recently ate to alleviate any pressure on the blockage or kink. This is like going underground to a storm shelter to live through a fast-approaching deadly Tornado as soon as those bow echo findings are funneled through The National Weather Service’s Tornado Warning system and those Storm Sirens wail.
But when you try to vomit and nothing comes up because it’s already been digested too deep into your Intestines to regurgitate and it’s also not ready to come out the other end, that’s when it’s time to huddle up in the bathtub with your loved ones under a mattress (and please don’t forget about your pets) and pray for the best. I’m serious, just as the folks in the Midwest can relate from a Tornado perspective, if you can’t vomit and you can’t defecate and you have some type of obstruction or kink in your Intestines, it may be too late for even an NG Tube and you could be headed straight to the operating room. That’s because it is incredibly painful when Gas, Liquid or Food is “backed up” from an obstruction or kink as the body’s natural process of “Peristalsis” consistently moves everything down and out. If it comes up against a blockage or kink in what was once a normal passageway, the methodical nature of Peristalsis causes spasmodic Child Labor-like cramping pains that intensify until you either pass out from the pain or you possibly perforate your intestine. Just think of a terrible car accident that causes a massive traffic jam then imagine the impatient cars sitting in traffic not wanting to wait for the “all clear” and they continue moving forward crashing into police cars and the other law-obeying drivers. In real life, that just doesn’t happen. In Crohn’s Disease Life, however, Peristalsis knows of no bounds and keeps things moving with the aim of passing through that kink or obstruction.
I used the term “demeaning” above in association with a possibly life-saving tool such as an NG Tube because as you move your Head ever so slightly you feel the NG Tube pull you like a leash or muzzle on a dog and that feeling of being led around by a tube strategically placed inside your intestines and having no freedom of movement can be psychologically demoralizing and leave you feeling like the horse, “Secretariat,” wearing a harness but being severely constrained without the beautiful countryside and green pastures to roam free. All dressed up and nowhere to go. I have seen many Patients remove their NG Tube out of sheer frustration and over their Doctor’s objections just to save themselves from literally going crazy. Like being slapped in the face, an NG Tube often elicits a primal reaction or one builds up to a boil when such a confining restraint is so close to your eyes that it makes you feel like you are a Prisoner in your own body despite it being there to help you. You know you are free to leave the Hospital at any time but you also know you can’t make it on your own on the outside and that realization is stronger than any set of handcuffs. Once a Patient realizes his complete vulnerability in the Hospital due to the necessity of treatments like an NG Tube, he or she initially gets frightened by the lack of control over their own fate. But, once the Patient is able to “push through” this initial absolute fright, the vulnerability aspect is suppressed and the focus shifts to: “What do I need to do to get better so I can get out of this place?” That is a step in the right direction but it’s easier said than done as you will read below.
Clearly, it takes a tremendous amount of mental discipline to tolerate these almost ancient methods of treating a chronic illness such as Crohn’s Disease. It is perhaps equally frustrating to Patients and to their Families and Friends that except for the advent of much better diagnostic tests and possibly more “immediate” effective Crohn’s Disease medications (I am careful to point out the “immediate” part because the long-term side effects of these drugs are still being studied as they can, and have, caused very serious and disabling medical and immune system problems only a few years after Patients start taking them), not much has changed in treating Crohn’s Disease from 1988 through 2011. It pains me to even write that but it’s true. This is eerily similar to the slow progress meteorologists are having in protecting people from Deadly Tornadoes despite some advancements in predictability and advance warning times. It is these kinds of harsh realities which the characters in “Sleepers” help me confront but the Film wasn’t made until 1996, the Book had come out in 1995 and I was about to go through a life-changing experience in 1988! What to do? I can’t help but find that complete lack of timing hysterical and it is accurately demonstrative of the comical circumstances I have encountered throughout my Life. If Ralph Kramden had Crohn’s Disease, he’d be me. But back to the Story, who would have thought that co-ed hallway Patient bathrooms would have such a profound effect upon me?
Patients with incurable Digestive Tract Auto-Immune Illnesses are vulnerable to kinks or narrowing of the Intestines because their body’s immune system goes into overdrive and starts to attack itself. If I could only talk to my immune system and say, “Schmuck, we’re golden, there is nothing to fight so just chill and watch the Knicks game,” all would be fine but instead this misguided immune system causes an Inflammatory Effect in the Intestines and when the walls of the Bowel get inflamed, the passageway for Gas, Liquid or Food is significantly narrowed. When the Inflammation is so intense that it swells to totally close the Intestinal passageway, you then have an Obstruction. As the Peristalsis continues to push downward after having an Obstruction, it can “push through” the walls of the Intestine and that could cause a Perforation in your Intestines and in most cases only immediate Surgery by a skilled Surgeon can save your Life. Those are the essential ground rules you need to understand in order to grasp what transpired in 1988 after my first Crohn’s Disease Surgery and how I grew up fast as a result. Again, Lemonade out of Lemons and three steps forward, two steps back.
When you are post-operative after Abdominal Surgery, your Bathroom “accomplishments” are the only tangible measurements of success, recovery and then Discharge. More specifically, before eating or drinking anything, a Patient must first pass gas and then after having his or her diet advanced to solid foods, a bowel movement must be witnessed as a result thereof. This process is not an exact science since everyone’s body is different and the Peristalsis Process is also slowed down by both the Narcotics you need to take to offset the Surgical Pain and by the level or lack thereof of your activity. The more you move around and get things “giggling,” the better your prospects for farting and moving up the success chain. The catch, however, is that after the surgery you aren’t exactly looking for Pick-Up Basketball Games with your fellow Patients. This is one of the reasons why Doctors tell you to get out of bed as soon as possible after surgery even if only to sit in a chair to watch TV. In a perfect world you wouldn’t take any Narcotics and just hope that your body naturally finds its rhythm but getting your Torso cut open is quite painful so this is simply a reality which Doctors accept but carefully monitor.
I’m trying not to be too graphic here but it can become quite intense after abdominal surgery when you have not eaten or drunk anything but ice chips for a few days simply because you’ve not been able to Fart. You start asking other Patients who’ve been moved up to eating Jello because they farted without incidence to their newly connected Intestines (but they’ve yet to have a bowel movement otherwise they would be eating more solid foods) and you try to figure out what they did to commence firing. You even consider bribing your Nurse with $100 to have her testify as to the sound and fury of your “Break-Through Fart.” But knowing that you might need a more important piece of manufactured evidence for discharge purposes, you decide to wait, do nothing and “lie in the tall grass.” Surely something more important will come along for that $100.
To the Hospital Patient Visitor these seem like ridiculous issues and questions but after Intestinal Surgery your insides are like that of a new baby’s. To that end, if you’ve ever wondered why babies cry so much it is because their insides are super-sensitive with painful cramps and gas as a result of eating and trying to digest even a tiny portion of baby food. Like babies, you also don’t know what will come out the other end when you get that familiar urge to release this gas and hopefully alleviate the most painful cramps short of child labor. That said, the first few days you are post-operative are so painful that besides the Torso and Muscle Surgical Pain, you actually feel every tiny air bubble which moves slowly from your mouth to your anus and it could take days for these items to make their way through your system. It is a grueling process but one which you must experience in order to indoctrinate your intestines to their new alignment. Nevertheless, you root for these air bubbles to convert into substantive farts because then the pain would have been worth it as the Doctors can then start advancing your diet.
But after a few days of no action, you start to actually get jealous of other Patients on the Floor who are lying in bed enjoying their first meal of solid food as they obviously have graduated from Fart to Bowel Movement and by analogy Jello to a normal low residue but all important Solid Food diet. That’s when the veteran Nurses start giving you “tips” on how to speed up mother nature just like cagey veteran major league baseball players giving you advice on how to break out of a brutal O for 30 Summer Batting Slump. Having nothing to lose, you listen and then slowly (and painfully) try to get out of bed and walk as much as possible. You can’t go very far and don’t forget you are also dragging along an IV Pole and a Foley Catheter (this is inserted directly into your penis or vagina while you are under anesthesia to capture all of your urine so you can rest the first few days after surgery since getting out of bed to go to the bathroom is too painful during the period immediately following the surgery) and you might even be sporting an NG Tube. While untangling tubes, making sure the IV line in your arm is secure and always maintaining the proper distance for the Foley Catheter not to “pull” on your private parts, you must also try to keep your eye on that waiting line outside the co-ed bathroom just in case your Nurse’s tips were spot-on. Trust me, after being attached to these three contraptions and being forced to repeatedly walk around a Patient hallway with them while simultaneously protecting your turn in line at the hallway’s bathroom, you will never complain about wearing formal clothes to Sunday Family Dinners.
The good news is that if your Nurse was right, you will start to get severe pain as the gas moves down into the firing chamber and the image of lying in bed enjoying your first cup of Jello and then hopefully your first solid meal gets you through those intense and unrelenting cramps. Real or not, just the prospect of Farting forces you to slowly re-direct your three (3) transport companions to that one (1) hallway co-ed bathroom – just in case. You can try to be cool about it in case you run into an interesting person on line at the bathroom but I learned quickly that dignity left that Dilapidated Hospital Wing as soon as they put the Identification Band on my wrist. The most you can hope for is to literally “keep your shit together.” The bad news is that your Nurse was right but the long line at the bathroom is not exactly in synch with your internal constitution. This creates a bizarre site for the Patients’ Visitors who watch this bathroom line form and then get entertained by the creative gesticulations of the Patients waiting in line who are trying to either “keep their shit together” by clinching their butts closed or they are attempting to ensure success by sticking them out hoping the changes in latitude will provoke groundbreaking changes once they get inside that bathroom. This I can see Robert Downey Jr. doing.
My Mom and Dad visited me every day and Close Friends would also come to help with my spirits but until I farted I was pre-occupied and felt as if I was in some weird place of almost solitary confinement-like madness. It’s very difficult to concentrate on anything else when your entire fate is predicated on the otherwise normal and unremarkable bodily functions of Farting and producing a bowel movement. There was no way to escape this subject matter anywhere on the Hospital Floor. For example, while doing my daily walk around the Floor, I would exchange pleasantries with other Patients with amicable Nods and articulated salutations of “Hellos” and “How you doin’?” but we were each really centered on getting Intel on the other and whether or not we had farting or had a bowel movement. The funniest part was always the comments made by the Visitors who would usually be accompanying the Patients on these walks as they wanted to fit in and be social. Typically, I’d make eye contact with a fellow Patient trying to walk with his wife and he’d nod at me and then look down at the ground in a dejected sort of manner as if he was the coach of the little league baseball team which had just lost its town’s World Series. But then he’d glance back up at me and say, “I thought I had one this morning but I moved the wrong way in the bed and it just disappeared.” I thought that was funny until his very nice wife would move in closer to me, as if she didn’t want other people to hear what might be embarrassing words coming from her mouth, and almost in a whisper she said, “He’s gonna fart today, I can feel it.”
It hurt so much to laugh but those hallway conversations were priceless. I didn’t want to be rude and I couldn’t move very quickly but I’d always manage to get back to my Patient room and have a belly laugh with my Dad as he was great at keeping a straight face and then making me crack up as he recounted these bizarre interactions with precise detail. But the truth of the matter was that I needed to fart as well and Life as I knew it could never be the same until my most basic of bodily functions was occurring smoothly. While my Family understood my bizarre existence inside that Hospital Wing, a few friends during this Prison-like hospitalization had to stop coming to visit during this pre-fart stage because they were so grossed out by the entire Floor being obsessed with: whether or not they farted; how they farted; was it positional; did it count if it happened during sleep; etc. They also overheard conversations in these hallway bathroom lines that must have seemed “Twilight Zone-like.” I never blamed them and actually since this experience I usually don’t permit any Visitors until I am past this very painful part of the post-operative process where gas and food are ramming each other like bumper-cars inside my intestines. The uncertainly, vulnerability and actual act of carefully getting out of bed but rushing to the bathroom could create life-lasting images that I wouldn’t want anyone to see. And as if things on this Hospital Floor weren’t weird enough, an almost surreal atmosphere was added when some Nurses advocated going through the physical motions of going to the bathroom despite not having the physical urge to do so as a way to trick your body in an attempt to utilize “Method Acting” to get the job down. Can you imagine intelligent adults in Patient Gowns standing in line for a hallway bathroom asking one another how best to position themselves in their bed to commence farting? What about Patients waiting in line for a hallway bathroom when they don’t have the urge to actually use the bathroom but the Al Pacino in them was hopefully going to create a miracle bowel movement? I never blamed my Friends for taking a respite because my situation inside that Hospital Wing was getting more bizarre by the day.
Eventually the human body cooperates and the Patient’s diet is slowly increased until he or she has a normal bowel movement. This is akin to convincing the Parole Board that you are ready to be discharged. However, the Parole Board at the Hospital does not take mere words as evidence of defecation success. They require you to capture a part of your Bowel Movement in a Hat-like Specimen Container which you’d have to place in the toilet upon anticipation of said Bowel Movement. Normally that is easy to facilitate but after abdominal surgery things move unpredictably, fast or slow and it can be extremely challenging to hit the target or to do so in a timely or consistent manner. So, now that my Friends had decided to come back to visit once I told them on the phone that, “Houston, We Have Liftoff” (I am so glad Facebook wasn’t around then), I was now walking down the hallway carrying this Specimen Hat praying that the Jello and Hospital Meat Loaf I ate had somehow come together inside me and formed into what would become my “Opening Statement” as I begged to be Discharged. However, upon learning of the rather gross responsibilities still before me, my Friends came by to give me the New York Post and said they’d do anything in the world for me but it would have to be after I “got my shit together.” We laughed, they left and I cried. Yes, I cried. It wasn’t anything they said and it certainly wasn’t anything they did, for they were, and are, TERRIFIC, but I was now a Member of a Club in which I didn’t want to be a Member nor did I want to Join. I had a serious Chronic Illness and possibly from here on out, my Life was going to be very different than that of my Family Members and Friends. I started to wonder if and when they had that same revelation about me? We all knew I had Crohn’s Disease for a few years but this was the first time it completely disabled me. If that disabling experience of this chronic illness was going to be anything like this 1988 Hospital Wing ordeal, what would my future be like if I had to ever go through this ordeal again? Would people still visit me? Would they still want to be my Friend? Would I remain sane?
In retrospect, I went through some very funny situations in 1988 at this decrepit Hospital Wing but it sure wasn’t funny while I was there as with each passing day I got more in touch with how vulnerable I was and I cried myself to sleep every night. I had never felt more compromised in my entire Life and there was nothing anyone but the Doctors and Nurses could do for me. I felt demeaned by the Health-Care Process especially at this horrific facility. Mind you, no Nurse or Doctor was ever disrespectful to me but the co-ed hallway Patient bathrooms were disgusting and despicable. The foreseeability and logical connection between advancement of Diet and passing gas and then having a bowel movement made the experience unnecessarily demeaning. Given the nature of the Surgery and the increased importance of using a clean and semi-private bathroom, I was appalled that Patients could be treated in such a cavalier manner. I was 25 at the time and it wasn’t like my girlfriend or parents could stay the night in the hospital room with me but I came close to asking them because I had witnessed some strange events during the nighttime at the Hospital when it seemed the hospital staff was more relaxed about everything. Back then and at THIS Facility, let’s just say that if you are hospitalized there and suffered complications while there, you had to pray that they happened during the daytime.
I was probably wrong for thinking this because as I was to learn through subsequent hospital stays, I am the biggest fan of Nurses and I think they are the Key to our Health-Care System and THEY and only THEY provide Patients with the Peace of Mind of “Continuity of Care.” But at this particular out-dated Hospital Wing, I was actually afraid to fall asleep for fear that the Nurses would forget about me, that’s how over-worked and, at times, apathetic they seemed. I was shocked by the almost inhumane and uncaring atmosphere after having my entire Torso sliced open. I couldn’t believe that these people around me didn’t feel my pain. In that regard, asking for medication was a joke as the Nurses were so overworked and responsible for way too many Patients that hitting the Nurse Call Button asking for your pain medication at the time it was due was more like an Under/Over proposition in Las Vegas and the Over would always win.
While waiting for my medication, I would be in tears for an hour or so with only the comfort of my Mom or Dad delicately rubbing my back as my abdominal wound ragged red hot pain. Finally, the Nurse would come in with the medication and as sweet as she could possibly communicate her concern for my welfare, she’d simply say she was doing the best she could. Occasionally, I would get a Nursing Assistant who would go way beyond her call of duty and make me a “Cough Pillow.” I had no idea what that was until I had my first urge to clear my throat or cough. OMG – the pain from initiating movement of the muscles that were cut during the Surgery brought tears to my eyes and made me feel as if I’d never cough again. But the Pillow cushioned the force and eventually I eased back into coughing. But I was so shook up by what I had seen at this Hospital Wing, both day and night, as per my Doctor’s advice, we wound up hiring a Private Nurse for the subsequent days or week or so I was post-op because after what my parents had witnessed they didn’t want me to also be unnecessarily mentally scarred from this experience as even they couldn’t bear to see me suffer and they hadn’t seen the worst of it. In many ways, my parents felt my pain more than I did and I can’t imagine what it must be like to see your 25-year old macho, athletic child reduced to some stick figure lying in a bed horrified by his current existence. Even writing this some 23 years later, I have a hard time conveying my thoughts without getting emotional. I will admit, however, that I NEVER feel sorry for myself nor do I ever want people to feel sorry for me and in looking back a few paragraphs I could see that pre-1988 my resolve in battling chronic illness and Crohn’s Disease was not yet formed. I am embarrassed about that but that’s how we learn and it took a few patient and perceptive health-care professionals to help me build up the mettle to confront my future with bravery and without care for the hospital aesthetics I complain about above.
A few years later I saw “Sleepers” and it always reminded me of how I went into this Old Hospital Wing as a Boy and a few months after processing all I had seen there I ultimately became a Man who had to cope with what might be a chronic medical condition. Looking back, there were likely days when my surroundings at this Hospital Wing in 1988 caused me to “shut down” from getting so spooked. But little did I know that I was building up a tolerance for subsequently, and repeatedly, having to check into Hospitals with a suitcase for a hospitalization that might be for 4 days or 4 weeks. Little did I know that I would become so confident in the manner in which I handled myself that I wrote a Book to help others called, “Confessions of a Professional Hospital Patient.” As elaborated in a previous Post, the Book landed me on many TV and Radio Shows and continues to be a success to this day but I’m most proud of the fact that after seeing a Film like “Sleepers,” I ultimately and independently, but with the Loving Counsel and Support of my Family and Friends, chose a Coping Mechanism of Candor, Resiliency and Fortitude to continue to try and live my Life the way I intended to do so. I also learned that the length of my hospital stays didn’t much matter. What did matter was that I just had to do the time to get better so I could leave. Finally, and as my girlfriend in law school a few years later would tell me, the fact that I had Crohn’s Disease would never affect my future relationships but how I handled my Crohn’s Disease would. Truer words have never been spoken to me about Chronic Illness.
Since that hospital stay in 1988 and up until May, 2011, I continue to have Major Surgeries related to my Crohn’s Disease. I’ve stated the extraordinary numbers above and the Medical Facilities have been all over the United States and a few on Cruise Ships and there have even been ER Visits in a few Foreign Countries. I’m proud that I’ve never let my chronic illness confine me to a certain locale for fear of leaving my doctors, family, friends or support system. As much as the 1988 Hospital stay with the co-ed hallway Patient bathrooms shook me to my core, it made me grow up and FAST. In other words and by way of example, I could have never moved out to Los Angeles, CA a few years ago to pursue my dream of making movies had I not been toughened up by the 1988 experience. I was 25 years-old but I was a sheltered 25. A Hospital is a sterile environment in both practice and in attitude because there’s no room for emotion in quality medical care. That revelation took me a while to process, as it does many other people, as we all see a Hospital like it’s a TV show where everyone gets diagnosed correctly, medications do what they are supposed to and the hospital staff has sex all over the joint. But that 1988 Dilapidated Hospital Wing helped me see Health-Care as a Process undertaken by dedicated people doing the best they can with the resources they have.
If I characterized any of the Medical Professionals a bit harshly in this Post, I apologize but please understand that I never took anything personally as I knew the Facility was way past its expiration date and thus I could only assume that Nurses were being over-worked, under-staffed and sometimes their frustration was so palpable I could sense it coming from the air vents on the Hospital Floor. I think I write about it and freely discuss it, although this is the first time I have re-examined that 1988 experience in many years, because I don’t want the experience to lie dormant in my head so that when a certain smell or sound like Steve Winwood’s “Roll With it” brings me back there, I will weaken. I can’t afford to do that so I concentrate on learning all I can from each experience and sharing what I know so that some other 25 year-old won’t have to go through what I did. Then I can move forward with more resolve, fortitude, confidence and strength. Whatever that 1988 experience was, it forced me to grow up quickly and I needed to with all the hospitalizations which were in my future and I am thankful that I at least had my Family and Friends to help me through the transformation from Boy to Man. I find it also ironic that while this was one of my biggest challenges and also most difficult memories, it was, at times, the most fun I had hanging out with my Dad who passed away in 2008. My Dad was very funny but he also was able to use his great sense of humor as a defensive mechanism and he tried to shield me from what was happening by laughing with me until the belly laughs caused too much incisional pain. I think he came to understand what my illness was about during that 1988 hospital stay and it formed a mutual respect between us that never changed despite us having our differences over the years.
Finally, some might conclude after reading this Post that when I watch “Sleepers” I get depressed or I am reminded of the mental anguish I went through in 1988 at this bizarre Hospital Wing. Please trust that nothing could be further from the truth and if that were the case, why in the world would I spend so much time writing this Post? Please think about that. When I watch the movie “Sleepers,” whether it is a true story or not, I am reminded of the power and control we each have over our own lives and that despite all that happens to us it is our option to be happy or sad. No matter how bad the pain or humiliation, I am reminded that pain ends and there are good times to be celebrated with Family and Friends. Life is short and these good times must be acknowledged to at least offset the trying times. Watching “Sleepers” is like a fun exercise in which I marvel at how I’ve managed to stay relatively sane after all I’ve been through. I also think about the Belly Laughs with my Dad. That is cause for Smiling and Celebration.