Aren’t you happy?

holding hands, one person in hospital bed

Written by Beth Sandlin

August 13, 2020

When I had cancer, I thought that was the worst possible experience I would face in my life. As I woke up from surgery 10 years later, I knew that my life just drastically changed again, and this recovery, what typically is a simple procedure would be worse in so many ways and instantly triggered a response in me.

I was told by the nurse the surgery for appendicitis was quick, recovery was fast and I’d be back to a regular routine in no time. In my case, she was 100% wrong. I had a three hour surgery and rather than three small incisions for the scope holes (oh, don’t worry, they tried that but just couldn’t safely remove my appendix that way) they made a vertical incision along my abdomen to safely remove my appendix. It literally cut me to the core. 

You see my appendix burst… 3 days prior. High pain tolerance, my friends, is not always a good thing. I actually know the exact time it burst, as I was sitting in a chair being offered a new job. I felt this jabbing pain in mid-back on the side and slowly walked to my car after the interview. I kept thinking, “I wonder if this is appendicitis?”. I went against my better judgement because the pain wasn’t located in the “right spot” (low right side), it was where my kidneys were. So I thought it was a kidney infection that I could clear on my own. 

Three days later when I made the connection there was no possible way I could teach Pilates let alone workout in the condition I was in, I went to Urgent Care with my two young children. They sent me to the ER. On the way I called my husband and my mom to meet me at the hospital. 

And low and behold, it was appendicitis, what that little voice kept telling me it was. I was validated that I thought it was kidney infection because my appendix was located in the wrong spot, burst and was healing over, making it wrap around to my back (I know this is all extremely pleasant.)

It was the weekend and the doctor on call came in, made a mistake in who he was speaking to and immediately turned around and left the room. When he came back I was laughing with my husband about it. Because we all make mistakes, even doctors (and yes, I have another story about that!). He was surprised I was in such good spirits. And considering that I had cancer prior and was told this would be a quick and easy recovery, it didn’t seem like a big deal. I knew that I could get back to living my life soon. So yes, I was headed into surgery, had a burst appendix for three days that could have killed me, but I was feeling good. 

It wasn’t until I woke from surgery that I knew something was terribly wrong. I woke up in incredible pain, (remember, I walked around with a burst appendix for three days, birthed two children with no drugs, and only had local anesthesia for all of my bone marrow biopsies with cancer. So yes, I have a high pain tolerance.) 

I called the nurse and asked for help to the bathroom. I could barely walk the 15 feet. It was slow, I was sweating, shaking and in so much pain. When we got back to my bed I heard her call the doctor and say I needed more pain meds. I could tell that he told her I already had them prescribed and she advocated for me. She knew what was ordered would not help with my pain.

When the doctor came in he told me about the surgery, how he tried for over an hour with the scopes and couldn’t safely remove my appendix because it was so bad. (So that’s why it felt like someone had a boxing match inside my body.) A vertical incision had to be made. This was also determined because my appendix looked so bad they felt a tumor may be on my appendix. 

Just a few days prior I was feeling amazing, recently back on track after the loss of my father including the grief and depression. Now, now I was headed back into war and I couldn’t be selfish this time because I had very young children.

When my kids came to see me that day I asked if they wanted to take a walk. We walked to the hallway and back. That’s all I could do and it was hard AF. Again I was sweating, in pain coupled with be pissed to hell that my health and wellness was ripped away from me. 

My kids looked up at me and asked, Is that it?  Yes, that’s all I can do I told them. 

SO the next day when the doctor came back and said I did not have a tumor, I was already spun into trauma. I was serious and somber in my response. 

When he asked, Where is the patient who was laughing before this happened? And said, I thought you would be happy that you don’t have a tumor, that wasn’t fair. 

You see I made a decision long ago, that it didn’t matter if I was alive, the quality of my life mattered. So from his perspective all was well. From mine, just a few days before I was teaching Pilates, running, and literally feeling the happiest I had ever felt in my life. I worked for that, I came through cancer, grief, depression, loss and so much more personal development. Now I couldn’t turn over in bed without pain, I put off when to go to the bathroom because of the pain and I couldn’t cuddle with my children either. 

So he didn’t get that it wasn’t the lack of cancer or a tumor that was my concern, but this was not the life I wanted to live. 

AND the thing is, when you are in it,  when you are in pain, when you are where you don’t want to be. It is very hard to immediately put things into perspective as he expected me to do. It was something that I couldn’t do at the time. Remember trauma has its own time to integrate into the system. It’s not thinking. It is feeling. It is time. It is acknowledging the shit and knowing that it’s okay to be there for some time. Post-traumatic growth is often not fast, not linear and often not fun. However taking the time needed for integration and healing is needed, in more ways than the physical.

I eventually recovered from this, after months of complications and over a year of trying to get my health and wellness back on track. Should I have been grateful for not having a tumor? Trust me, I am very grateful that I didn’t have more complications than I had. But it’s not fair to lean on someone else to make you feel good. It’s not fair when someone is still processing what is going on or is in pain to ask why they aren’t happier. 

I’ve always been told I am strong. That used to mean something different to me, but now I realize one way in which I am strong is because I don’t hide my pain. I feel everything to the core.

These are a few lessons learned from this experience: 

  1. Time. You need people time to process through their natural response even if it doesn’t make sense or isn’t how you think you would respond.  
  2. You never know how someone’s past experience can shape their current response. 
  3. Strength is not always physical.
  4. Being healthy and well does not mean that you will always feel good but it will always help when life gets hard and helps with recovery as well. 
  5. Nurses rock. Listen to them. 
  6. For true happiness, it’s okay to feel the emotions that aren’t happy or pleasant.
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