Looking for dignity in the fight against cancer.
The waiting rooms are well supplied with God propaganda full of lies like: “Prayer sometimes produces miraculous cures.”
How to strip a human of their dignity: Wait until they’re at their very lowest ebb and then suggest that they beg a psychotic sky-god for mercy.
Diarrhea of a Madman
Around 11 a.m. the next day they finally stabilize me.
The superpoo starts at noon. Having not had a proper crap for a week, I now turn into a one-man shit volcano, pumping out great boiling geysers of liquid dung every 20 minutes. After having crapped the bed a couple of times, I try to use the commode. This is a total disaster. Wired up to a half-dozen drips, I get shit all down my legs just hobbling over to sit on the damn thing. It takes me a full 20 minutes to wipe my unbelievably shitty arse. By which time of course the chocolate Krakatoa is ready for its next eruption.
Eventually I work out a routine. At the first stirring of a bowel movement I politely request any visitors to get the fuck out.
Then I maneuver the at-hand rubberized bedpan under my aching arse. Then I call for the nurse, who sorts me out with some damp towels and a dab of moisturizer. I have a deal with the nurses: They pretend I haven’t just shat the bed like a giant emaciated idiot baby, and I pretend they don’t have to wipe my arse for a living.
“You have beautiful eyes,” says one nurse, having just wiped my bottom for the eighth time that afternoon. She also says I’m the least sick person in the surgical ICU. There’s a 16-year-old kid down the corridor—my wife tells me—with a probably near fatal gunshot wound to the face. His family—some Christian, some Muslim—have filled the waiting room with their grief.
Turns out my special combination of the shakes, the shits, the ripped out and repackaged guts, the exotic cancer, the mystery infection (they never find out what it is) and the celiac disease don’t mean dick around here. One nurse tells me that when the Pentagon scrambled emergency MASH units together in Iraq during the insurgency, they recruited straight out of Philadelphia’s hospitals. These people are hardcore.
Planning An Exit
My definition of dignity is undergoing a severe readjustment. I have a dead male relative of the late Victorian vintage who, toward the end of his life, could no longer bathe himself. So he closed his eyes and held his arms out and sang whatever song came into his head—“Rock of Ages” or “Yes, We Have No Bananas”—the volume noticeably increasing every time the nurse with the soap got anywhere near his nadgers.
We are a culture that has been running screaming from our own spurting sphincters for generations, as summed up by that ridiculous euphemism “bathroom tissue.” Shit and death are to us what sex was to the Victorians. And talking of death:
“One in five patients who have this procedure don’t leave the hospital,” says a doctor, talking about a type of bone marrow transplant.
I stare at her, horrified. I have been here nearly two weeks now. I am depressed to hell and back and desperate to go home.
“They never leave the hospital?” I gasp, horrified, imagining secret, hidden, underground wards where patients stay for decades, never escaping the bedpans, the catheters, the drips and the fucking awful food. “You keep them here forever?”
“No, she means they die,” says my wife.
I have already planned my own funeral. I will sit up in the coffin, sporting a huge embalmed grin, my right hand waving with animatronic enthusiasm as my left hand furiously pumps an embalmed and cosmetically enlarged erection.
And as the conveyor belt drags me into the crematorium flames, Glen Miller’s “In the Mood” will blare out of hidden speakers (as actually happened at the funeral of Peter Sellers).
On hearing this plan my wife calls me a melodramatic twat.
“You’re out of here tomorrow,” says a nurse. “Or maybe today if someone gets shot. But hey, Saturday night in Philadelphia, what are the odds?”
A man gets lost in the Philadelphia health system "What is this, fucking Kafka?" and lives to tell about it. By Steven Wells firstname.lastname@example.org Illustrations by Jim Campbell --> I'm writing...
Our friend and colleague Steven Wells died two years ago today of the cancer he had documented so well in two cover stories for Philadelphia Weekly. On June 14, he submitted this column.