Last Christmas I Gave You My Colon (And Some Other Stuff)

Or, at least part of it.

This month marks the two-year anniversary of the worst month of my life — other than the month my mother died, which actually seemed to extend into years. It was the month my colon split in two due to being occluded by a colorectal tumor. (I learned “occluded” was the right word to use the other day when I met the surgeon who will be cutting me open in March.)

So I was in Rivadavia public hospital over the holidays. I don’t pay attention to holidays much anyway except to resent the curtailment on my grocery shopping. I don’t mind, however, the lack of people on the streets.

One year ago, the lack of people in the hospital ward turned out to be a problem.

I don’t really understand how one gets hired as a nurse at Rivadavia. Sometimes it seemed the only requirement was the ability to wear scrubs. No one was consistently trained. There was only one nurse per shift who could change my colostomy bag and it was clear she didn’t like doing it. But who would?

I was always having problems keeping my IV in. A couple times it pulled out and there was no one who knew how to put it back in. I looked forward to the night shift when a very hard-working and handsome young dude could put right whatever went wrong during the day. I could tell he had goals other than collecting a meager pay check.

In any case, anyone who’s lived in Buenos Aires knows that the level of competence everywhere lowers considerably over the holidays. It’s no different in the public health care system. Random friends of nurses get hired as temps to man the wards and reception desks. They may nor may not be nurses. They might have been one in a past life.

Christmas-Eve day was the first time I was allowed to eat solid food. Previously, I’d subsisted on unseasoned mashed squash that had sat under a hot lamp for half a day. I can’t say I ate a lot of it though. Subsequently, my bag was never very full.

As a treat, Claire went out and bought me a real meal — Claire, always Claire. She found some recommended restaurant nearby and ordered up their roasted chicken breast lunch special. I was ravenous and it tasted delicious. (No veggies allowed, though — encourages diarrhea.) I enjoyed one of the best meals I’d had in Buenos Aires — hooked up to an IV, sitting in my skivvies and chatting with Claire near the open window while the warm winter air blew in.

I paid for that meal later.

I took a nap, full of pollo, and woke up hours later to a dim, mostly empty ward. Somebody new had arrived in the bed across from me. He had big green, friendly eyes, curly-hair, and a couple blond, fuzzy dreadlocks. He also had a pained look on his face and a tube in his stomach. But everybody on this ward had a tube, or three or four, in their stomachs.

We chatted in Spanglish for a bit until I noticed a whiff of something unpleasant. Something sharp and fecal.

Oh, gods.

I pulled up my shirt and examined my colostomy bag. The sticky part had come unglued and it gaped open, full of half-digested light meat. I’d never seen it so full before. It had, in fact, never been so full before. That chicken had certainly looked smaller going in. At any rate, it hadn’t looked capable of causing such catastrophe.

The dreadlocked boy asked me what was wrong. I explained. Or rather, I struggled for the Spanish and then pointed near my waistline and said, breathlessly, “Ca-ca!”

(As I told my niece the other day, the first thing to go in the hospital is your dignity.)

Yes, this was the part of every conversation I have now when people are curious about the bulge underneath my shirt or wonder why I don’t buy much toilet paper.

His eyes widened and he said he’d go look for the nurse. We hadn’t seen or heard one since I’d woken up. He dashed off.

By the time he came back, long enough for shit to spill out onto the bed, I’d managed to stumble to the toilet — the one with a hole in the wall and a rubber hose that served as the shower — and began trying to remove the bag and clean myself. I’d already dribbled bile and shit along the way and was no longer feeling the Christmas spirit.

Dreadlocked boy told me there was a nurse but she didn’t know anything about colostomy bags. She was a friend of a day-shift nurse and hadn’t practiced the craft since she was, ahem, younger.

I had a moment of panic thinking that I would somehow have to last the night without a bag. But then, a short, fake-blond middle-aged woman waddled in with one in her hand. She told me she didn’t know how to put it on — I would have to do it.

I just nodded, shit on my fingers. I’d seen it done every day for a month so I figured I could replace the bag. Cleaning up after myself seemed far more challenging. The dreadlocked boy stood behind the “nurse,” looking both relieved and appalled.

The nurse did have the skills to write down everything, I guess, because the day after Christmas my doctor teased me by asking if I’d been drunk on Christmas Eve. If only.

Happy Fucking Holidays!

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Rick Powell in Hospital Rivadavia, December 2010.

Rick Powell in Hospital Rivadavia, December 2010. Much fatter then.


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