Fun With Morphine

Recovery and high jinks on the neurosurgery ward

The morphine left me, like love gone cold. Its soothing caress transformed into a claw, angrily snatching away tufts of the pink cotton candy that swaddled my nerves. Naked, these nerves began to howl a message from the lower left side of my back, just beside my spine, where a fresh, deep, two-inch incision trickled blood.

Within minutes, the pain was paralyzing. The smallest shift of body weight was immediately and harshly reprimanded by a jolt of agony. I noted a blossoming sympathy for dogs forced to wear electric shock collars. Longingly, I gazed upon the call button, though I knew it would do me no good. The head nurse had been adamant the last time she spiked my vein--one more dose of the sweet stuff, then I'd have to get lucid and deal with my situation, which was this:

I was in a bed in a room on the recovery floor in the Barrow Neurological Institute wing of St. Joseph's Hospital (I was reminded of this every 30 minutes when a nurse whisked in and asked me if I knew where I was and if I could remember my name; a scary business, as it implied a reasonable chance I could not).

Furthermore, I was crashing with the grace of Icarus, the wound in my back felt like a flaming charcoal briquette, my left hand ached from a heavy-gauge intravenous needle, taped in place; a matching pain throbbed in the crook of my right arm, where the morning before a nurse trainee had tried to take blood, missed my vein four times in a row (asking anxiously, "Am I hurting you?") before blowing the vein out; and there was a scratch down the back of my throat, which puzzled me until I realized it was probably from a breathing tube, inserted just before I was sliced open.

Early that morning, I had been admitted to St. Joe's for a lumbar discectomy, a two-hour procedure in which a neurosurgeon had attempted to repair the damage from a ruptured disc between my pelvis and the last vertebra in my spine. I remembered being wheeled into the operating room, then dreaming of Teletubbies and snowboarding, then coming back to life, wearing an oxygen mask, with a male nurse asking me to describe my pain on a scale of 1 to 10.

I had searched the mist in my head for the pain he was talking about. It found me first, and grabbed hold with such shocking force I had trouble getting my tongue to move.

"Nine-point-five," I squeaked through the mask.
The nurse already had the shot of dope ready.
"Just a few more seconds," he said. "Hang in there."

The cotton candy began to wrap me in a protective cocoon, and my grimace relaxed into a slack smile. All was A-OK in the universe.

Looking between my feet, I watched a dude across the room--he looked like he'd spent more than one Saturday in July tubin' the Salt River with Ozzy blasting--surface from the depths of general anesthesia, promptly freak out, and flail wildly at his bedside nurses, yelling about how his head hurt like hell. One nurse held his IV arm with both hands as the other pushed down on his shoulders. My nurse sprinted over and helped subdue the patient with calming murmurs and a stiff arm lock.

I got another shot, and time derailed. At some point, the oxygen mask came off. At some point, I had to recall my name and location for the first of many times. Then at some point, an orderly arrived to wheel me out of the surgery area and up three floors to my assigned room.

Let it be said that riding in an elevator, strapped prone to a gurney and high on morphine, is a profoundly strange experience. I entertained the thought for a moment that I had died, and was happy to find I was floating up instead of down.

Once I was established in my recovery-floor crash pad, the nurses--angels?--served me vanilla ice cream and more drugs, furthering the illusion of heaven.

Eden fell to grief, though, as soon as the morphine ran out. I lay as still as I could, trying to compartmentalize the pain, and eavesdropped on voices murmuring on the other side of a curtain pulled to my right.

"Now, I have to go home and rest, so you're just going to have to behave yourself. The last two people who shared this room with you have complained. That one man yesterday asked to be moved to another room."

Uh-oh.
"You simply must learn to be patient, all right?"
I heard a grumbled response that sounded less than affirmative, then footsteps, and an old, tired woman with a kind smile peeked around the curtain.

"If he gives you any trouble tonight, you call the nurses, okay?"
I nodded--what else was I going to do?--and she left. There was more grumbling on the other side of the curtain. A nurse entered the room, asked me if I knew my name, then, "Have you met your roommate?"

I shook my head, and she peeled back the curtain. Sitting upright in the bed next to mine was a skinny guy who looked to be in his 70s, with crazy shocks of white hair, electrified at all angles, wearing a bib and a plastic contraption fitted over his head like shoulder pads, supporting four metal rods which in turn were connected to four screws sticking from the guy's skull.

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