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The Reason I Haven't Had a Drop of Beer in the Last Three Weeks and Counting

A tooth, one motherfucking tooth.

Health, fortunately, had never been something I’d ever had to worry. The only serious disease I’d suffered was pneumonia, when I was 10 (how I got it is itself a funny story). Since then, other than the very occasional flu and those “feeling a bit under the weather” things, I’d always been healthy. At 47 now, I was fit, active, I’d never been a smoker, I ate well, I didn’t have weight issues, and I had even cut down a little on the boozing because, well, I’m not getting any younger and I decided that if I wanted to keep on enjoying my beer in the years to come, I had better slow down a bit. And despite all that, that motherfucking tooth almost sends me to an early grave.

It all started on Tuesday, September 18. I woke up feeling a bit dodgy; nothing that I couldn’t get rid of taking the day off and resting, I thought. There was a mild pain around the earlobe , but I didn’t pay too much attention to it, I believed it was just another symptom of whatever bug I had caught. The pain got worse during the day, but I still thought it’d go away in a day or two.

The next day I was feeling much worse. I had trouble swallowing, the pain was more intense and there was a clear swelling on the left side of my neck. If anyone is wondering why I didn’t go to a doctor that day, the best answer I can give you is because I’m an idiot. I don’t know how much of a difference it would have made in the end, but by that time I was probably putting my life at risk already.

On Thursday, September 20, I couldn’t take it any longer. I had barely eaten and slept for the last two days and the pain was unbearable; the swelling had also worsened considerably. When my daughter was dispatched to school, I asked my wife to take me to the hospital. We left home somewhere before 9. The traffic in Prague was, as expected, awful. The last couple of kilometres to Motol were endless, the missus was cursing everyone who had ever sat behind a wheel and I was in agonising pain. We parked in the grounds of the Motol University Hospital a few minutes after 9:30 and headed straight to the ORL department. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long to be seen by a doctor who made the usual questions (most of them answered by my wife because I wasn’t able to speak without drooling). After examining me, she called a colleague, a more senior specialist. He had a look at me and resolved that I was to have a CT scan right away. After the scan, I was brought back to the department – now on a wheelchair – where I was told that I would be admitted in the ORL-ICU and that I would have surgery as soon as that can be arranged, if not before.

To say that I felt confused and woefully out of my depth once I was brought to the ICU is an understatement. Doctors and nurses gave instructions, asked questions, stuck needles, performed routine procedures, gave me release forms to sign, and provided information that I seriously struggled to process, all while still being in agony, and alone now – my wife was not allowed to come in with me, she was sent home with a phone number where she could call later. To make things worse, I realised (I thing when two nurses were shaving my beard and doing their best to lift my spirits) that my mouth was now filling with something that tasted (and looked and smelled) like bog water in a summer afternoon spiced with a generous dose of bad intentions.

They took to the operating room in the early afternoon. There, the anaesthesiologist asked a couple more questions before putting the mask over my mouth and nose, and told she would release oxygen. The last thing I remember was noticing that the oxygen smelled funny. When I opened my eyes again, it was all over. I was being put back in the bed they had brought me in and I was taken back to the ICU. I found that experience fascinating. It wasn’t anything like falling asleep – I don’t even remember my eyes closing – I didn’t have any dreams and I didn’t feel any time had passed. It was as if someone had flipped a switch that momentarily turned off my mind, consciousness, and self. I now wonder what philosophers have to say about that.

The operation itself turned out to be more complicated than anyone had anticipated. The cause my condition, basically, had been an infection in the above mentioned tooth, the lower left wisdom tooth, to be more precise. What made it worse was that the bugger was fused to the jaw bone, which helped the infection spread more quickly and aggressively throughout my neck, pushing into my chest by the time I went to the hospital (for the record, I hadn’t even felt a toothache!). They had to call a dental surgery specialist to help them take that tooth out! It was a very special case. A few days later, the head of the hospital’s ORL department, a professional with several decades of practice under his belt (who also looks like a trope character of a TV show set in a hospital), told me that it was something he had never seen before.

Back in the room, I was feeling better; or rather, less bad. There was still a lot of discomfort, my breathing sounded like someone lazily sucking the dregs of a glass with a straw, but I knew I was out of danger (and under heavy painkillers). Now, it’d only be a matter of a few days, a week at most, before I could go back home and recover, or so I believed, and boy, was I wrong!

My breathing hadn’t improved on Friday morning and, what’s worse, I was still unable to swallow even a single drop of water. The latter problem was solved in a very simple, and for me very unpleasant, way by the head of the department himself, who inserted a tube up my nose and down my oesophagus through which I would be fed a special cocktail of protein and nutrients washed down with tea for the next 11 days. Actually, he had to do it twice, the first tube, for some reason, didn’t work out. And there was still more fun to come that day.

Some time in the late afternoon I was rushed to another CT scan. There had been something very wrong with the results of my blood samples. After an hour or so, the surgeon that had operated me came to give me the news. The CT had found another infection, one that hadn’t been there the day before, this time on the right side of my neck. I’d have another operation that evening to remove it and, as a bonus, I would get a tracheostomy, because there was no other way to sort out that problem with my breathing.

Switching off took a little longer this time – the mask didn’t fit well due to the swelling on my face and the tube sticking out my nose wasn’t much help, either – but I still don’t remember even closing my eyes. Awakening, on the other hand, was somewhat less peaceful. Like the previous occasion, they were putting me back in bed when I regained consciousness, this time, however, I had a panic attack. I’m not sure what triggered it, trying to say something and realising I was unable to articulate any sounds, noticing something odd with my breathing; probably a combination of both. In any case, I went mad, I may have even tried to jump off the bed. Four or five people were needed to restrain me while another injected a sedative. The rest of the evening has been erased from my memory. Probably for the better.

On Saturday morning, a specialist came in, an anaesthesiologist, bringing something that would make my life, and the work of the nurses a bit easier. After shaving the area and applying local anaesthesia, he made an incision on my groin, on the femoral vein to be more precise, where he inserted a tube with a bunch of connectors (for lack of a better word) that would serve a hub for the IVs and for taking blood samples, too. I was also rewarded with a tube up my willie, so I wouldn’t have to worry about peeing, and introduced to a machine that would help me breathe; there was liquid and a lot of phlegm in my lungs and I was still too weak to get rid of it on my own. The device blew burst of moist oxygen into my lungs at a rhythm similar to normal breathing. If my breathing could keep pace with it, things would go smooth, at least for awhile, because, sooner or later, the coughing would start, and get worse, to the point I could no longer breathe and the nurses had to intervene. The procedure was very straightforward, and equally unpleasant. The nurse would remove the bit of the machine connected to the cannula in my throat and with a very narrow tube suck the phlegm obstructing my airways and stuck to the walls of my trachea. Describing it as horrible doesn’t make it justice, it felt like being simultaneously electrocuted, chocked and drowned, and it wouldn’t matter how many times they did it (which was several a day and night), it never got any better, not even by the end.

The next four days would be the worst. I was bound to bed, being fed through the nose, peeing in a bag through a tube, unable to breathe on my own and to communicate I had to use sign language or write messages on a notepad. The word in Czech for ‘sick’ or ‘ill’ is ‘nemocný’. If you take out the negative prefix ne-, you’re left with ‘mocný’, which means powerful or strong. I had never felt so ne-mocný in my life, especially when my wife visited me and I could see the stress, frustration, and exhaustion in her eyes. There was a moment I wanted to cry. You know, let it all out like a proper bloke should, but I couldn’t even do that because I knew it would fuck up my breathing in ways I didn’t even want to imagine. All I could do now was to focus on my breathing and try to enjoy the effect of the painkillers (and the sponge baths, which were good).

Things started to noticeably improve on Tuesday, September 25, when they disconnected the assisted breathing. Now I was no longer permanently bound to bed, I could sit in an armchair by the bed and even walk a little (carrying the bag with my pee, of course). I could also breathe on my own, but not for too long at first. Breathing through the throat dries your airways, which produces more phlegm, and I’ve already told you where that leads. To prevent that, or rather, to reduce it, because I would still need to have that shit sucked out, though less often as the days went by, I had to spend much of the day, and the whole night, connected to another device. This one had an open ended tube and blew moist oxygen that I could breathe in through the bit that was connected to me cannula.

On Thursday, September 27, one week after I had been admitted, the pee-tube was taken out. I was feeling more vigorous and was already walking unassisted up and down the corridor. I also learned how to feed myself, a process that consisted of: fill 100 ml syringe with nutrient cocktail, remove stopper from nose tube, insert tip of syringe in tube and pump, replace stopper, fill syringe again with cocktail, remove stopper, pump cocktail in, replace stopper, fill syringe with tea (careful to suck in all the medicines if present), remove stopper, pump tea in, replace stopper. Rinse and repeat eight times a day. Eventually, some of the doses of nutrient cocktail would be replaced by soup, so I wouldn’t get bored of eating always the same, I guess.

A day later, the cannula would be finally taken off. I could now breathe through the nose, as any normal human being, and also speak again. Knowing I still had a hole in my throat was a little weird, but it was well plugged and they assured me it should not be much of a problem, all I had to remember was to press the plug whenever I wanted to talk or felt like coughing. Two days later, I was told to start drinking again, or to at least try. It was a little hard at first, but by the end of the day, I had drunk two full glasses of tea with a straw. I was feeling legitimately good again, not only physically, but psychically. In the early morning of Tuesday, October 2, I shed a few tears of joy when one of the night nurses came to say good-bye at the end of her shift and told me I would be released from the ICU and sent to the regular care unit, the last step before being sent home. An hour or so later, I no longer had a tube up my nose. I asked the nurses if I could get something to eat, which they were more than happy to oblige. It was a chocolate pudding, and it was one of the most delicious things I’ve eaten in all my life. I also tasted the nutrient cocktail that I had been ‘eating’ all those days, out of curiosity. It didn’t taste very good.

Regular care wasn’t bad. I was finally getting proper, warm food prepared in a way that would allow me to put it in my mouth, which I still cant fully open, but it wasn’t half bad. I was also able to come and go as I pleased to get a cup of coffee downstairs in the lobby, or buy some snacks. I was also lucky with the room: only two beds, TV, and private bathroom. My first room mate was a geezer who had been released a couple of days earlier from the same ICU after having had surgery to remove a tumour from his ear. He was very chatty, fun and friendly and it did me a world of good to finally have someone to talk to about whatever topic popped up during the conversation, which made me a world of good after so many days without being able to speak. He was sent home the day after, and I had the room all to myself. I spent most of the time reading and listening to jazz (the TV also received the digital stations of the Czech national radio broadcaster) or watching some bollocks on TV until I felt like sleeping.

On Thursday afternoon, my wife visited me for the last time. We agreed to met at the coffee shop downstairs and from there go to the ICU unit to deliver the cake I had asked her to bake for the nurses a token of gratitude. She also had a surprise for me, Nela, our daughter, whom I hadn’t seen in two weeks. While I was in ICU she didn’t want to come, and both of us were fine with it, as much as I missed her, I didn’t think it’d be good for her to see me in that condition. When she found out I was no longer in ICU, she instead to come. I was so happy to see her again, to hold her, hear her voice. Fortunately, our next meeting wouldn’t have to wait long. On Friday, October 5, I was finally sent home. Now it’s time to get my life back to normal an regain my strength – I lost 7 kg, much of it of muscle mass and I intend to get them back. It’ll take me a few days longer still to be able to drink beer again, but to be honest, I don’t miss it all that much and, besides, there are several things more important to sort out now than that.

Before closing, I want to express my deepest gratitude to the people that saved my life, or at least try, because I don’t think there are enough words all the three languages I know to do it properly. At no point I felt afraid. The way the first two doctors that saw me reacted to my condition was enough to convince me I was in good hands and that impression was strengthened once in the ICU, where all the doctors, without exception, explained me in clear words the what, why and how of every procedure and always answered all my questions. They cared about me, wanted me to get better, did everything within their abilities to make it happen, and didn’t hide their joy when it finally did. The nurses, on the other hand, were more than wonderful. Their care, their support, and their constant effort to keep my spirits up was invaluable. They motivated me to make an extra effort to get better because I wanted to make them happy. You were great, all of you. Thank you.

Na Zdraví!

Comments

  1. Bloody bell Max, that sounds horrible. Glad to hear you're on the mend.

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  2. Holy shit! Glad you came out of that in one piece. Best wishes for a full recovery.

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  3. Congratulations for your strength, Max.
    I'm happy to know you're feeling much better, and hope you get all right soon. Although it all sound terrible, this text has been a very nice read, thanks for sharing it.

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  4. Sorry you Have been in a Dark Place. We Take Health for Granted. Get Well Soon. Bet the First Pivo. Will be Grand !.

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  5. Balls. Went through a similar but much less strenuous situation myself in August. Still recovering. Best wishes, and admiration for your positive attitude. Cheers!

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  6. Wow. Nasty doesn't begin to describe this. Get well soon.

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  7. Wow, what a horrible experience. Glad to hear you are on the road to better health!

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  8. Glad to read that you received first class care during your time in ICU. I know how grateful you must feel towards the doctors and nursing staff who cared for you, whilst in hospital, as I felt exactly the same when my wife was hospitalised with a serious illness, at the beginning of the year.

    It’s good to know these people are there for us, when we really need them. They are definitely unsung heroes.

    Glad to that you are on the mend, and to echo one of the comments posted above, that first Pivo really will be grand!

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  9. Na zdraví, vskutku na zdraví. Dnes se napiju na tvoje!

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