'Doing what I was told': Richard Crouse on the indignity of being hospitalized
Just days after his 50th birthday in 2013, CTV's film critic Richard Crouse was booked for a routine colonoscopy. He thought it would be little more than a nuisance, but it wound up being a life-saver.
Now, six years later, in honour of Colon Cancer Awareness Month, Crouse shares for the first time his account of the moment he was diagnosed with cancer and the life-changing effects of that news.
In a series of columns exclusive to CTVNews.ca, Crouse chronicles his childhood as the son of a woman who died of cancer, his own surprise diagnosis and the intrusive treatment that followed, laying bare his eye-opening revelations, deepest fears and most vulnerable moments.
Catch up on the rest of Crouse's series:
- Part 1: The moment he heard 'We found a tumour'
- Part 2: The challenge of coming out to colleagues
- Part 4: 'You either have it or you don't': Keeping the faith in cancer care
- Part 5: 'So, you're having chemo': On feeling kicked when he's down
- Part 6: Stepping into the void: His experience of chemotherapy
- Part 7: When the worst turns out to be good: Life in cancer care
- Part 8: Five years clear of cancer, but still feeling the peril
After being carved up like a turkey at Christmas dinner I was taken to the bed I'd occupy for the next four days. It was in one of the older wings in a room shared with one other patient -- whose body gave out before his lifetime guarantee did -- and a morphine drip. The hospital is a relic from late 1960s Toronto, a marvel of functionality over form. It's essentially a maze of corridors leading to mysterious places with names like Laboratory Medicine and Ambulatory Care.
The level of treatment was exemplary but the place felt slightly Dickensian, a feeling reinforced by a nurse who told me the air conditioning was broken. It's a first world complaint to be sure but the still, humid air in the room only intensified my feeling that I had stepped back in time somewhat. Or was vacationing in a Thai prison. Or maybe it was the morphine.
I was grateful that I didn't die of "ward fever" or infection — old school surgery landmines — but from my bed by the window, which provided a lovely view of the parking lot and blistering Toronto sun, I really feared I might sweat to death.
Fear of dehydration aside, I was amazed at how quickly the unbearable heat, my groggy state and, well, the morphine, eroded away my sense of modesty. The old joke about hospital gowns — they're like health insurance, you can never have enough coverage! Ba dump dump chshshshsh — are true, especially as a six foot plus person. Stylish they are not. Drafty and revealing they are.
I spent the early part of my stay tugging at the gown every time anyone came near my bed like a starlet adjusting her dress on a red carpet. My Victorian concern about remaining covered didn't last long, however.
Nurse after nurse checked on my laparoscopic holes — a quartet of incisions on my belly where the doctor inserted tiny instruments and cameras to perform the surgery — and the larger slit they used to remove the colon. Later, when I had a chance to examine my new body art I thought the large scar looked like a grin, a stomach smile.
There only seemed to be two kinds of nurses on duty. Newbies just learning the ropes; a little shy about seeing a grown man's body. Then there are the more experienced nurses who have been there, done that and look at you, by and large, as a large, semi-sentient piece of meat, a sexless slab that must be kept at a regular temperature and out of pain. The heat, the pain and probably the drugs eroded my decorum and by nightfall I no longer made any attempt to cover myself. I began the day as a prude, ended it like a character ripped from the decadent mind of William S. Burroughs, high on drugs and partially naked in front of strangers.
I justified my immodesty with, "I don't have anything they've never seen." In truth, as the day wore on, I didn't have the strength or the energy to maintain my dignity.
For the first day it seemed as though I was checked on every few minutes. Just like waiters who wait until you have a mouthful of food to ask if everything tastes good, the nurses always seemed to burst in, Spanish Inquisition style, just as I was enjoying some morphine-induced rest.
"How are you feeling?"
They'd stick a thermometer in my ear, check to make sure I wasn't bleeding from my newly ventilated torso and every now and again offer up a Tylenol. Not too many of those, however. "Don't want to make your liver flip."
Being in the hospital is a great leveller. Surrounded by sick people and people who know how to look after sick people, it is one of those rare times in my life where I have not been self-sufficient. Whether it was my trigger finger on the morphine drip, the surgery, or some kind of tacit understanding that I wasn't in control of what was happening to me, I laid back and for once in my life did what I was told.
Not that they made many demands on me. That would come a little bit later.
Day one was spent pumping painkillers into my system, blearily watching television, listening to the older man in the bed next to me moan and watching Andrea sitting and reading a book. The hours hung in the stale air of the room, superheated by the blazing sun.
Day one bled into day two. A bag of Jujubes Andrea smuggled in at my request melted together, forming one giant blob of chemical flavourants and gelatin. Shadowy figures in the form of nurses kept me up most of the night. A ninja nurse would appear, do a bed check and disappear, waking me up just enough to let the thought train leave the station. I'd think about all the other people who have lain in this bed. For years my job had kept me on the road, checking in and out of hotels. I'd often wonder whose head had graced the pillow before me, who had rested in the bed. In the hospital I wondered how many people had died on this bed. I wondered if the man next to me was dying.
My mind drifted back to when I was a nine and had broken my arm doing goofy daredevil kid stuff — swinging around a pole at my school after hours. Thinking I would get into trouble I jumped on my bike to go home but after a few wobbly feet I slid off the banana seat and broke my arm again in a different place. At that point I gave up and waited for the calvary (cavalry?) to arrive and find me. Soon I was in the hospital, with a cast and a promise that I would probably never be able to straighten my arm again.
In the bed next to me was Alan, a sickly child who had spent more time in the hospital than at home. My arm would heal, whatever was wrong with my new friend wouldn't. We talked about whatever nine year olds talk about. We laughed, watched TV and then early one day I was taken to X-ray and when I came back Alan was gone. Never said goodbye. Didn't leave a note.
I was hurt that we hadn't said goodbye and didn't realize he had passed away during the night. Later that day another patient was brought in to sleep in my dead friend's bed. No one mentioned him to me again during my stay and certainly no one told me he died until much later.
I thought of Alan for the first time in years as I stewed in my hot hospital room. I thought about how quickly things can change, how death isn't like it is in the movies. In a film Alan would have had a final moment to choke out a few pithy words about our short time together. "All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die." Perhaps even share a smile through a veil of tears. Instead he stopped breathing, alone except for me, asleep in the next bed behind a drawn curtain.
I can't recall what Alan looked like, what his voice sounded like or even what comic book was his favorite. I'm sure we talked about it, but those details are lost to time. What I remember most is that he died in a hospital bed. I thought about all the things I've done over the last forty-one years that Alan never got a chance to do.Everything I have done since age nine was denied Alan just by the sheer luck of genetics. To paraphrase Neil Young, "He never got to fall in love, never got to be cool."
I wish I could say I was inspired by his bravery, but I doubt he was brave. I doubt he truly understood his fate. He wasn't brave, he just was. Thinking back on his life unlived, however, put things in perspective for me. I felt lucky in an unlucky circumstance.
Times have changed since I was kept in the hospital for a week with a broken arm. Beds are at a premium and the idea of sick people laying around in them is old school. Now you're up and around as soon as possible. A stern-looking nurse asked me — more commanded me — to get out of bed and walk the halls. Her tone and steely stare scared my initial fear of my guts seeping out of my laparoscopic holes — I have clearly seen too many David Cronenberg movies — out of me and I shuffled around the halls for a few minutes.
"Do it again!" ordered the wannabe Nurse Ratched.
Soon I was back in the bed, exhausted, with a plan to avoid Ratched at all costs. The one upside for having colon surgery, apart from getting rid of the cancer of course, is being told that you have to pass gas. A lot. It's part of the recovery.
I looked up why on line and Dr. Google's first response was, "Opera Singer Can't Stop Farting After Surgery, Loses Job." Interesting but not what I was after. A couple clicks later I discovered that it takes the intestines longer to "wake up" from the anesthesia than the rest of the body. To avoid a nasty complication called postoperative ileus you must pass gas like an old man on a baked bean binge. Farting helps you heal.
Most of us of been told, since childhood, that farting — beeping your horn, blowing the butt bazooka, le master blaster, the old anal exhale or whatever you want to call it — isn't a socially acceptable thing to do but for several days in the hospital it was not only okay it was encouraged. Sometimes you take the small wins where you can.
To encourage passing gas the nurses suggested I chew gum. I didn't see the connection, but apparently chewing a block of Bubble Yum makes you swallow more and as a result you gulp down more air. More air, more farts. I never thought I would need to be taught new ways to fart, but there you go. Like Douglas Adams wrote, "You live and learn. At any rate, you live."
My life was reduced to a fiesta of bodily functions I normally would have taken for granted. Aside from flatulence fretfulness the nurses were also concerned about my urination. I had been outfitted with a catheter to drain urine from my bladder. They're uncomfortable, unnatural and I wanted it off but was told unless I filled up the attached jug to a certain level it would remain. I was reminded of being a child and hearing my exasperated father yell at our belligerent toy poodle Michelle when she took too long to do her business on her late night walk, "Why don't you pee?!!"
I remember closing the curtain around my bed as the nurse waited on the other side. Not since potty training has this kind of pressure been applied to something I usually find as natural and stress free as… well, having a squirt. After a few attempts I was able to satisfy the pee police and the catheter was removed. One tube at a time I was getting closer to freedom.
The last tube connecting me to the hospital and my surgery was the morphine drip IV. If any part of this experience could be described as pleasurable, this was it. Not the needle taped on to my wrist, but the liquid gold it dispensed. My enjoyment of morphine put me one step of separation closer to Bela Lugosi, an enthusiast who began using the drug to combat shooting pains in his legs and ended up with a habit. I can see how it could happen. The drug, even in the small doses I was using it, is a great leveller, providing a comfortably numb feeling that makes recovery bearable. For lack of a better term, it made things fluid.
Fluid like Mick Taylor's Hand of Fate guitar solo.
Fluid like Truman Capote's prose.
Time passes, simultaneously in the blink of an eye while stretching on forever. You become the Time Lord, the master of your sickbay bed. Overused it can turn you into something akin to an AC/DC roadie and lead to all sorts of existential drama but in the short term it makes rotting in a hot and humid hospital room bearable.
More from CTVNews.ca about colon cancer:
- Possible carcinogen found in French fries, potato chips and other foods: study
- Young adults not immune to colon cancer, shouldn't ignore signs based on age: experts
- Half of colorectal cancers diagnosed too late for effective treatment: study
- U.S. cancer group says colon screening should start at 45, not 50
- Half of colorectal cancers diagnosed too late for effective treatment: study
Over the next day and a half I slowly shed more tubes and daydreamed of doing ordinary things like loading the dishwasher or the nearly impossible task of making Andrea laugh before she's had her morning coffee.
As I lay sweating I thought about these everyday things. Suddenly it wasn't the big bucket list events that seemed important. I realized I had a tendency to tally up experiences rather than actually enjoy them. Interviewed Angelina Jolie? Check. Ate fried crickets in Bangkok? Yup. They make for good stories, but it wasn't until it became clear to me that some of those occurrences may never be duplicated because I might not be well enough to repeat them, that I decided to really look for the joy in all experiences; the simple pleasure of getting a straight razor shave or looking at the skyline of New York from the Brooklyn Bridge. Cleaning up the kitchen after preparing a great meal. The simple stuff of life became important and the experiences, the been-there-done-that, bought-the-T-shirt tales that populate my party small talk suddenly meant less.
In the moment, however, the only experience I was excited about was my release from the hospital. To recap, I was off drugs, peeing properly and farting like a termite (apparently they release more methane than cows do). I was ready. And thankfully, four days after I checked in with a complete colon, I was leaving with a partial digestive tract. I toyed with using the nickname "Semi Colon" Crouse in tribute to what was left of my insides, but better sense prevailed.
Wheeled out to the car I felt a sense of euphoria. The worst, I believed was behind me. The wounds weren't bleeding, there was no pain and if they let me go I must be alright, right? On the way home I drank my usual Starbucks concoction — a London Fog with sugar free vanilla and only one teabag — with gusto, thinking that perhaps after a good night's rest in air conditioning I could get back to normal, eat something that didn't have the consistency of the hospital food — a texture somewhere between minced insects and mushed evil — and perhaps see a movie. All knowing Andrea didn't share my eagerness and suggested I wait until the morning to make plans.
"I know my body better than you," I said, leering, trying to diffuse the situation with a lame double entendre. Turns out she didn't get the joke and I was wrong.
In previous instalments, Crouse shared the life-changing moment he first heard his diagnosis, as well as the challenge of talking about his diagnosis with colleagues at work. In a week, we'll have the next instalment in his series on surviving colon cancer.
Richard Crouse shares a toast with celebrity guests and pundits on the talk show Pop Life on CTV NewsChannel and CTV. Catch up on all the entertainment news, reviews and interviews at the Pop Life website.
Read more of Richard Crouse's recent movie reviews:
- 'Us' is gory, outlandish and resonates in Trump-era America
- 'Wonder Park' more poignant than you'd expect
- 'Captain Marvel' is convoluted, cluttered and as refreshing as it is unusual
- 'A Madea Family Funeral' puts Tyler Perry's most famous character to rest
- 'How to train your dragon: The Hidden World' pushes the boundaries
- 'Alita: Battle Angel' is a CGI spectacle with a synthetic heart
- 'Lego Movie 2' zips along, but not as awesome as original
- 'Miss Bala' potboiler rarely gets above a simmer
- 'The Kid Who Would Be King' brims with good messages
- 'Glass' twist-o-rama proves more is not more