First, the numbing Lidocaine hydrochloride mouthwash. Then, eight ounces of vanilla Ensure nutrition shake. The morning’s pills in a Dixie cup on the side. Enough water to try to get them down.
And, ah! The must-have. The desserts in that shiny foil wrapper. The one bright spot on those bleak mornings: soft, untoasted, Frosted strawberry Pop-Tarts.
So sweet. Dry. Flaky like the crust of a homemade pie. No acidic juices to burn into the lesions in mouth, on my tongue, boring into my cheeks. Nothing too crispy to scrape against the crater eroding the right side of my throat.
Sure, the breakfast treats also caused pain. They went down hard like anything and everything I tried to swallow back then. But pain, I’ve learned, is oh-so relative.
“What is it? On a scale of 1 to 10?” I asked myself the same question that nurses and doctors had asked me for months, sometimes 10 times a day during those weeks in the hospital.
Pop-Tarts? Oh, about a 4 or a 5.
Bad, you say? Not when everything else, even water, is an 8 or 9.
Besides, the treats helped me swallow the pills. And I needed them, especially the Oxycodone, to fog up the morning, to numb the mind and body, even if just for a couple hours.
After that, lunch — more Ensure, maybe a full can of Campbell’s Chicken Wonton Soup, with those soft tiny pillows that ease down the throat like wet leaves through a downspout.
I dreamed of real food then. I vowed that, once I got better, if I got better, I would chew slowly and enjoy every bite. I vowed to not take food for granted. I would relish, well, even relish.
During those Pop-Tart mornings, I took solace in at least being in my own home, where I could try to feed myself. Or, my beleaguered wife would try to come up with something I could swallow that was more appetizing than Ensure.
In the hospital, eating, or trying to eat, was worse, much worse. Not that the staff didn’t try to help. The kitchen workers at one point molded some sort of protein mush into the shape of a pork chop, hoping that would be more appetizing.
They were trying to help me fool my mind. But I couldn’t fool those ulcers.
I had to have a feeding tube through the nose at one point. That, or get a hole in my side, a procedure called a gastrostomy. Lyrical sounding maybe, but …
The thought of being cut, not only through the skin but through the muscle and stomach, too, and leaving the opening for days, maybe weeks, made me nauseous. And I had nothing in my stomach to make me nauseous.
Hold that thought, I thought. It’ll help you get through the pain of the placement of the other kind of tube, the feeding tube. No surgery at least. Through the nose, scraping those ulcers, down the throat, arghhh!
As two nurses worked, I meditated on the mental picture of the hole being cut in my side. I breathed deeply, following the instructions of the nurse trying to snake the tube through my nose. She talked to me calmly, coached me to suppress my gag reflex, told me to think of the plastic as food, to swallow deeply to send the tube down the right path.
Afterward, the thing has to be taped to your face to stay in place.
I had expected something more sophisticated.
OK Dave, feeding time. We will hold the food bag above your head, open a clamp and let gravity work. Here comes dinner!
I awoke one night to that damp feeling near your crotch that you never want to have, especially in a strange bed. A valve or clamp had opened up during my 3 a.m. feeding and I ended up with something wet all over my lap. The nurse who tended to me in the middle of the night said she hadn’t seen it happen and I was too drugged to realize it til morning.
It was still dark when I realized I was soaked. I couldn’t see the liquid, so my pessimistic brain immediately went to blood. Whew, OK, at least not that.
Everything’s relative, remember?
Still, rubbing that chalky liquid between my thumb and forefinger while buzzing the call button for help and wondering if they would let me shower made me start to reconsider that hole-in-the-side idea.
Eventually, I got better at home. I didn’t overdose on breakfast treats. Or the Oxy.
With steroids and time, I healed enough to eat real food again. Many weeks after that hospital stay, with great pleasure and with my wife as an elated, smiling witness, I chewed my first cheeseburger.
How was it, you ask? On a scale of 1 to 10?
OK, I’ll bite. It was definitely a solid 9.
But, you might wonder, why not a 10?
Well, to this day, I save my highest score for, you guessed it, breakfast treats.
Yes, Pop-Tarts. Untoasted. Strawberry and with frosting — of course.