(written with one hand by C.A. Edington)
Woken out of a sound sleep at 5:15 a.m., I looked up into the smiling face of a pretty, young nurse. "I'm sorry. This will hurt." She kept her promise. With my left arm hanging in a sling and my right arm attached to an I.V. drip, my body had few places left from which to draw blood except for my legs. Christmas day, 1998, began with slow, carefully executed pain. Later I was given my Christmas breakfast of miso soup, rice, dried fish, and pickled cabbage.
December 22nd was a grey, wintry day with temperatures near zero (Celsius). Nevertheless, getting a head start on my New Year's resolution, I decided to get some relief from staring at the computer screen by going for a walk in the nearby park. What I had was more of a creep than a walk because the snow had melted just enough to make normal strolling impossible. However, as I neared the music hall, where the sidewalks were heated, it got easier.
As usual, the music hall being new, I was asked directions to the nearest subway station. The women were relieved to find someone who could give a thorough explanation--perhaps a bit surprised that that someone was a foreigner who spoke passable Japanese. Having done my good deed for the day, I sauntered past another woman swathed in winter woolens feeding bread to the eager ducks who make the river their home all year round, and then I shuffled through the bumpy ruts of the tiny one-way street back to my apartment, checking cautiously for cars which might not be able to come to a complete stop.
Suddenly, swoosh - boom! Excruciating pain. Stunned, I picked myself up from the ice and walked to the steps of my apartment, crumpled over and cradling my left arm with my right, hot tears running down my face.
In the first of many fortunes in this catastrophe, my calligraphy teacher was in his studio on the first floor of my building. I went up to the glass door and he immediately surmised what had happened. As I waited with pain pulsing through my arm, he and a salesman who was with him called around to find a hospital that would take me, then drove me there.
After the x-rays were taken, an older doctor showed them to me and explained that my arm was broken in two places, both near the wrist. For one, he recommended surgery during which they would insert a pin. I asked him to consult with my personal physician, which he did immediately, and we decided to go ahead with it two days later.
In the meantime, my arm would be tied to a splint and I would be admitted to the hospital. That sounded reasonable. Before I knew it, three nurses were hovering around the cot; the doctor took hold of my arm and, whatever it was he did, I'm sure my howling could be heard throughout the entire hospital.
The best position to prepare my arm for the surgery was to have my wrist bent. I had forgotten to include on the intake form that I had Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. (I had had it long before the computer age, due to years of piano playing and then typing on old-fashioned manuals.) Anyone who has the ailment knows that the worst possible way of treating it is to put any stress on it. I even wear arm braces to bed so I won't curl up my wrists while I'm sleeping. Now I had my wrist permanently fixed in a position that can be mildly described as agonizing. Anyone who has never experienced Carpal Tunnel Syndrome can just imagine what one's legs would feel like after sitting on them non-stop for two whole days. Or try tiny needles being thrust into each of one's fingers that send electrical-like sensations up through the wrist. I contributed to the stereotype everyone on my floor had of foreigners having a low tolerance for pain.
Being admitted to a Japanese hospital was also a first for me. Fortunately, my calligraphy teacher, who was still with me, picked up a few necessities at the little shop (actually a counter) on the first floor: toothbrush, soap, towel, plastic mug for water, flexi-straws. When my dinner came, the nurse asked if I had a fork and spoon because they aren't provided by the hospital; fortunately, my care kit included a packet of disposable chopsticks.
I imagine there are some differences between staying in a Japanese hospital and a prison but, never having been confined to a prison cell, I'm not sure what they all are. For one thing, there's no nurse coming around at all hours to stick needles in your arm. Anyway, I was issued a pair of striped uniform pajamas and a set of rather shabby bedding (which I later discovered I was renting). The latter included the usual tiny Japanese pillow filled with beans (actually barley seed husks, according to a Japanese friend). There was also a small TV which I didn't try learning to operate since I'd only be able to get the standard mediocre programming in Japanese.
Although I was only in the hospital for three days, I quickly learned some of the routines. Meals were the most regular, brought on trays at 8:00 a.m., noon, and 6:00 p.m. Since this was the main event of the day, patients began complaining if they were only 3 minutes late. The first evening, the woman across from me fell asleep fairly early, and I didn't want to lie there awake in all me pain. However, the fluorescent light shining down on both of us gave me a headache. I soon learned that, regardless of patients' sleeping hours, lights were out 9:30 p.m. and back on at 6:00 a.m.
In the morning, a hot wet towel was brought for your face, much like on international flights to and from Japan. Later on, after breakfast, three more hot towels are brought. This is for bathing. Actually, Japanese hospitals are set up in such a way that a relative or friend is expected to be with the patient almost constantly to take care of certain needs. Everyone kept asking me if and when someone was coming and thought my Japanese was too poor to understand the question when I kept explaining I was just there by myself. As it was, the nurses went out of their way to scrub my back with one of the hot towels. They also sometimes voluntarily brought me drinking water.
The afternoon after I was admitted, and the day before my operation, I managed to escape for a couple of hours to my apartment, only a 15-minute taxi ride away. I was able to convince the staff that it was for more than a change of underwear. I needed to send some urgent e-mail messages, including to my family (my only access to the outside world being a pay phone on the first floor for which I didn't have enough coins). I managed to sign myself out for two hours without having to provide bail.
During the time I was in my apartment, I had a couple of visitors. One was the person I had intended to have lunch with that day, and she had decided to pass by. She agreed to stay with me before and after the operation, which was extremely fortunate for me since she's bilingual.
Just before I was ready to return to the hospital, there was another knock at the door. When I opened it, there was a friend I hadn't seen for 4 years. He had also just decided to stop by since he was in the neighborhood. I told him about my situation and was sorry we couldn't visit longer. He was wearing a name tag, which was strange in that he owned a small tutoring business. He said the business had gone under, and he was now a taxi driver. Just when I needed a ride back to the hospital, a friend who drives a taxi appeared at my door!
Before the operation, which was scheduled for December 24th, I had to sit down with the doctor to sign a consent form. Fortunately, he spoke English . . well, sort of. "You should know there are 3 risks," he started out abruptly. "The first risk is," he paused to write it down on a pad in block letters, "death." That was because of the anesthesia, he explained. "I don't know numbers in English, but . . ." He wrote a 1 over a decimal point with several zeros. In other words, the risk was very slight.
The other 2 risks involved the operation not going as well as planned, with the possibility that the fractured bone wouldn't join neatly, or a chance of infection, particularly if the pin couldn't be inserted completely in which case it would have to be cleaned on a regular basis. As I contemplated all that could go wrong, he suddenly added, "Oh, and one more risk. The bone may atrophy." I pictured my arm shriveling up like the witch's legs in The Wizard of Oz.
"Oh, and one more risk." He was beginning to sound like Columbo. "The pin may appear automatically." I had visions of an alien-like pin rising out of my skin taking on a life of its own. "Now, if you trust me, sign here."
The head nurse of the operating team paid me a visit. She would have been perfectly cast as the cheerful, perky nurse in a TV drama. Later, as I lay in the operating room during the last minute preparations, the doctor mentioned that she was unusually quiet that day. I turned to her and asked her in Japanese if that were so, and she replied that it was because we were using English and she hardly understood a word. I then said to the two of them, "Please speak in Japanese during the operation!"
Just before the operation, the doctor leaned over me and said, "You have one more option." I was about to undergo surgery, but I still had options. The only thing that came to me is that they could cut off my arm. It turned out to be an injection in my arm which would reduce the post-op pain. I readily agreed.
They put the mask for the anesthesia over my mouth and nose, and, the next thing I knew, they were taking it off and I was feeling simply wonderful. "I love you all very much," I murmured as I swam back towards full consciousness.
[12/28] The pain didn't subside for a minute, in spite of whatever medication it was that I had been given (something slightly weaker than aspirin, I'm fairly sure). It was due to Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, so the doctor said he could give me some respite with an injection. First, however, a window would have to be cut in my cast, and he took a red marker to draw a crude square on the underside of my wrist.
I was then ushered into a room that seemed to be made completely of metal. A pretty, young nurse got out a circular saw with a blade with a radius of about three inches. When she noticed me cringing, she said there was no reason to worry because it wouldn't cut the skin. Also, it had a loud sound and might feel rather hot. (Why are all the administrators of torture disguised as pretty, young women?) She asked if it was the first time for me to experience this, and I replied affirmatively. I asked, "This isn't the first time you've done this, is it?" and she assured me it wasn't.
[1/5] After the second operation (for the Carpal Tunnel Syndrome), during which I wasn't given an additional anesthetic for my arm, my awakening wasn't as pleasant. I was practically screaming, "It hurts! It hurts!" because it felt as though my wrist had been slit with a knife, which it had. Also, the music wasn't the lovely New Age CD ("Birth" byFumio Miyashita) I had given them to play during my operation, and I protested, "I don't like that music." Later I apologized to the surgeon for shouting at him, but he said, "It's OK. Everybody does it!" (See CA's Latest News for information about my recovery and subsequent physical therapy.)
Copyright © 1998 by C.A. Edington
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