When Gardening Stops

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Gazing at the Bird Back 40 Garlic Crop
There does come a time in life where gardening does come to a complete standstill. I hate to say that I really haven't done much of anything lately, other than watch the garlic grow and witness other beds become overgrown with weeds or flowers from past seeds that failed to germinate at one time or another.

What, pray tell, brings about a halt in all gardening activities? Well, it wasn't the words from the wife that is Venus. Don't worry fair readers. Everything is fine and dandy in that department. In fact, life has never been better.

But there are other matters that can bring a temporary halt to the lifestyle that I love. And when that surgeon started in with a list of questions some weeks back, suddenly, priorities changed somewhat.

What, pray tell, would that question be?

Thought About This?
It was this question, a simple one really: "Have you made out a will?" Many people will ask this question of you over the course of a lifetime. Most of the time? There's no reason to worry. But when a treating surgeon asks this question? The time to worry is now, my friend. The time to worry is right now.

Surgeons don't have the time to crawl or tippy-toe through verbal minefields. If they ask? You answer. And it's probably best not to hide anything.

The famous stomach-ache that led to this rather eye-popping question came on during the day after the President's Day Weekend. That would be Tuesday, November 13th. I had just finished up a nice three-day weekend and even found time to juice half of a pomegranate crop from the Wonderful pomegranate tree located in a side yard of the Bird Back 40.

Pomegranate Juicer (It works!)
As I now recall, I would have juiced that entire tree, but my energy level just wasn't what it should have been. I was ready to call it quits after juicing more than a gallon of pure, deliciously sweet pomegranate juice. It was the first time I'd ever attempted something like this with a juicing contraption that the wife that is Venus bought for me during Christmas last year.

It worked like a charm.

At first I believed I'd probably mixed far too much gin with that fresh juice over the three-day holiday! My stomach will sometimes grumble if I consume too much alcohol in any one sitting, and man was that juice good! "It had to be that," I thought at the time.

But as the pain grew, and efforts to keep it in check failed, it suddenly dawned on me that not all was well with the Body of Bird. This was unlike any stomach problem I'd experienced before or since. The chills and fever that set in some hours later were also unique. I'd never experienced anything quite like this before. Stomach aches? Yes. Chills and a fever? Not since I was a teenager. That was a long time ago, people.

Although I just wanted to stay in bed and wait this thing out, the wife that is Venus would have none of it. Off to the North Natomas Med-7 clinic I went later that night, with Venus dragging me every step of the way. She was more concerned than I. Did I also mention she's also just a tad smarter than I am?

When the Med-7 treating physician got one look at the urine test that could have passed for orange colored Koolaid, he didn't bat an eyelash. "You are severly jaundiced," he told me. "Jaundice? What the Hell was that," I thought. I may have also said it out loud. Which is when he stopped trying to explain, and called for an ambulance instead. That will shut a cranky patient up.

Ambulance? Really? I guess this was kinda serious. As the surgeon explained to me the next morning after a night of tests at the Mercy General Hospital Emergency Room, it was. This was distressing news. It wasn't something I was expecting to hear. I wasn't ready to hear it.

Pancreatitis? Really?
"The enzyme levels from your Pancreas are sky high," the doctor told me. "You have a severe case of Pancreatitis."

"Pancreatitis," I thought. It sounded rather familiar. "Oh yeah," I remembered. That's what dad died from in 1973. And then, suddenly, reality: "Oh shit! You can't be serious!" But this time the joke was on me, people. Dr. Bozdech was dead serious. I had the same disease that took my father's life at age 57 in 1973. Pancreatitis is nothing to laugh at.

What is Pancreatitis? There are many forms of it. In my father's case, it developed into Pancreatic Necrosis and eventually Pancreatic Abscess. Although these cases can be treated now with better and stronger medications than were available in 1973, they can still be deadly. If allowed to spread it leads to multiorgan failure and eventually, death.

Tsk, tsk, tsk...
There are two known causes of Pancreatitis. One cause is heavy drinking. "Great," I thought. "My affair with cheap gin is paying off in ways that I did not expect." The second cause is blocked ducts thanks to a gall bladder that is spitting out stones instead of enzymes that are produced by the liver.

In my case? Despite my love affair with all things cheap gin, I simply didn't drink nearly enough to be classified as a patient with an "alcohol problem." I still did (key word, did) drink too much. But not enough to bring on a case of Pancreatitis. Multiple tests would soon reveal the true culprit: my gall bladder was spitting out stones that had blocked multiple ducts.

Although I felt somewhat better, as I would come to find out, this was still a huge problem. There was no room for a problematic gall bladder in the Body of Bird. It would have to come out, right quick too. But that was just the first problem. The gall bladder, as my surgeon would later explain, had actually stopped doing the job it was intended to do quite some time ago. Dr. Hunt explained that the blocked ducts would have to be cleared first, before any other surgery could take place.

But even before any of this could happen, the cranky pancreas had to CALM DOWN! By calm, I mean it had to stop spitting out enzymes that were no good for the body. Despite the many advances that have come with medical care since the advent of the digital age, there is only one sure-fire way to calm down a cranky pancreas: a diet of no food whatsoever.

Hospital food: Verbotten!
"What's that," I repeated? "No food? Not even crappy hospital food? This is a joke, right?" As it turns out? The joke was on me. I can't blame the nurses for grinding percocet (oxycodone) powder into cups of ice and water and water and ice, the only food I was allowed to have. By Day 3 of the "no food whatsoever" diet, I had become one very cranky individual.

"How long will this last," I whined one night to Doctors DeBose, Hunt and Bozdech, who would gather in my room nightly for one update or another. The answer from Dr. Hunt wasn't too encouraging. He smiled as he explained that people could actually go for WEEKS without eating. And, in some cases, it might take WEEKS for a cranky pancreas to stop being cranky. The surgeons may have smiled upon informing me of this news, but I wasn't. I wanted an end to this nightmare. But it was just beginning.

By Day Six of the "no food whatsoever" diet, the cranky Bill Bird had capitulated completely. There were ongoing discussions (some might even day disputes) between treating physicians as to whether the numerous gall stones blocking various ducts should be removed first -- or the problematic gall bladder get first treatment. At this point, after six days of ice and water, needles protruding from this arm or that arm, I really didn't care. They could have removed every organ in my body at this point, and I wouldn't have so much as batted an eyelash.

ERCP: Not for the Faint of Heart
I can now understand why the treating Gastroenterologist had voiced continual concerns about the procedure to remove gall stones from blocked ducts. The procedure, known as Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography or ERCP, is anything but easy. Physicians were concerned about the stress on my heart. And since I have had previous heart troubles...

No matter. The procedure had to happen. Otherwise, the pancreas was toast. One can live without a gall bladder. But not without a pancreas. Surgeons would enter the troubled duct area via a tube inserted into my throat, into the stomach, and then into the duodenum. Small cameras would reveal the presence of the troublesome stones, which would be removed, provided all went well of course.

Waking up from a procedure like this is just a small taste of Hell on Earth. One must learn how to breathe all over again. As you hack and cough from the fluid that has entered the lungs, taking even the smallest breath becomes a herculean task. I suppose this is how one feels when drowning, and it's not an experience that I wish to repeat. As the breathing muscles finally figured out how to work again, the treating surgeon entered the room with vacation photos from his trip to see the various monument stones near the cranky pancreas.

There were more than I expected. The surgery had been 100% successful, but left me weaker than I had been before. And, after six or seven days sans food? You're a pretty weak individual. I nearly jumped from my bed, however, and did the "happy dance" when treating physicians upgraded my diet from water and ice to clear liquids such as broth and jello. Broth never tasted so darn good.

Although I was well on my way to recovery, the battle was half over. The gall bladder responsible for this little problem and near miss with pancreatitis was still there. It was still filled with stones and still a threat to send those stones on a merry little journey. It had to come out -- and rather quickly I might add -- after the ERCP journey. Surgery would take place less than 24-hours after the ERCP procedure.

There was a point in medical history, not all that long ago I might add, when surgeons sliced open a patient like a freshly caught fish to remove a troublesome gall bladder. Though this sometimes still happens, most of the time a gall bladder can be removed through a Laparoscopic procedure. Though less invasive, three or four small holes cut into the stomach still leave you feeling like a wildfire has raced through your belly. I still can't begin to describe the level of pain I woke up too, despite repeated injections of Dilaudid and other painkillers.

That surgical pain would persist through most of the night before finally abating the next morning. And then? As soon as your treating physician sees you up and walking around? The journey is over. It is time to go home. And, on Day 8, mere hours after gall bladder surgery, the IV needle that had ruled my life for what seemed like forever and a day was removed. I don't miss it.

I suppose I could tell you about my various roommate adventures during this time, my experiences with Methadone Mitch, Mentally Retarded Randy, or even Lucky Bob (a 76-year old patient stabbed by his 36-year old girlfriend). But I'll save those stories for another time and day.

For now, I sit at home and look at the weeds slowly taking over various garden beds, waiting for my first opportunity to attack the dirt and finally declare that "life as normal" has returned. But that's for another day. For now? Gardening has stopped. But this is a temporary break at best. The desire to dig in the dirt has returned, but those troublesome scars aren't ready to be pulled in this or that direction just yet.

For now? I mark the days. The fun and joy that comes from digging in the dirt will eventually return.

THE END? My thanks to Doctors Andrew Bozdech, Renee DeBose, Ben Hunt and the numerous nurses and other care specialists who I irritated to no end during my one-week plus stay on the second floor of Mercy General Hospital in East Sacramento. Without you, without all of your efforts, I probably would not be here. Thank you for saving my life.


"Daffodil Planter" Charlotte Germane said...

Glad you're back!

Bill Bird said...

Good to be back Charlotte!

Greg Damitz said...

Here's hoping to a speedy recovery. Also do you want an African Blue Basil plant or 5? They're wonderful for attracting bees or keeping them close in your situation. I root started a few I mean 30 so I could have and need to give away 28 of them before it gets too cold. If you want one or five I could drop them off next saturday on my way back from guiding a kid's duck hunt in Suisun.

Brown Thumb Mama said...

Great googly moogly! Glad you're back and resting up. The garden can wait!

Saskia said...

Uh, WOW!! Glad you're okay, and I know exactly how close of a call that was. My husband had his gall bladder removed in April, and it was an out-of-left-field event for us. One day a severe stomach ache, next day ER, and then that gall bladder was outta there. One scary story from the ER doc about a patient who had died from a burst pancreas was enough to make the surgery decision.

It was hereditary in my hubby's case, too. All is well, now and health & diet are back to normal. So...relax, leave the garden, and soon you'll be fully back to yourself!

Saskia said...

By the way, I love your pomegranate juicer. Where did you find that? I juiced about 200 from our tree this year by deseeding and pressing through a chinois, but I'm looking for a better way. :)

Bill Bird said...


That's a professional grade juicer that can be found in bars and restaurants. My wife found it in an out of the way place that caters to bar and restaurant owners, not your general everyday customer. I think, but cannot be sure, the place was called Yaffee's. The juicer was made in Mexico of all places. It's 100% solid steel, and juices just the pomegranate juice in the seed, not the pith in the seed, which can be very bitter tasting. Works like a charm. Messy? A little. It's a job that should be done outdoors, on a patio...

Deby said...

So glad you're doing better, that was quite a scare! Seed catalogs should be coming soon, that should give you something to help you with your recovery.

Fred Hoffman said...

Wake up and smell the gin, Bill.