Disease is somatic; the suffering from it, psychic.
— Martin H. Fischer
It began on Sunday morning. From my first bite of oatmeal, whatever I put in my mouth turned bitter on my tongue — even precious chocolate tasted like melted plastic. Concerned I might be in the early stages of some rare disease, I searched online until I came upon a forum in which others complained of the same symptom: bitterness in the mouth, the nastiness of which was exacerbated by food. One person described the flavor as similar to “the bottom of a bicycle tire.” Everyone seemed to agree that the bitter taste was a side effect from eating pine nuts. I dug a little deeper and learned that the bitterness can begin up to three days after ingesting the nuts and can last for as long as two weeks. It’s not that often I eat pine nuts, but they happened to be one of the ingredients in a salad David and I had learned to make in a cooking class on Thursday night, and I had eaten more than my share. The side effect, though irritating, was supposedly harmless, so my worries were quashed...until the pain began.
Abdominal pain wasn’t mentioned on the forum, nor was it alluded to in the scientific paper or the blurb on Wikipedia describing the Curse of the Pine Nut, and yet there it was. It seemed as long as I didn’t eat anything, I felt fine. On Tuesday, as my imagined devils continued their game of tug-of-war with my intestines, I began to wonder if I might have some kind of bug. But stomach viruses nearly always involve vomiting, and in that regard, I’d been spared.
On Tuesday at dusk, with two crackers wrenching my distended gut with the power of ten steaks, I called the 24-hour nurse hotline printed on the back of my insurance card. I explained my symptoms to a personable woman, expecting her to tell me I had nothing to worry about. I groaned at her verdict: “You should go to urgent care and have them rule out appendicitis.” I’d heard people describe the excruciating pain of appendicitis; this wasn’t that bad. I wasn’t even crying. But the woman on the phone said because I’d said the pain was located in a radius around the belly button, my appendix was a possible culprit. I agreed with her that I should see an expert, though I couldn’t help feeling, once I hung up the phone, that I’d somehow botched the words and misrepresented what hurt how much and where.
At urgent care, I bled into a vial and peed into a cup, then held my breath for x-rays and meditated on medical equipment while waiting in the examination room. Eventually, the physician’s assistant who’d been checking me out invited me to her desk so I could view my x-rays as she explained her concerns. “See all these big dark circles?” I did. “That’s gas.” She pointed to an area where a large bubble was inflating a segment of intestine. Finally, someone had voiced what I’d long expected to hear: I was full of hot air. Her next words, however, caught me off guard: “You need to go to the emergency room.”
The doc suspected I might have some kind of obstruction, but she didn’t have the means to diagnose me with certainty. She directed me to the ER at Sharp Memorial; since I was at a Sharp Urgent Care, the hospital could easily pull my lab results from the shared computer system.
Regardless of their ability to pull the numbers, nurses at the hospital drew more blood and requested a fresh cup of pee so they could run additional tests. After several hours of waiting, during which David left to retrieve jackets and books from home, I was told the doctor had ordered a CT scan. Surprised by this escalation in testing, David and I furrowed our brows with concern. I was instructed to drink a bucket’s worth of contrast liquid, the foul taste of which was mitigated by the addition of some cranberry juice. An IV was put into my right arm, the same one from which blood had twice been drawn because it’s the only spot where a vein is visible.
Waiting for the contrast fluid to reach my intestines, David read his book; I kept myself busy performing visual triage. I could tell who the patients were by their white wristbands, like the one I wore on my needle-ravaged arm. Aside from an unfortunate bleach job, there seemed to be nothing wrong with the young white girl across from us. She and her matching friend looked unworried as they sipped from Starbucks cups and fiddled with their cell phones.
In the far corner, looking pale as a corpse, a wasting Asian girl in flannel pants puked on the floor. I ruled out “overdose” because her companions seemed to be keeping it cool and settled on “flu.” A Hispanic man in a laborer’s uniform ambled to the desk with difficulty. His hand was on his stomach and he groaned loudly as he answered questions. When he took his seat, he shifted and howled like a cat, never lifting his hand from his belly. Everyone turned to witness his agony. Now that could be appendicitis, I thought. Watching the man squirm and wince, the pain in my own tummy began to diminish. Despite the man’s noise, he wasn’t the worst off. That award went to the elderly Asian woman two seats over from the beach bunnies. A plastic apparatus compressed her nostrils, but the blood still found a way to spray forth from her mouth and nostrils as she hacked and sneezed. Who knows what the F that is, I thought. Maybe it’s one of those brain-eating viruses. Just happy I don’t have it. I moved a few inches back in my seat and covered my face with my sleeve so as to avoid any death molecules the poor lady was launching into the room.
By 2 a.m., I’d made it to a bed, with David beside me in a chair. The first bona fide doctor I’d seen all day appeared, kneaded my stomach with his fingers, and asked me how I felt. “I feel fine,” I answered honestly. As with all the nurses and assistants before him, he dismissed the bitter-taste issue. He explained the risks of a CT scan. Then he said that, based on his examination, he didn’t think a scan was necessary, so he cancelled it. I was discharged at 3:30 a.m. Wednesday with a belly full of contrast liquid and a hole-ridden arm bedeviled by super-stick medical tape.
The pain returned the next time I ate. But I stayed home. The last thing I wanted to do was spend another ten hours in a hospital, just to be sent away with mounting doctor’s bills and as clueless about my condition as when I arrived. Instead, I lay on my bed, probed my stomach with my fingers the way the doctor had, and told myself I feel fine.