The role of Wellbeing and Wonder in the ER and beyond

At the curb of the hospital driveway, I got up from the wheelchair into the car with my husband. As we drove home, I stared up at the tall Gothic looking brick building towering over us as we drove past — it was the same one I’d looked at from the window of the family waiting room up on the 10th floor — and I was so glad to be on this side of the glass now.

Soon we arrived home. My eyes welled up with tears. I was so happy this was my home! I lived here. There is nothing like the four walls of a hospital room to make home feel like home. Everything in our little loft apartment looked magical. Serene. Glossy. I had stepped into a queen’s abode full of gems and riches. My candles, my picture frames, my artwork on the wall — once mundane, now appeared ornate and glowing in my eyes. The lake-and-city-skyline view through my picture window looked to be something straight from an Avatar scene.

Through his crystal-clear lens I found myself awash, no, flooded with gratitude. Gratitude for how everything had gone in my favor at the hospital, coming home safe and un-operated on. Gratitude for how much better I would feel tomorrow, the next day, and the day after that. At this moment, I could not have known the twists and turns that my long road to healing was about to take, but I was grateful to be on that road, and for every touchpoint that had guided and would continue to guide me safely and securely to the next one.

Touchpoint #1 First do no harm

I was grateful for the surgeon who’d elected not to perform surgery, and for the caring nurses who’d made it their mission to keep me comfortable, safe, and smiling.

…I had been transferred from the emergency room to the general surgery ward of Swedish Hospital with the expectation of either undergoing a drainage-by-needle procedure to eliminate two large abscesses of infection in my abdomen, or a surgery to remove my possibly-ruptured appendix. The first option posed a 50/50 risk of accidentally puncturing either my ovary or my bowel, given the inopportune position of the abscesses; and the latter option posed the risk of spreading the infection from these self-contained abscesses to my entire abdomen, given the six-plus days that this pesky little infection had been brewing.

No piece of cake, either way. The surgeon recognized and was mindful of this risk, and while surgeons can have a reputation for being eager to operate, he was not. As fate played its hand, I had been matched with a surgeon who was all about utilizing the least invasive therapy; he appeared to me as naturopathically minded as surgeons come. He cared about keeping me (and my organs) intact just as much as I did!

He explored and evaluated our alternatives. The infection might respond to IV antibiotics, or it might not. But we would try. We’d monitor closely for 24 hours. If my body responded aggressively enough, then the surgeon felt we might be able to avoid surgery.

So we waited for the antibiotics to get to work and for my white blood cell count to diminish.

Now, how to get my body on board with our game plan?

#2 Changing the channel

Each time I started to get worked up about how someone as healthy as me could have become so sick so fast, how my doctor missed the clues, misread my radiology reports, and callously let me lie in bed for six days writhing in pain waiting for a kidney stone (which I never had) to pass; I stopped the thoughts in their tracks and kicked them out of my mind’s door. A small but bright voice inside of me said gently, Coquina, every penny of your energy store that you spend on these blaming, angry, resentful thoughts is one penny you won’t have to invest in escorting out these white blood cells (whose count is dangerously off the charts). Right now your account balance at the energy store is running super low, so be careful where you spend it. Choose wisely.

Every time I’d catch my mind drifting to resentment or frustration, I’d flip the channel. From anger and blame to radiant healing. I’d imagine my gut healing. I’d visualize all those pesky white blood cells finding their way out of my body. I’d tell the infection to be on its way. And it began doing just as I directed.

Now, how to best support a body and mind focused on radiant healing? The answer is any and every way you can. Here are a few of the healing interventions that helped me.

#3 Probiotics, yes please

The nurse who first admitted me asked if I had a problem with being given antibiotics. (She had noticed on my paperwork that I worked at Bastyr University, and wanted to be sure I wasn’t anti-antibiotics.) I thanked her for asking my permission, and said yes, please, considering the height of my infection level. Then I asked if she had a problem with me bringing in probiotics to take as well? Of course! She explained that they always offer probiotics to their patients taking antibiotics, to prevent Clostridium difficile, or C. diff for short. C. diff is rapidly increasing among hospital patients, is linked to 14,000 deaths annually, and equates to a cost of $1.8 billion, says a 2013 study in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Holy Redeemer Hospital won an innovation award for offering yogurt as a nutritional source of probiotics to their patients who were taking antibiotics for more than one day. The result: C. diff infections dropped from 75 down to 23 that year. With C. diff infections costing $35,000 to treat on average, the savings “more than compensate for the cost of the yogurt” said Holy Redeemer clinical nutrition manager Jeanie Ryan.

So they gave me the high-dose probiotics I was seeking, and sent me home with a prescription for more. Thank you, Swedish!

#4 Saying no to drugs

They started me off with Morphine in the emergency room. The drug was an instant and welcome relief after six straight days (and nights) of intensifying stomach pains, but Morphine has its time limits and so it was soon replaced with Oxycodone. After nausea and vomiting, head spinning and some paranoid hallucinations, I politely declined the next dose of Oxycodone — and the anti-nausea medication they proposed to layer atop that. What? Another layer of pills on top of the Oxycodone? That turns my stomach just to think about it. We’d try to get by with acetaminophen for now. Heck, I’d survived the past six days of pain, I could surely survive this — the infection was leaving and I was getting better, right?

#5 The pencil is mightier than the drugs

Why does every hospital room offer a blaring disruptive television set but no crayons? Even though I’m typically the bookworm type, reading words on a page created a dizzying pressure in my head that I just couldn’t tolerate. I had a black pen, and the bedside napkins they’d left me. This would do. I doodled and doodled until…

Touchpoint #5 The pencil is mightier than the drugs

…until my son Kemal came to visit (he’s 22 and an artist). He brought his sketch pad full of black-and-white ink sketches and a colored pencil set, and he let me color in all his drawings. The pressure and the pounding and the whirling around the room — it all stopped when I focused on the tip of that orange pencil touching the page. For hours and hours and hours, I colored each and every sketched surface he had given me. And for those moments in those hours, nothing else existed. The pain, my infection, the hospital room — none of it. The only thing I saw was the surface I was coloring: I saw how Kemal had seen it when he’d drawn the scene initially, and I saw how beautiful the art was becoming through my touch.

#6 Friends as healers

My holistic nurse friend Lucia called and walked me through a healing breathing mantra. This brought me acceptance, and for the first time I let go of my disgust at these nasty bugs growing inside of me. (Unfortunately this meditative state physically dropped my oxygen level — enough to register on the monitors and give the nurses cause for concern, and to put oxygen tubes in my nose.) Caution: Maybe don’t practice this when your oxygen levels are at compromised levels anyway — but wow, how immediate was that physiological response to a mental and spiritual state!

Nancy, my minister/chiropractor/homeopath friend, gave me a distance healing treatment from the East Coast. I did nothing, short of opening myself up to receive the healing.

My girlfriend Lisa came to visit, with gourmet-style crackers. I’d been eating nothing but bright yellow hospital cafeteria chicken broth with Saltines. So these new crackers now made my meals. Lisa smoothed my hair with her hands, stood by my side and rested her hand on my shoulder. At that moment my shoulder felt warm and light, and the warmth and lightness moved down into my chest and filled my whole being. My speech wasn’t up to explaining or even thanking her for what I felt in that moment, but I sat still, soaking in her caring.

#7 The healing power of love

Turns out that our 23rd wedding anniversary passed in this hospital room. Kent went to the hospital’s video tape library and brought back a stack of date-night movies for us to choose from. We picked Chocolat, the ultimate passion story, with Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche, and settled in to celebrate our anniversary together — me in my hospital bed, and he in the cot, pulled right up next to my side.

It wasn’t just the movie night though. It was every moment. Kent was the constant source of security for me during every moment in that hospital bed, and every moment in my bed at home the days before — from picking me up from the radiology department when I first began to think that something was wrong to coercing me into going to the ER, against my better (but not so good) judgment. Thank you for overriding me on that one, Kent. During every discussion with the surgeon and every Q&A with the nurses, I rested at ease because I knew Kent was asking all the right questions, evaluating/challenging their course of action. Just seeing and hearing and feeling him by my side every moment of this made me sure that everything would be okay.

#8 Sleep

After we were home Kent began a ritual of shutting the blinds and turning off lights and sounds around 7:30 every night so I’d get to bed early and get my rest. My body still had so much healing to do, and this was its time to take out the garbage.

#9 Morning rituals: stillness, breath, yoga, and thanking God

To be honest, sitting in my great grandmother’s old rocking chair first thing every morning was not intended to be some mindfulness meditation, but it ended up that way. This was only because I awoke feeling like a garbage truck. Lying down overnight always left my stomach feeling its worst in the mornings. But sitting and relaxing for just 15 minutes gave my stomach and the rest of me time to wake up, to get used to being upright again, and to gather energy to get me to work for the day.

After some weeks, I transitioned to the floor to ease into some yoga moves. I would spend several minutes just sitting there, just breathing. If breathing was all I could do, so be it. I thanked God that I was still breathing. Still not up to venturing out of the house to a yoga class, I turned to, whose gurus became my new yoga teachers. This site gave me pearls like Yoga for Digestion, for example, that guided me through easy, fluid moves to help ease my organs into gentle action in the mornings.

My husband organized a relaxing family vacation for us a couple of months later, and I brought my own personal yoga retreat aboard the cruise ship.

Touchpoint #9 Morning rituals: yoga

#10 Community of caring at work

My Bastyr friends supported me at every stage. As soon as I returned home from the hospital they sent a huge fruit basket that weighed more than I could lift. My boss insisted that I not rush recovery, to take my time and come back when I was ready. Then when I did return to work, friends checked in on me all the time. They understood when I came in late, they told me when I was looking pale and needed to go home early. Erin brought me a special stretch-chair which instantly eased the pressure on my abdomen and made sitting upright bearable. Sheldon covered a City Council meeting for me when I wasn’t feeling up to it. They cared. While this caring spirit is not completely unique to Bastyr, it certainly does not exist everywhere. To work in an environment where the collective vision is to transform the health and well-being of the community is a healing blessing in and of itself.

#11 Food, a relationship

My whole life has been a love affair with food — a sumptuous love affair followed by a satiating and stable marriage. Suddenly though, food caused me nothing but pain. Yet I needed to eat after the acute stage of this infection had passed, to gain back the 20-some pounds that had left me in just a couple of weeks. So began my new healthy relationship with food: No longer did I eat to celebrate happiness, to soothe anxiety, to distract from sadness. No, I let each of those emotions hit me and run through me completely on their own, the way they needed to.

Touchpoint #11 Food, a relationship

I simply ate as much or as little food as my gut could handle at any given moment — a lot of brown rice and steamed veggies, supplemented with bone broth and protein shakes.

My emotions were my emotions. And my food was my food. These two elements learned to stay in their own lanes for the first time ever.

Thank you, Universe

So I got the message from the Universe to slow down. And slow down I did. I retreated inside myself, withdrew from everything and everyone I could get away with. But the pain kept coming. Not only the stomach pain, which was bad enough, but then a car accident, family crises, losing friends, money troubles, challenges at work … Something was off. Still.

I slept, practiced yoga, meditated, found a naturopathic doctor to help me unearth the cause of this infection, and the solutions that eventually brought me around to eating full plates of solid foods again, with only very mild and occasional stomach pains.

It’s now a year and a half after that hospital stay. I am dramatically better. Still not up to pre-hospital energy levels, but I’m eating, I’m exercising, I’m sleeping through the night, and I’m enjoying my friends again. Still, I keep getting the idea that I haven’t quite caught the Universe’s full message yet, and am picking up clues here and there.

One clue came from an acupuncturist I recently began seeing, who says my deficiency lies in my kidney — which, as Chinese medicine tells it, is my qi or life force. He observes that after years of giving and going, and giving and going, that I’ve depleted my energy stores and am running on pure will at this point, no true energy. So he’s helping to replete me with herbs, acupuncture and tuina treatments. And he’s helped me begin to notice the ways in which I tend to give little pieces of myself away. Nothing big — but one at a time it adds up.

I’m starting to think that the deeper level of my lesson is in giving. In my case, over-giving. Because selflessness is just as out of balance as selfishness.

The road to wellness is a winding path and health is a journey, as I’m reminded by the sign posted above the water fountain at my fitness club.

Health is a journey

These days? Now that I’ve conquered white blood cells, I’m striving for the tougher tangibles such as inner acceptance. I wonder what my next 11 touchpoints will be. Weight training, art therapy and enlightenment, maybe?

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