The Surgery and Hospital Recovery Part 2

———————- Sparrow Hospital ——————

Sparrow Hospital
Sparrow Hospital

Sparrow Hospital sits in the heart of Lansing, the capitol city of Michigan. It is a large hospital with many different sections: a general ICU, a cardiac ICU, a neurology ICU, a neurology step- down unit, a Cardiac floor, Surgical floor, General floors, Orthopedic floor, Hematology and Oncology floor, a pediatric wing with pediatric ICU, an Obstetrics wing, and finally a Rehabilitation floor.

My transfer to Sparrow was to the Rehabilitation floor under the care of Family Medicine and the Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation teams. I arrived on April 3rd and was immediately seen by the floor technician, my nurse, the Family Medicine physician, and the PM&R resident and attending physicians. My first night there I was placed in a room with three other patients. The night was a rough one; unfortunately the other patients suffered from dementia and they spent the night moaning. I also was unable to complete my activities of daily living (or ADLs as they are referred to in the health profession) as I was unable to walk or stand. Thus besides not being able to sleep due to the constant moaning, I was also unable to urinate in a toilet. My only option was to urinate in a handheld plastic urinal container. The problem was that I lacked the strength and the coordination to do this. I had the option of calling in the technician to help me. I had to try myself though; what a mistake. My pants needed to be changed. At that point I finally pushed my ‘Call Button’ for help at which point I was given scrub bottoms by the floor technician. It was then it finally dawned on me- this was going to be a long recovery.

As at the University of Michigan days at Sparrow were also very regimented. I would wake up at 7 and have breakfast at 8. I would then be seen by an Occupational Therapist first who would help me with my ADLs(ie: brushing my teeth, shaving, and showering). I would then go to the basement of the hospital where I would complete both my physical and speech therapy. Because I was at my base hospital I would frequently have visitors. It’s interesting, I told my wife that I could categorize the visitors into two categories: 1. Those who wanted to see me because they were worried I was getting bored in the hospital and wanted to keep me company, and see if they could help in any way and 2. Those who wanted to see me as if I were an exhibit. I have myself visited friends in the hospital, and part of me wanted to visit because it made me feel better about myself. I hate to cast any aspersions on any one of my visitors but the lead-ins to these visits was always the same. I’d be taking a nap or getting ready for bed when I’d hear a knock at the door. Sometimes I’d be getting ready to eat; I did not like to eat in front of people before my surgery, now when I eat it would be akin to watching a toddler eat, with food all over their mouth, and their ‘eating space’ littered with food. I now hated to eat in front of anyone and avoided it at all costs. If this comes across at all negative towards hospital visitors I don’t mean it to. It got to the point that my wife made a sign that read, “I’m sleeping, please me rest”. Then there are those close to me that did not visit but sent me kind gifts, cards, and messages. I know that this was not a slight, but an attempt to give me some semblance of peace in the hectic hospital. Looking back, I do not know which method I preferred. This does not and should not serve as a Thank You card to everyone, you do not need to waste your time reading a blog of Thank Yous; the reason I say this is if you for some unfortunate reason have a close friend in the hospital really think about how you want this person to know that you’re thinking of them. The immediate knee jerk reaction is to rush to the hospital and find their room. For some, a face to face visit is warranted, but for others it’s not necessary. You have to realize that this visit is for them, while a ‘Thinking of You’ card might suffice, if you do this out of a desire not to go to the hospital then you risk alienating a friend in need.


On the subject of visitors I feel as if there are a few I should mention. During the second of my four week stay in Sparrow a college roommate of mine, a very dear friend, came to visit me from New York City. His name is Jesse Oberst. Before the surgery there were two regrets that always popped in to my mind: 1. Not being able or learning to speak mandarin (I still get new patients who recently immigrated from China, whose English is deficient, who see my last name and expect me to carry on the visit in Mandarin. I can picture the disappointment in their faces when I tell them that I only speak English). And 2. Jesse’s father passed away unexpectedly 5 years ago from metastatic kidney cancer. My regret was not going to be with him. Now Jesse was coming to see me. I’ve known Jesse since our times at Harvard. I met him during one of my first nights there. Besides being extremely smart and quick witted (he’s probably one of the smartest people I know), he also has one of the biggest hearts of anyone I’ve met; which would be hard to find in his 5’9 small frame of his. I gave him the nickname ‘tweaker’ after meeting him because of his predilection to leave/flee from any and all gatherings(he hated the nickname so much that I had to stop using it). He was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder(ADHD) in his younger years that required medication. He proceeded to go on to coxswain the national championship boat at Harvard. He graduated with a degree in Economics and now works as a consultant to a large company in Connecticut making himself and the company large sums of money. Seeing him was a reminder of the importance of friends. During his visit we did not have long deep talks, just seeing him was enough to lift my spirits. I did tell him that I deeply regretted not having been there for him as he was for me. His big heart would not let me divert any of the attention away from my current state.

The other visitor I wanted to mention was my father Dr. Rei-Kwen Chiou. For a week during my third week in Sparrow Hospital he flew in from Oregon, where he currently practices as a urologist, to visit me. My relationship with my father was and is a strange one. When I was 12 years old my parents filed for divorce for several reasons. I was old enough at the time to make decisions, and I made up my mind that would stay loyal to my mother. The divorce was not on good terms, hence any communication with my father was looked down upon. My father is an extremely cerebral and intelligent human being, which explains his success in his profession. Seeing him in the hospital and seeing him interact with my mother is something I will never forget. I had not seen my parents together since they split up 18 years ago. Like I mentioned earlier, the divorce was contentious, so I expected sparks to fly when he visited. I think that they had both independently decided to put aside their qualms for me. He also described to me his current health issues which includes high blood pressure and arthritis. He also described a scary experience he went through: he awoke one morning with numbness in his hand. After a series of brain tests it was determined that he had suffered from something called a Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA, or ‘mini-stroke’). This again faced me with my mortality. This was my father, someone who I had always pictured as invincible; here he was in the hospital seeing his son who had just undergone brain surgery, telling him that he had had a mini-stroke. My thought, as selfish as it sounds was,” if he could have this going on, then was I next? Was this brain tumor just the tip of the iceberg?” Even though part of the visit instilled fear in me, it was just nice to see him. If Jesse made me realize the importance of friends in the hospital, my father highlighted how important it was to have family around.

Nowhere was this more apparent than my mother’s presence as a permanent fixture at my bedside. If I had to summarize my ordeal in the hospital, it would go something like this: 3/28- brain surgery at the University of Michigan followed by a two day stay in their ICU. 3/31-4/3 general medical floor at University of Michigan, ended by a transfer to the Rehabilitation floor at Sparrow Hospital. 4/3-5/3- inpatient stay on the Rehabilitation floor at Sparrow Hospital. 5/3- discharge from Sparrow Hospital. Every day and night my mother was there with me. She spent a month sleeping on a hospital pull out seat, which converted to a place for, at most, ½ a person to sleep. Their Rehabilitation Floor held 22 patients, 21 of whom relied on the nurses, technicians, and hospital transporters for tasks such as eating, toileting, bathing, and transport to various places in the hospital. My mother did all of those tasks plus monitored for any negative medical signs[1] (I did mention her medical background didn’t I?). Her presence there with me went far beyond any logistical aspects that she handled. Having her there kept me sane. Even at 30, the time I spent with my mother during my hospitalization was the most time I had spent with her. We were laughing so much together that some clinicians worried that I might have had some brain damage from the surgery.[2] I could not have made it through the stay without her. Sure there were times of frustration, when the ‘Tiger Mom’ in her would come out (I can even now picture yelling at me to, “Get up! We have to do the practice speech exercises!”), but for every frustrating moment there were countless numbers of times I was grateful that she was there. I hate to bring in a war analogy, but now I understand why veterans who served together had an unspeakable bond. My mother and I had been through this together and an unbreakable bond that was already present as mother-son was fortified.

Me and my mom at Sparrow
Me and my mom at Sparrow

Because I am on the topic of family, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my sisters. As I alluded to earlier, my younger sister, Alice, currently living in Boston, works for a financial firm, gets most of her traits from my mother in that her personality in a nutshell would be described as ‘aggressive’. I’ve always thought that she is the type of person you’d turn to when you want something done. If you were in a bind and turned to her, “Alice, NASA is asking me to build a Space Shuttle. They said they wanted it in two days. Can you help?” Without a doubt, two days later she would tell me, “Ok Chris, the space shuttle’s in your backyard, anything else?” There are just some people that have a trait to get things done; she is one of these people. Along with this, she is also great at telling others what to do. I think like my mother, she needs at least the semblance of control. She had absolutely no problems questioning my caregivers or demanding something I may have mentioned in passing.[3] I was lucky to have her with me.

Me and my sister, Alice
Me and my sister, Alice

My older sister, Amy, is a completely different animal. If a potential criminal was being interrogated, and my sisters were in charge of the interrogation, Amy would be the ‘good cop’, somehow finding and appealing to the criminal’s soft side (Alice would be the one causing bodily harm until a confession was elicited). Besides having two children (and one on the way), Amy works as an Emergency Department physician, like my mother. She also shares my mother’s propensity to, well, mother. That’s where their similarities end.[4] I’ve never met anyone with her compassion for others. I often wish I could have one drop of her compassion so I could be a better person and physician. During my last week at Sparrow she, her husband[5], and two daughters came to visit me. She was there for my surgery and saw me immediately after, so her being able to see my progress (and tell me) helped.[6] Having her visit brightened my day and kept my spirits up. Even to this day, in the midst of her hectic schedule, I still get a daily ‘check-in’ telephone call or text.

My sisters’ presence kept my spirits high and my hopes for recovery even higher. Even though they are so markedly different, they both, in their own way, helped me through this ordeal. With my younger sister’s aggressiveness and older sister’s compassion, they shared a common denominator in my recovery: simply seeing them pushed me towards getting better, however, more importantly, it helped me rediscover my love for them.

So you may wonder, “meals, therapy, doctor’s and nurse’s encounters, and visitors. That doesn’t take up a whole day. What else did you do?” That is a very good question, with my only response being: smoothies! Every day after my therapy was complete I would ask whoever was wheeling me to go to the hospital Lobby Café so we could get smoothies. These cost around $5.00. My wife and I calculated that we probably spent around $300 on smoothies alone.[7] Charles Dudhigg writes in his book The Power of Habit that personal habits are engrained in us.[8] Thinking back, my daily smoothie ritual was my form of controlling the situation. Throughout all these recent events I had given up control. Everything from my therapy schedule to my meals[9] was laid out for me. The only control I had over my day was what flavor of smoothie I would get. I was in the hospital recently and was asked if being there caused any bad flashbacks on the contrary I asked for a smoothie. My wife had our second child in the Obstetrics unit at Sparrow. Her experience was perfectly pleasant(as pleasant child birth can be), however recently she did an overnight shift at the hospital which required her to go to the Obstetrics Unit and she told me that she had trouble even being near there due to flashbacks. For some reason unknown to me, the thought of being in that setting does not create anxiety in me. I might think it’s strange if on my first day back, I treat a 30 year old for a brain tumor but I do not anticipate any anxiousness. Was it because my outlook on my stay there was one filled with optimism and hope? Who knows maybe on my first shift back if and when I return to the Rehabilitation Floor, I’ll have a full blown panic attack and be unable to function.

Finally after a month long stay in the hospital, on Friday May 3rd I was discharged. I remember it clearly because the night before my discharge my mother wanted to celebrate my departure with lots of food. She came in to my room wielding four large bags of take-out. She had gotten both Mexican and Japanese take out. My stomach either did not agree with the combination, and I spent the entire next day vomiting into a basin. This wasn’t enough to keep me hospitalized, but what a sendoff.

[1] There was one night during my stay that I suddenly developed chills with a temperature of 100.5 degrees F. She was convinced that I had an infection stemming from one of the surgical sites on my head where a clamp was put on to keep my head in place during the surgery (we later read that approximately 60lbs of force was used). My mother then insisted that I start a once daily intramuscular antibiotic (administered through injection). I thought that this was over-kill, and that I did not have an infection. After a long argument with her, the senior resident on call, Dr. Gregory Lawson, thought that we were both wrong and opted for oral antibiotics (pills) to control the infection and cover most of the possible offending organisms. After starting the antibiotics, my fever subsided.

[2] Frontal lobe damage- an area of the brain that when damaged could lead to inappropriate laughter.

[3] For example, if I mentioned that I was a little chilly, she’d immediately push my Call Button and demand a warmed blanket.

[4] With the exception of high intelligence. But that is a trait they all share

[5] Also an Emergency Department physician

[6] I doubt Shaquille O’Neal’s mother woke up one morning and thought, “he’s really tall!” When changes happen so gradually daily monitoring can be detrimental to viewing progress.

[7] $5 per smoothie and two smoothies each day (one for me and one for the person with me) for 30 days.

[8] Dudhigg, The Power of Habit

[9] There were choices on the menu but these choices were the same every day.

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