Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Sunday's Column--How Illness Illuminates In Strange Ways

A sudden illness shows the fragility of a most stable life

By Dorcas Smucker
For The Register-Guard
OCT. 9, 2016

My husband promises San Francisco will wait for us. I’m making a list of places to see, mentally adding a cautious, “God willing.”

Healthy, it’s easy to delude ourselves into a sense of control. Daily schedules, routines, lists and plans. Do this, delegate that, make a decision and make things happen.

Sickness strips away control and capability. It teaches us about ourselves in disquieting lessons we’d rather not know but are better for finding out.

The first attack was on a Sunday morning as I rushed around putting pens in my purse and lunch in the oven. A sharp and furious pain caught me under the ribs, and instead of going to church I spent much of the day in bed with heated rice bags on my abdomen.

Indigestion, I concluded with a bit of research, caused by the nutritional yeast that had fallen on my eggs that morning in a large blob instead of a sprinkle. Some people react with bloating and cramps.

I threw the rest of the yeast in the trash and life went on.

Paul suggested we go to San Francisco for our anniversary.

Of course I said “Yes!”

I researched historical sites to see in San Francisco and also drew up a chart for the kids with all the living things at home that would suffer or die if untended for four days, and who was in charge of what.

We decided to drive, taking off after lunch on Sunday.

That morning I put soup in the Instant Pot, prepped the buns, shepherded Dad out the door and went to church.

Once again a sharp knife was digging under my ribs as I ate lunch. I tried to ignore it as we tossed our bags in the car and drove away.

An hour later I was in serious pain. I threw up into a plastic container, over and over.

“We can’t go on,” we said, so we stopped and got a motel. I curled up in bed, lost in frightening pain, for hours.

One of us mentioned going to the emergency room in Roseburg, but I couldn’t bear the thought of being poked and asked and moved, or of making big decisions.

The next morning Paul called our doctor and made an appointment. We canceled the anniversary trip and began a journey of a different kind into the obscurities of the medical world and the deeper mysteries of who we are when faced with illness.

Unlike friends who know all about scans, insurance, ICUs, and IVs, I knew only about visits to a family doctor for bronchitis and kids’ broken arms — and having babies, which is a world of its own.

I learned that small things make a big difference when you’re in the system, you become emotionally fragile, and most of all you want someone else to be there, with you and for you.

Whenever a gash or upset stomach affected our children, I pulled pills, bandages and oils from the drawer with a happy determination to make it all better.

But I discovered that when I’m the one who’s sick or hurt, some haunting voice — most likely from my Amish past — insists that I have no option but to tough it out, because I will not be believed that it hurts, and it’s not OK to ask for help.

Thankfully, our doctor took me seriously. “How did this compare to giving birth?’ he asked.

I said, “Two of them were easier than this, and I didn’t have easy births.”

He believed me.

Then he sent us off into the System: first, an ultrasound, in an unfamiliar area of Salem. I expected discomfort and an icy squirt of gel on my stomach.

Instead I got a casually friendly technician who had warmed the gel — a small thing, but so kind.

We met with the surgeon and the word “serious” came up and bobbed around like a helium balloon.

Gallstones, he said. And a hint of pancreatitis, which can be very serious, and an inflamed gallbladder. Again, “serious.”

How could my well-behaved body turn against me like this?

The surgeon said, “You can’t have laparascopic surgery with an inflamed gallbladder. You’ll need to wait six weeks and eat a very low-fat diet.”

Six weeks of butterless toast and plain potatoes, with the threat of another sudden attack always in front of me. I wanted to burst into tears.

Support and humor got me through. One day, mourning my beloved peanut butters and alfredo sauces, I said, darkly cynical, “Hey, I should call this a fast so I can at least get some spiritual credit for it!”

Our son Ben replied, “Mom, I can’t believe you’d have the gall to say that.”

Suddenly, nothing was certain. I canceled three speaking engagements. How presumptuous it seemed of me to have said, weeks before, “Sure! I’ll show up, speak to your group, even fly to your state.”

The fear was worst — of another attack, of my body doing things out of my control, of my first surgery ever.

As a pastor’s wife, I have prayed for others many times. This time, I asked it for myself. Friends gathered around, put their hands on my shoulders and asked God to take care of me.

And then the tight and gasping fear was gone.

Paul and the children were there for me as well. Jenny made a paper chain to count off the days until surgery. Emily served me beautiful low-fat salads.

Paul also affirmed my misgivings about my surgeon. I had found him hard to communicate with, but beyond that I felt a vague caution about him that was far more intuitive than logical.

Paul said, “You’re the consumer. You’re paying. You get to decide.”

To make a fuss and not humbly accept what I was given — that went against my Amish past as well.

So we canceled my appointment and instead found Dr. Stites in Eugene who communicated clearly, took me seriously and seemed capable yet humble . My intuition said he was right for the task. Paul agreed.

How crucial it is, I decided, that we don’t let anyone walk this path alone.

At the surgery center, I sat in a recliner and the nurse attached a hose to a plastic ring on the side of my gown. She flipped a switch and warm air blew in. I wondered if I could buy such a heavenly machine on eBay to use on cold winter evenings.

I slept right through surgery despite the horrifying stories on the internet about people who wake up halfway through. Then, long before I was ready to wake up, it was time to go home.

Paul and our daughter Emily brought me tea and woke me up every hour to cough. Two weeks later, Paul said, “You have more energy than you’ve had in three months.”

I also have more gratitude — for medical care, for healing, and for the people who surround and support me.

I know it’s OK to ask for help, and that a fragile person lurks just under my busy and capable exterior. I hope that insight will make me quicker with prayer and compassion, slower with advice.

Yesterday I ate a little bit of peanut butter again. It was delicious. Paul says to keep working on my file of sights to see in San Francisco, because one of these times we’ll go celebrate our anniversary. God willing, of course.


  1. Good for you for changing surgeons when you did not feel comfortable! Glad to hear you are doing better!

    I want one of those warm air machines, too! When our son was rooming with someone more hot natured than him at college he connected a dryer vent hose to the front of an electric heater and put it under his covers at night. I kept expecting to hear that he had been burned to a crisp in his bed and no amount of pleading would get him too stop using the thing.

  2. Very well written, and a good reminder for us to be humble and grateful, willing to ask for and receive help, and tips for extending help to others. --LRM

  3. Dorcas, This isn't about your blog posting.

    I'm trying to find out why the Menno Discss site isn't working, or is it me?

    I've not been able to open the Menno discuss website for a week. Do you know - Is the site down or something?

    Thanks, Chris ("betterpromises" on MD).

  4. betterpromises--I'll ask around!

  5. Betterpromises--I was told that, "It's down permanently. Server crash, all data lost."
    That is a LOT of conversations and information lost. Wow.

  6. We're never too old to learn! Glad you're feeling better.