Everyone called him “The Biggest Gastroenterologist in Colorado.” I come to him on a referral because I am suffering from intestinal pain, chronic digestive problems, and a persistent low fever.
After looking at my X-ray, Biggest Gastro feels I need to undergo a series of tests to figure out exactly what I have going on in there. He says it is urgent and I must check into the hospital immediately, even though it is the eve of Rosh Hoshanah. My baby is 11 months old and still nursing. She will have to go cold turkey and get weaned overnight onto a bottle.
It all happens so fast as we stand together in front of an x-ray of my colon. Squarely facing us is the problem and the doctor’s firm conviction that something must be done immediately to fight it. He knows exactly how to confront it, and suddenly, we, the very object of his emotional conviction, know absolutely nothing.
He is willing to save me, but it is clear that I must put myself entirely in his hands.
Later, I learn that such confidence as he displays is a sure sign that I am straying in the wrong direction.
But his confidence is mesmerizing, and we’ve been numbed out by a feeling of helplessness that something bigger than ourselves is now in progress.
We live several miles from the hospital, and my husband explains to me that he will not be able to walk over to see me for the next three days, two days of Rosh Hashanah and then Shabbos. There is hardly time to say goodbye. We are both in shock. The doctor has intimated that I may be seriously ill. Rosh Hashanah begins in about two hours.
There’s no one to watch our baby if my husband stays with me. The doctor’s words have suddenly plunged us into a drama of life and death, and no one to say, “Wait, don’t put your life in the hands of Biggest Gastro. Don’t leave yourself here. Go find your healing.”
We’ve been led to believe that there is simply no alternative. There are tears in the corners of my eyes. I try to be strong for my husband. And then I find myself alone, dressed in the hospital white gown.
From my symptoms and their examination of my colon, they seem to think that I have one of those big diseases. They are determined to get to the bottom of it and have reeled off the names of a series of tests that will cover all the bases.
I am my body
My body is not working properly, and like any car engine that is making funny noises, we have taken it into the shop. The only difference is: I am my body. I can’t leave it off for a few days, and then come back and get it.
What is done to it, is done to me. Perhaps I have an unusually strong identification with my body. I haven’t quite been able to separate from it.
When it stretches, I stretch. When it feels a wave of well-being, so do I.
On my first visit from the nurse, she announces that I will be eating nothing but cubes of instant broth for at least two days. I look at the ingredients on the silver wrapping. There are written a series of chemicals designed to taste like chicken soup. Sometimes they gave me a bogus vegetable broth with just about all the same chemicals.
I surrender and watch my body get weaker and weaker. I’m being starved so that their tests on my colon don’t have to be so messy. Then, they start drawing blood every few hours and ordering me to take stool samples twice a day. I barely have the strength to walk to the bathroom.
Test after test
Left with my own thoughts for 72 hours, I die slowly from every single possible disease of the digestive system. The nurses are very solicitous, but they don’t have time to chat. They do notice my weakness and order a wheelchair to transport me to the daily X-rays, the Cat Scan, Bone Marrow Test, Colonoscopy, and Gynecological Work-Up. I overhear one of them saying to the other, “She’s so young. I think she’s a young mother.”
Perhaps they are not aware that I am an orthodox Jew and for 72 hours there will be no phone calls or visits because it’s a three day Yom Tov. The second bed in the room is empty, and I am totally alone for most of the time, almost as if I’ve been put on isolation ward.
I enter the hospital with a low-grade fever and stomach pains, the clear result of an inflamed colon. I am being moved and manipulated and rolled over all day long. No one has asked me how I’m feeling and truly waited for the answer.
I am being killed by formalities. The extra blood tests, stool tests, and all the comprehensive tests are ignoring the state of the patient. She is slowly going under.
“There is no pain”
On the second day, they perform the colonoscopy. They give me a local anesthetic which they assert is just a precaution in case it’s painful, and when I scream from the pain, they assure me that there is none. As my screams get louder, their polite assurances turn into a fierce insistence.
What a relief when the Biggest Gastro announces that he’s found what he is looking for—the ulcers in my colon. He is plainly enjoying his expedition into my interior, and he launches a description of the terrain. The cramping I feel is unbearable, and I’m flailing with my arms when the nurse pins me down.
Apologetically, she asks the doctor if it’s possible to remove the probe because the patient is not behaving. And, after a disdainful look in my direction, he complies.
The findings seem conclusive, but they are determined to rule out all the other possibilities. And so the tests go on and on. Each morning for my nine day incarceration, the nurse enters the room, looks on my chart, and cheerfully announces the day’s events.
No strength left to care
I am only a shadow of myself. On Sunday, my husband makes his long-awaited visit with my baby. I am too weak to hold her. I want to respond to her joy at seeing me, but I can only squeeze out a faint smile.
Then I burst into tears as I realize that I don’t even have the strength to care for her.
I should have known. I had already had some experience with this award-winning hospital. It was in this very same hospital that my sweet baby was born.
Together with my husband and our little overnight suitcase, we made our way down to an underground floor of the hospital complex. Our steps echoed in the giant windowless hallway until we came to the massive door with a small sign to the left announcing we were at the right place. We were then buzzed in. It reminded me of the entrance to a nuclear power plant. It all seemed very dangerous and secretive.
Once inside, it continued to be soundless. The nurse led us to the first room on a long corridor with another massive door to open. Inside, there were again no windows in a large room with a hospital bed smack in the middle. Off to the side in the shadows, a few chairs. And then again, the door closed.
I climbed up on the bed, and for the next nine hours I labored to have my baby. When I looked up at the clock that said 3, it could have been 3 in the afternoon or 3 in the morning. With no natural light, I had lost track of the time.
I was alone with the faithful contractions at regular intervals. Fortunately, I had hired a labor coach who kept reminding me that those contractions were getting me closer and closer to the birth.
From prison to hotel
Once the baby was born, we were taken to the maternity ward up on a higher floor. There were windows and pitchers of ice water on the table. Someone sent me flowers. The hospital became a non-intrusive backdrop to another of life’s major events. It was more of a hotel with meals at the side of the bed and triple occupancy in the rooms.
Thank G-d, I was not there to be healed. All the tests came out normal, and they sent us home after three days. I was a healthy, normal new mother, and the nurses were full of congratulations.
Now they are cold and efficient, as if they are simply there to monitor the mal-functioning machinery.
The fight-back begins
At the bone marrow test, my will to live begins to stir within me. In horror, I watch them drill a little hole into the bone of my hip and extract a bone sample. This time, the anesthetic works, and there is only a numb feeling from my waist down.
It is too late to stop the procedure by the time I find my fighting spirit. As they remove the syringe, I demand to know why they are doing this to me. They don’t have the answer. Without even looking up, they tell me to ask my doctor, as they proceed to clean up the site of the invasion.
I began to see myself as a war zone, being ferreted back and forth from room to room, from test to test, with my body being chipped away bit by bit. They are using the state of the art weaponry— miniature television cameras, chemicals, radiation, and the knife.
And an age-old tactic—slow starvation.
Arousing the sleeping warrior
When I am finally allowed to eat again, I feel some strength returning. It’s very possible that there is some real food content on the tray before me, between the wonder bread and the rubber chicken, between the instant mash potatoes and the red jello. But at least there are some calories here which translate into energy to arouse the sleeping warrior within me.
My doctor is impossible to find, apart from his star appearances every afternoon on the ward rounds as he instructs the student doctors about each case. All the student doctors are wearing white coats, but he has on an impeccable tan suit and tie. He moves with the assurance of an elevated being who has conquered the entire human digestive system.
He explains to me that there is a tendency to developing leukemia in my family since my father succumbed to that disease, and he just wants to make sure with the bone marrow test that I don’t have it.
I don’t want to argue with him that my father’s symptoms were totally different from mine, and that I’ve already endured the colonoscopy which defined my condition as ulcerative colitis. I have been fighting a losing battle ever since I gave my consent to this hospital stay and signed over full rights to my body and my life. I know that it is useless to argue with the prince of this malevolent kingdom, but still, I dare to say the words, “I want to go home.”
With an explosion of feeling just under the surface, I calmly try to stare him down.
“Oh no, no, we’ve got to rule out the possibility of parasites in the stool tests, and that will take another few days,” is his benevolent reply.
Illness is big business
I am beginning to understand the story. The hospital is getting good money from my insurance policy for each day that I stay on. I am now quite sure that the hospital is not a place of healing, and now I discover that it is really big business. A multi-million dollar business. And this Biggest Gastro is one of the top executives.
He gives me a charming smile. “I’ll try to get you back home before Yom Kippur, but I can’t promise.”
At least, he knows what Yom Kippur is, but does he know what he is doing? All along, he has been acting as if he is doing me the biggest favor in the world, acting as if he is saving my life. He carries himself with a giant helping of self-justification and conviction, as if his chosen work is to save lives. But he is far from saving lives. Even far from healing them. In his role as doctor, he makes a good living for his family, but does he know how much destruction he leaves in his path?
He prescribes a daily dose of cortisone to control the ulcerative colitis which he claims to be a chronic condition and incurable. When I ask him for some dietary suggestions, he is happy to assure me that I can eat anything with impunity. I just have to keep taking the cortisone.
I don’t have any medical training, but it seems obvious to me that a digestive problem might be exacerbated by eating the wrong foods, that the sensitive lining of my colon might respond well to some foods and be irritated by others.
My other big question has to do with the drug of choice. I once worked in a drug company for about six months. If hospitals are big business, then drugs are even bigger.
Without even reading the little white paper wrapped around the bottle, I know there are side effects to cortisone. With a small amount of research, I learn that the side effects include teeth loss, depression, weight gain, and after 20 years of use, a much higher likelihood of cancer.
When my husband calls the doctor to ask him about the likelihood of cancer, he laughs it off by saying something about twenty years being a long time. Apparently, he’s not very concerned about knocking a few years off my life and saddling me with a host of unsolicited ailments besides the one I have.
Grateful to be alive
It’s Erev Yom Kippur, and I finally leave the hospital about 15 pounds thinner and with big, black circles under my eyes. Our Rabbi forbids me to make the fast. I’ve been de-humanized, but I’m grateful to be alive. And I’ve learned my lesson never to give my body and my life into the safekeeping of “well-meaning” health professionals in big city hospitals.
I leave the bottle of cortisone unopened. I become an avid reader of books on digestion. I learn about the connection between stress and colitis, and between stress and problems with health in general. I discover that colitis and diet are intimately related. The lining of the colon is dramatically affected by the food that passes through there.
Biggest Gastro seems convinced that my illness is something like a wild bronco wrecking havoc in my digestive system. That we must bring in the big guns—a powerful medicine called cortisone—which will tame that bronco.
Let’s try another paradigm. The spastic colon with its internal sores is my friend. It’s me. It’s suffering. It’s trying to tell me something about my lifestyle. I’m under too much stress, and the pint of carob Hagan Daz that I consume just about every other day is too rich for anyone to handle.
I’ve developed a hyper-sensitivity to dairy products. Perhaps I’ve been internalizing certain emotions that I should have been letting out. Maybe it’s the pressure cooker principle. Just so much pressure that’s swallowed, and the top flies off. The colon is my sensitive place. It’s out of commission. Maybe I can nurse it back to health.
Illness is the body’s way of sending us a message about what needs to change
From now on, I’ll be listening to the messages it’s sending me. Maybe this bout with illness is the best thing that’s happened to me. I’ve been alerted that I need to change, even though the doctor assures me that nothing needs to be changed. “Just take this handy little pill, keep eating what you’ve always eaten, keep living like you’ve always lived, you don’t have to change an iota.”
The hospital experience has alienated me from my body. My first mistake was putting my body in their hands. They didn’t realize what a delicate, whole entity I am, how my soul is intertwined with that colon, how sensitive I am to the energy in the room, in the food, in the words that come my way. How I am a sponge, a delicate plant swaying underwater, alive to the currents.
The fact that they would submit their own bodies to the same treatment if some doctor thought it was the preferred course of action, that fact helps them to justify what they did to me.
They are caught in the system, much more deeply ensconced than I am. Their livelihood seems to depend on it.
The experience in the hospital doesn’t teach me how to heal. But it does teach me where healing is not found.
Now I begin the process of healing. I allow myself permission to breathe deeply and feel what I need to feel. I won’t tell anyone. I can do it quietly without anyone knowing. I imagine a glacial lake of crystal clear water. I once swam in such a lake, and it is easy for me to return there in my thoughts.
The glacial lake feeds into a stream, and I harness that stream, coax it over in my direction, and guide its flow into my colon. I feel the cool water lapping against the sides of my colon. I even imagine little rainbow fish swimming through the colon in the flow of the healing waters.
I discover that brown rice, sweet potatoes, green vegetables, apple sauce, lemon juice, sesame butter, and rice cakes are friendly food. I drink mineral water, and prepare myself cups of peppermint tea. I lie on the couch with a book even when there are dishes in the sink, or I lie on the floor and let the baby crawl all over me.
I begin to be grateful for my ailing colon, for the message it sent me has begun to transform my life. I am more peaceful, more centered in myself, more alive again to my own dreams and visions.
And, with great amazement and gratitude, my colon responds beautifully to this gentle handling, to the listening ear, to the responsive relationship I’ve put into place. I recover my health and vitality, and begin to feel better than I did even before my “illness” began.
In light of my discoveries about how healing works, I begin to question some other paradigms that I took for granted – and I learn an amazing secret: How to honor my own intuition, listen to internal signals, and awaken to my own inner guidance.