I’m 28 years old, and I just had my colon and rectum removed. A nurse comes to my house twice a week to check on my health. I drink a bottle of Ensure every day. Okay, I’ll admit I quite enjoy that. Have you ever had a Butter Pecan Ensure? That shit’s delicious.
A few weeks before my operation, I started feeling old. As part of my pre-operation package from Mount Sinai Hospital, I received a DVD and several booklets about living with an ostomy. Most of the people featured in the video and in the images within the booklets with either middle-aged or elderly.
If the pre-op package put me in an “older” state of mind, the actual surgery made sure to age my body right along with it. I went from walking with pace in the park to shuffling down a hospital hallway. I went from carrying a loaded backpack to being restricted from lifting anything heavier than five pounds. I went from energetic individual to lethargic patient. All of my healthy habits undone in a four-and-a-half hour operation.
My hospital room housed myself and three other patients, two of them seniors. The third was a university student who had an adjustment made to his ileostomy; another young person who’s already dealt with more health issues in his life than many people three times his age. Eventually the young man was discharged and another elderly man took his place. I didn’t belong in a hospital room with three elderly men. I’m young, right? Everyone says I look young. So why the hell am I in a room surrounded by sickly seniors, with a body just as battered as theirs? This wasn’t supposed to happen. I was supposed to live a decent, healthy life, and then deal with surgeries and hospital stays only after my body had succumbed to decades of being worn down.
One day in hospital when I was wheeling my IV pole around the floor, an elderly woman carrying a pot of flowers stopped me. “I’m sorry, but why is a young man like you in hospital?” she asked. “I had a bowel disease,” I said. I didn’t feel like going into specifics. “I had a bowel disease” was the short, courteous answer. I wanted to say, “I’m here because I got screwed. I’m unlucky. I don’t know what I did to fuck up my body but something inside me fucked up. I see people walking around outside and I wonder why their bodies work so well and mine doesn’t. What did they do differently? Why do they have the luck? Why are they free to live valuable, happy lives while I have tubes running into my body and my shit draining into a bag? I’m here because life isn’t fair.”
Yeah, that would’ve been a cooler response.
I’m 28 years old, so my body is supposedly better equipped to heal than older ones. Yet I kept suffering one setback after another. While doctors and nurses kept telling me, “You’re young, you’ll recover quickly,” the elderly patients both in my room and around the floor kept coming and going; their bodies appeared to be more resilient.
Sometimes I would go down to the main floor of the hospital and sit outside for some sunlight and fresh air. I see plenty of young, healthy, people walking down University Ave., many of them sipping expensive iced coffee drinks. I remember seeing a man who looked roughly my age ride by on a bicycle. His short brown hair was gelled oh-so-perfectly and black Wayfarer sunglasses covered his eyes. He wore a light grey t-shirt, cutoff shorts, and brown sneakers. A cool-looking dude. That’s who I wanted to be, a cool-looking dude riding his bike through the city, although I would have the common sense to wear a helmet. Yet there I sat, my curly hair was a black, greasy mess, I had a blue robe on over top of my faded white hospital gown, and white plastic slippers dangled from my feet.
I still struggle with the question as to why I, and so many other young people, have to endure the ravages of disease, IBD or otherwise, at this point in our lives. Surgeries and hospital stays and home care nurses are supposed to come later in life, aren’t they?
Sometimes I feel as though my best years are behind me. It’s not that there aren’t things to look forward to, there are. But the hallmark of my better days, a real sense of freedom, seems impossible to achieve now. True freedom feels out of reach when everything decision has to be calculated. Can I eat that hamburger if it has lettuce on it? Can I go for a run now, or should I wait to have a bowel movement first? Where are the bathrooms in this mall? Can I have a drink now or should I wait 30 minutes since I just ate? That’s not freedom. Look, I don’t mean to put too sad of a face on my situation. Like I said, there’s much to look forward to, and it’s not that I won’t have freedom, it just won’t be the same kind of freedom I had in my pre-colitis days. But as I so often do, I may just be clinging on too tightly to my past.